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  Books   24 Mar 2019  Pathfinding in obscurity: Science’s sheroes

Pathfinding in obscurity: Science’s sheroes

Published : Mar 24, 2019, 2:37 am IST
Updated : Mar 24, 2019, 2:38 am IST

The research that has gone into reconstructing the lives of each scientist is fool-proof.

10 Women Who Changed Science and the World By Catherine Whitlock and Rhodri Evans Hachette, £13.99
 10 Women Who Changed Science and the World By Catherine Whitlock and Rhodri Evans Hachette, £13.99

Who deciphered the structure of the DNA? No, it’s not Watson and Crick, as we have read; but Rosaland Franklin of Great Britain. Who is the woman who helped invent the computer? Lord Byron’s daughter, Ada Lovelace. Who discovered pulsars, the remnants of massive stars? Ireland’s Jocelyn Bell Burnell. Esther Lederberg of the United States discerned the virus that infects bacteria, or the lambda phage. British-born American Cecilia Payne showed the world what the sun was made of. And the Austrian Lise Meitner, not German Otto Hahn, is the “parent of the atom bomb”, working out the secret of nuclear fission despite its apparent incredibility. But did any one of them get recognised for it? Not at all, absent from school textbooks, a few of them passed away before the Nobel was awarded for the work they had done, while others saw their work appropriated without consent or acknowledgement.

There are many women working in science today, in India and in the West, and Isro’s successful Mangalyaan Mars Orbiter Mission, launched 2014, is a pointer to that reality. Yet when talking about the scientific achievements of women, it is the name of only Marie Curie, who won the Nobel twice, in 1903 and in 1911, which excites public recall. Also, since its institution in 1895, just 19 women have won the Nobel Prize in science. On a crisper note, one of the memes in circulation during this year’s International Women’s Day ascribed the reason why Men’s Day is not as popular to the fact that “we cannot celebrate all the achievements of men in a single day”.

But the female movers and shakers of the world of science are not as few as we have been taught to imagine. Here’s this engrossing collection of biographies of 10 such outstanding women—physicists, chemists, biologists, astronomers and doctors — who literally helped shape our world with their ground-breaking finds. Aside from Curie, they are Virginia Apgar, Rachel Carson, Gertrude Elion, Dorothy Hodgkin, Henrietta Leavitt, Rita Levi-Montalcini, Lise Meitner, Elsie Widdowson and Chien-Shiung Wu. Apart from Curie, Hodgkin, Levi-Montalcini and Elion are the other women to have received the Nobel Prize. Leavitt, “star among astronomers”, was nominated for one, but died at only 53, five years prior, while Meitner and Chien-Shiung both saw their insights borrowed without credit by their collaborators.

The research that has gone into reconstructing the lives of each scientist is fool-proof. The language is elegant and attractive, and the treatment of the subject matter as well as a handy glossary of terms ensure that it does not appear forbidding to those who have not studied science after middle school level, yet the writers don’t compromise on content. This is no mean feat.

But the anecdotes and adventures behind various discoveries, other than those in question, as well as surprising historical factoids are what enrich the book. We read about Edmond Halley and the evolution of the telescope. We get to know about the Second World War Ration Diet. We learn in detail about the politics of the atom bomb, about how Meitner, a Jew, was only once in her life actually feted by the media for being the one who purportedly “left Germany with a bomb in my purse”. We also come to know how she worked out the mathematics of nuclear fission on a piece of paper sitting on a tree trunk with her nephew Otto Frisch on a Christmas holiday.

The career paths and characters of each of the scientists are traced as completely as possible. Wherever details are available, they come alive, often enchant. The ladies had many facets to their personality.

Both Apgar and Carson, for instance, were natural athletes and keen hockey, tennis and basketball players. Apgar, in particular, was musical; she played the violin, the viola, the cello and the mezzo violin. She organised wicked capers with friends.

In addition to being a marine biologist, Carson was a writer who was the first to start the trend of nature films and television shows. Her beautifully written works have gone on to become classics of their genre. In the first-controversial Silent Spring, Carson highlights how accidental contact with phosphate pesticides, often through the reuse of old containers, can be fatal; as happened in the 2013 Bihar midday meal poisoning case wherein the pesticide was used instead of cooking oil resulting in the deaths of 23 children. Monocrotophose is still used by Indian cotton farmers.

Apgar was a daredevil, energetic and full of leadership qualities, Carson an awkward, late-blooming intellectual, ensconced in a large family and circle of friends, unassuming but with a firm “no”, Levi-Montalcini difficult and argumentative, Hodgkin the typical, no-nonsense housewife, Meitner the shy-yet-forthright woman of principle, Chien-Shiung taciturn, driven, a workhorse.

A sociological sidelight: All the scientists have been mothers, which goes to prove again that the so-called conflict between career and motherhood is artificial. Another: The unpopularity of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) among women is essentially a Western phenomenon, which the Indian media, post-globalisation, has been buying into, for the tradition of differential education for girls and boys has always existed in the West, but never in post-Renaissance India where women in middle-income homes were in fact encouraged to study science once careers for women became the societal norm because it meant jobs and financial security — which is also considered synonymous with independence but really isn’t — in a developing economy.

In contrast, as recently as in 1890s America, where female education had been in vogue since the start, Leavitt was offered only introductory physics while pursuing graduation from Radcliffe College. Antonia Maury, another astronomer and her contemporary, once complained to a friend, “I always wanted to learn the calculus but Professor [Edward] Pickering did not wish it.” Astronomer Harlow Shapley would infamously measure how hard a computational task was in units of “girl-hours”, or if it was a really large task, in “kilo-girl-hours”.

Meitner reminisces, “Thinking back… to the time of my youth, one realises with astonishment how many problems then existed in the lives of ordinary young girls, which now seem unimaginable. Among the most difficult of these problems was the possibility of normal intellectual training.”   

Whitlock and Evans write skillfully. Their honesty to the material results in that the women in the book come across as real, flesh-and-blood people, rather than superheroes. Yet despite their imperfections, sufferings, biases and idiosyncracies, they remain pioneers, tall and inspirational, their contribution to the march of human civilisation incontrovertible, undeniable.

Tags: international women’s day