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Celebrating women in science

History hasn’t always been kind to women. They were denied education. Those that were ‘lucky’ enough to be informally educated couldn’t enter university seminars; those that were formally educated weren’t considered equal to their male peers. Many bold women were subdued, or worse–burned ‘for being witches’! Having an opinion was blasphemous, let alone having an intellectual and a scientific one at that. Despite such dark times, many women managed to rise above society’s idea of what they’re capable of.

For centuries, womankind has had to strive doubly hard to make itself heard and accepted. Some women not only managed to be heard and accepted, but also respected. If making a mark in a male-dominated world was hard, then stepping into the field of science was no less than entering the dragon’s lair, right until the early 20th century. And yet, many commendable women did just that, contributing significantly to the way the world works today. Soulveda commemorates these scientists on the occasion of International Day of Women and Girls in Science.

Hedy Lamarr

This 20th-century woman wasn’t just a pretty actress; she was an inventor. Self-taught though she was, Lamarr was known to dabble in technology; she used to call it ‘tinkering hobbies’. Improvising traffic stoplight and modifying the wing design to make planes fly faster were among the things she ‘tinkered’ with. During the World War II in 1942, Lamarr, with the help of her friend and pianist George Antheil, actually developed a secret communication system for the US government. While the US Navy couldn’t use inventions made outside of the military, Lamarr’s technology eventually got incorporated into Bluetooth, wi-fi and CDMA.

Anandi Gopalrao Joshi

Joshi was the first Indian woman to ever graduate with a degree in medicine from the United States. People also say that she was the first Indian woman to even set foot on American soil. What’s remarkable about Joshi was that she earned a Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree in 1886, when most girls in India weren’t formally educated. Unfortunately, Joshi died of tuberculosis in 1887, before she could practise medicine and be a physician.

The Second World War saw many English women choosing more public lives, many with professions. One such smart young woman was Joan Clarke, a cryptanalyst and numismatist…

Émilie du Châtelet

This early 18th-century French physicist was the first scientist to appreciate the significance of kinetic energy, as opposed to momentum. She translated Isaac Newton’s Principia from Latin to French and wrote a compelling commentary with it. She made an additional postulate on conservation law of kinetic energy, thereby contributing to Newtonian Mechanics. So profound was her contribution that she was widely recognised and respected amongst the intellectual circles of her time.

Joan Clarke

The Second World War saw many English women choosing more public lives, many with professions. One such smart young woman was Joan Clarke, a cryptanalyst and numismatist for the English government. Cryptology was largely male-dominated at the time, but as a code-breaker at Bletchley Park during the war, Clarke decrypted Nazi Germany’s secret communications. Her work earned her several awards and citations; she was even appointed as a member of the Order of the British Empire, an order of chivalry.

Laura Bassi

Bassi, an 18th century Italian physicist and academic, earned a doctoral degree from the University of Bologna in 1732. At the time, it was only the second degree ever formally bestowed on a woman by a university. She is also said to have been the first woman to have been formally educated in the field of science. Like Émilie du Châtelet, Bassi too was instrumental in spreading the study of Newtonian Mechanics far and wide in Italy.

Maria Margarethe Kirch

Kirch was a renowned German astronomer in the late 17th century and early 18th century. She was the first woman to ever discover a previously unknown comet C/1702 H1, in 1702. Kirch was also instrumental in creating calendars and almanacs that were helpful in sea navigation. As her husband Gottfried Kirch’s study partner, Maria Kirch was on par with other astronomers of her time, if not better. Yet, upon her husband’s death, she wasn’t allowed to take his place as an astronomer at the Royal Academy of Sciences. When the academy’s chosen male alternative failed miserably at his duties, Maria Kirch was hired in his stead. Her work eventually won her the Gold medal of Royal Academy of Sciences, Berlin, in 1709.

Ada Lovelace is credited with being the first computer programmer and also the first to understand the ‘computing machine’ and its potential applications.

Maria Gaetana Agnesi

This 18th-century Italian mathematician was the first woman to be appointed as a mathematics professor at a university. She was also the first to write a mathematics handbook that discussed both integral and differential calculus. Known as the first woman to ever have achieved such a repute in the field of mathematics, Agnesi has an asteroid, a Venusian crater and a mathematical curve named after her.

Eva Ekeblad

Ekebald was an 18th-century Swedish agronomist, who’s credited with discovering a method to make alcohol and flour from potatoes. Her discovery was instrumental in reducing Sweden’s famine in 1746. With that, she became the first ever female honorary member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1748. Ekebald also discovered how to bleach cotton textile and yarn with soap. She also found a way to use potato flour in cosmetics as a replacement for other harmful chemicals. 

Ada Lovelace

Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace, better known as Ada Lovelace, was a 19th-century English mathematician and writer. Lovelace, who called herself an ‘analyst’, and often described her approach as ‘poetical science’, made notes on Charles Babbage’s early version of a computing machine. In her notes, she made observations of how the society might relate to such technology as a ‘collaborative tool’. She is credited with being the first computer programmer and also the first to understand the ‘computing machine’ and its potential applications. Without her observations and explanations, Babbage’s work might never have received any attention. Lovelace even gave his ‘Analytical Engine’ an algorithm to compute Bernoulli numbers.

Lise Meitner

Meitner was a 20th-century Austrian-Swedish nuclear physicist who led a group of scientists responsible for discovering the nuclear fission of uranium. This discovery later became the basis for the nuclear weapons developed by the US during World War II. The 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the nuclear fission discovery went only to her colleague and co-head Otto Hahn, despite Meitner’s tremendous contribution. However, she did win various other awards and honours later in life. Meitner was also the first woman to be hired as a physics professor by a university in Germany.


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