Awesome Women In Science


Written by Olivia Patt
02 Sunday 02nd October 2011

Ada Lovelace

Ada, looking all pretty and unlabcoated and whatnot

Let’s start with the lady herself, Ada Lovelace. Ada was a privileged young woman, a countess no less, who was encouraged by her mother to pursue mathematics. She met Charles Babbage, pretty much scientific royalty, when she was just seventeen and they became firm friends. He called her the “Enchantress of Numbers”.

Though she had many scientific achievements she is best known for her translation of Charles Babbage’s “analytical machine”, acknowledged to be an early model of a modern computer. In 1842. In Ada’s notes, she described computer software, and wrote the first algorithm tailored for a computer – essentially, she was the very first computer programmer. Ada’s later life dissolved into a rock and roll mess of drink, gambling and opium and she died at the age of thirty-six. Plus, her dad was Lord Byron.

Émilie, working a compass

Next up is Émilie du Châtelet, a brilliant French mathematician and physicist from the 1700s. Her greatest achievement was the French translation and notes on Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica, which is still accepted as the standard French translation. She believed strongly in a woman’s right to play on an even footing with men, an unusual thing in the 1700s, but she was blocked at every corner. In order to enter the Gradot coffeehouse, where the brilliant mathematicians of the time would gather to discuss calculus and acute triangles and stuff, she was forced to dress as a man. And we thought we were brave when we ducked into the boys' toilet at Alibi the other weekend. Voltaire, her lover, described her as “a great man whose only fault was being born a woman” – which eventually rang tragically true, after Émilie died from complications during childbirth in 1749.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell, probably thinking off into space about how awesome she is

Dame Dr Jocelyn Bell Burnell, born in 1943, is credited with discovering pulsars, or for us plebs, rapidly spinning collapsed stars that send out radio signals. Still confused? We are too a little, but they sound quite cool and important. She also failed her school exams. In Northern Ireland, this was the only way to enter secondary education, so her parents were forced to put her through boarding school in England. She was working on her PhD at Cambridge University when she discovered pulsars, while working with her supervisor Anthony Hewish. In 1974, the Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to Anthony, rather than Jocelyn, for the discovery of pulsars, causing widespread controversy. Although she went on to receive many more awards and honours over the years, it is still generally accepted that she was blatantly overlooked for the Nobel Prize in favour of her male counterpart.

Mary Leakey, with her husband Louis (right)

Our second great female scientist of the twentieth century is the archaeologist Mary Leakey. Despite being expelled from a number of convent schools, she decided to dedicate her life to studying prehistory. After meeting Louis Leakey, her future husband, in 1933, they went to discover together a large amount of the fossils that now shape our knowledge of the process of human evolution. In 1947, they discovered the first ape skull, as well as a two million old human skull, and even older Homo-species. However, it wasn’t until after Louis’ death that Mary made her most important discovery, the Laetoli footprints in Tanzania. Made almost four million years ago, she had discovered the footprints of the first upright walking hominids. We dig that (like what we did there?).

Who are your favourite heroines in the field of science? Let us know in the comments below!

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  • Guest: me
    Tue 04 - Oct - 2011, 22:12
    Rosalind Franklin, whose x-ray diffraction images of DNA led Watson and Crick to work out the double helix - one of the most significant scientific discoveries of the 20th century and one which unlocked not only our understanding of genetics but really our understanding of life itself. It is also the most elegant and beautiful molecule and solution. Franklin was never given credit for her work, her images were stolen and used by watson and crick without her permission, and it could be argued that she was on her way to working our the structure on her own and had already worked out the structure the DNA b-helix. She also died of ovarian cancer before the nobel prize was awarded for the discover so was not included in the noble prize.