Women in Science

Posted by on May 10, 2011

Before we can set our eyes on the stars and truly appreciate their wonder, perhaps we should get better at recognizing some of the amazing accomplishments that have happened right at our doorstep by none other than the female scientist.

For many centuries scientific or academic circles did not allow women to become members . Males were historically (and wrongfully) considered intellectually superior. This, unfortunately, is still reflected in the way we do business today. We pretend we’re tolerant, and that we value equal opportunities, but we simply do not. Did you know that the first person to ever discover a comet was a woman? Her name was Caroline Herschel, born in Germany in the 18th century. In August 1, 1786, she discovered her first comet, eventually receiving an honorary membership in the English Royal Astronomical Society. They couldn’t even offer her a full membership. Assholes!

Madam Curie is often regarded as one of the great female scientists in history, and for good reason. Unfortunately for her, she didn’t feel so great after dying from radiation poisoning. Who would’ve known that the pretty blue-green glow when the lights were out was actually symptomatic of highly charged helium ions and high energy electromagnetic radiation? The Curie, or a measure of an object’s radioactivity, is named after her.

The problem with identifying a problem and hastily addressing it is that we place ourselves in a position that gives us a false sense of security and accomplishment. We all recognize mothers are important to the healthy growth of the next generation of workers, creators, and world leaders, so we come up with Mother’s Day and call it good to go. What are you talking about, we celebrate mothers! There’s a day named after them!

It is with that message that I bring to you a name you’ve likely never heard before: Emily Noether. Emmy was not allowed to enroll in college prep school, and she had to fight her way through bureaucracy in order to finally audit a course, let alone be enrolled. Working at the University of Erlangen without any salary,  she had to scrape the bottom of the bowl for opportunities to engage with students as an unpaid substitute teacher when her father was ill.

Emmy went on to become a brilliant German mathematician and physicist. She is also the author of one of the least known but profoundly beautiful and powerful concepts in the theory that pervades us today. It is rightfully called Noether’s Theorem, which states that each symmetry of a system leads to a physically conserved quantity. Symmetry under translation (movement) corresponds to conservation of momentum, symmetry under rotation to conservation of angular momentum, symmetry in time to conservation of energy.

Some of you may read that paragraph and say “uh, yeah, when something spins, of course it retains angular momentum.” Emily was the first person EVER to be able to prove this in a way that would apply to ALL systematic symmetries.

Why are we still having this problem? Are you part of the problem, or part of the solution? It takes one thought to change the direction your life takes, and that of those around you. Take the time to recognize and appreciate the women around you that made you who you are, and that aren’t getting what they deserve. Most importantly, treat them with the respect you expect others to give you.