How many more women await our discoveries?
My question is not related to ongoing exposés of sexual abuse suffered by women under a culture of male privilege and dominance– the culture known by the new trope #MeToo. What concerns me here is a seemingly unrelated silence and need for exposure, namely accomplishments of women scientists. This too is being newly addressed, although desultorily.
Like millions of others I was alerted to the history of women in science after viewing Hidden Figures. This celebrated film features three African American women working in the 1950s U.S. space program. It’s based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, herself African American whose parents and neighbors were themselves professionals working in the time and place of that story. So compelling were Shetterly’s revelations, it took just two years from the book’s release to the film’s completion. While this film is making a profound social impact, to grasp the full context of the involvement of African American scientists and women in general in the U.S. government’s pioneering space projects, read Shetterly’s full account. Book or film, Hidden Figures will propel more African Americans into the sciences while it impresses on all women the need to move from the margins into the center of public life.
Another “hidden figure” is revealed with the recent award of the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics to British physicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell. Had the monetary award not been $3. million, her story likely wouldn’t be featured in a major U.S. newspaper. Nevertheless the article is an opportunity to learn, once again, how a brilliant student of physics, somehow, despite adversarial male and institutional attitudes, managed what many of us cannot: she remained at work, applied her genius and pursued her irrepressible love of science. Burnell persisted despite her Cambridge supervisor, not Burnell, winning a Nobel Prize for his research on pulsars, a discovery she had made. That interview with Ms. Burnell provides the all too common narrative of how modesty allowed her to demure to her male colleagues, and be upstaged by her professor. In this account we hear more about her modesty than her professional history and ongoing work at Oxford.
This review regrettably includes a flawed note on other “hidden figures”. It mentions white scientist Rosalind Franklin and the award-winning film, but fails to name mathematicians Dorothy Vaughan and Katherine Johnson and engineer Mary Jackson featured there. When will we learn to know, repeat and apply these women’s names? Dorothy Vaughan; Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson; Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson; Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson. And add Margot Lee Shetterly to that deserving list. (Her own family and neighbors were scientists and professors associated with the NASA science program.)
Not long after perusing Shetterly’s highly readable and conscientiously researched book, browsing in my local library, I (by chance?) came across The Other Einstein. It’s an historical novel based on credible rumors regarding Mileva Marić- Einstein, a mathematician herself and first wife of the famous physicist. In The Other Einstein, published in 2016, author Marie Benedict explores rumors of a woman whom history not only marginalized, it denies her any credit as a working scientist.
A promising student of physics in Zurich, Marić was a close companion of Albert Einstein in university, a member of his circle of young aspiring scientists, and mother of his children. Benedict presents a story of Marić that’s debated by others; that is: she was Albert’s indispensable intellectual collaborator —a tantalizing issue which physicist and writer Dennis Overbye mentions but leaves undeveloped in his 2000 biography Einstein in Love