A couple of years ago I launched an informal campaign on my personal Facebook page to celebrate influential people in science and their amazing contributions to advance our understanding of the world. My inspiration was a book I had picked up called The Scientific 100 by John Galbraith Simmons, which is his ranking of the most influential scientists from the past and present. He researched over 2,000 years of incredible scientific work and came up with this veritable “Who’s Who” of science. At the time I was so in awe of all of the stories in that book that I posted wantonly about these influential figures and the unfathomable things they had done to move forth progress in fields such as medicine, chemistry, mathematics, and astronomy. ButI failed to notice the lack of scientific women who were recognized in the ranking.
One person I took the time to write about, who didn’t make the list, was Henrietta Leavitt, an American astronomer whom almost nobody knows about. Even if you’re not an astronomer, I bet you have heard of Edwin Hubble, namesake of the Hubble telescope, no? Of course you have heard of Hubble. Hubble is famous. Maybe not, like, Madonna famous, or Brad Pitt famous, but most of us have heard, at some point in our lives, something about the Hubble telescope. Hubble’s biggest contribution to science, arguably, was his determination of the age of the universe. He suggested that the universe had a beginning, and it was about 14 billion years ago. Yes, that is billion with a B. The universe is really freaking old, okay. Wrap your head around that one if you can! Prior to 14 billion years ago, the idea is, there was nothing. No space. No time. No matter. Nothing. This is remarkable, but what most of us did not know was that Hubble could not have ascertained the age of the universe without the work of Henrietta Leavitt that was going on behind the scenes.
Here’s some interesting stuff about Henrietta. She lost her hearing when she was about 25 years old. She loved astronomy. She volunteered as a research assistant in the Harvard College Observatory for seven years before being hired for $0.30 an hour. Edward Pickering, an astronomer, who was the director of the observatory, hired her and he kept her from doing much more than caring for the telescopes, as he didn’t think women should pursue the rigorous theoretical work that he was directing. But did that hold Ms. Leavitt back? Not really. One of her duties was to peruse the photographic plates collection of the observatory, and she figured some shit out. First, she devised a way to gage a star’s brightness, something none of the men had been able to do. Her method became the international standard, yo. She also discovered that by studying a type of stars called variable stars (stars that basically expand and contract), she could determine the distance to stars. This is what ultimately led Hubble to be able to calculate the age of the universe, by knowing something about how far away different stars are from us (and a few other things such as how fast they are moving away from us). In a very simplistic view, he basically ran the movie of the expansion of our universe backward to a point in time at which everything was in the same place, and thus determined how long our universe has been expanding. This was only possible because of Leavitt’s work on variable stars. When she died from cancer at the age of 53, she had discovered half of all the variable stars that were known about at the time.
Now, why doesn’t anybody know about the work of Henrietta Leavitt, but everyone knows about good ol’ Edwin Hubble? Why isn’t there a Leavitt telescope flying around Earth taking images of deep space? I don’t know. Being part of the scientific community, I suspect it is related to the fact that science has long been a male dominated field, one in which many women have been reluctant to be outwardly vocal about their ideas and findings. The good news is, that is starting to change. Over 50% of the students in my geology department are women, so a day is coming when the research findings of women will be commonly discussed in every media venue known to man. But another interesting thing about The Scientific 100 is the percentage of this 100 that are women. It’s three. The single digit…3. Three women out of 100 scientists. Three percent. I understand that the ranking was based on a review of actual groundbreaking scientific discoveries, and it just so happens that the majority of them have been made by men, or have at least been accredited to men. I don’t blame the author for featuring fewer women. It is clear that men have dominated the history of scientific advancement. I also realize that it wasn’t as common for women to pursue careers in scientific fields as men until quite recently, so that skews the numbers. But the story of Henrietta Leavitt makes me wonder how many other women have been behind the scenes, in laboratories and observatories all over the world, making astute, important observations that get swept into the pile of important observations used to bolster the credibility of a male scientist’s research findings. That is not to say that I doubt the abilities of male scientists, nor the importance of their work. But we have all heard the statement, “Behind every good man there’s a good woman.” Hmmmm. How many great male scientists have had women behind them, doing the dirty work so to speak, grinding through the nitty gritty of the scientific method day after day, only to be lost in the shuffle when it is time to expose extraordinary discoveries? If Henrietta is a virtual unknown, how many more are there? And is it a function of women being less apt to claim ownership of their scientific work than men? Are women just better at sharing? Are we less prone to pissing on our territory, figuratively speaking? Or are we just less accomplished in science than men?
So who are the three women who graced the line up of The Scientific 100? Can you guess? The first is someone I am sure you have heard of, Marie Curie, queen bee of radioactivity. She is number 26 on the list which is pretty damn good. Listen, this woman had all sorts of shit to fight through, including growing up in a place (Poland) and at a time (the late 1800s) when women were often denied access to higher education. Regardless, Marie was the first woman to receive a degree in physics from the Sorbonne and got a degree in math a year later. This woman was unstoppable. She won two Nobel Prizes. She was an unapologetic feminist. Her notebooks are still highly radioactive to this day due to the excessive amount of time she spent studying her radioactive samples. She died of cancer associated with radiation poisoning, something that wasn’t understood prior to her work. She was no less accomplished than any of the higher-ranking men on the list.
The other two are women I had never heard of before reading the book. Lynn Margulis, and Gertrude Belle Elion. Lynn Margulis, number 80, first proposed the symbiotic theory of the origin of the cell in 1967. Symbiosis is defined as a relationship of mutual dependence or benefit. She was an extremely controversial figure for many reasons, including her contention that all organisms larger than bacteria are symbiotic systems, which had implications for how evolution is thought to occur. She was also a proponent of the Gaia hypothesis, which describes the Earth as a whole to be a living system, and made grand statements about the species Homo sapiens (that’s us) being arrogant and ignorant! I think I would have liked her.
Gertrude Belle Elion, number 85, was instrumental in developing one of the first effective drugs to combat leukemia. Too bad she was only 16 when Marie Curie was dying of leukemia in 1934. She, too, fought adversity before finding great success, and was once passed over for a job because her physical attractiveness might distract other workers. In the late 1970s she developed acyclovir, the first antiviral medication safe and potent enough to combat herpes infections. She won the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1988, in spite of her distracting physical attractiveness. That employer that passed her over was likely one of the stupidest human beings on the planet, who clearly underestimated her abilities. I bet this still happens today.
So three there are, and fierce they be! They live on forever among the ranks of the likes of Isaac Newton (ranked number 1), Albert Einstein (2), Charles Darwin (4), Sigmund Freud (6), Galileo (7), Stephen Hawking (54), Noam Chomsky (71), Archimedes (100), and many others. I admire all of these men and women and the mind-boggling work they did. But the work of these three women is strong evidence that women have just as much potential as men to do revolutionary work in science. I suspect, as time rolls on and women continue to find their voices and their strength, more of them will push beyond the traditional, the accepted, and the sometimes male dominated, and we will see a day when a ranking of The Scientific 100 will have to be expanded to The Scientific 200. And more than 50% of that list will be the names of smart, plucky women who refused to twiddle the knobs or categorize the photos or organize the data for brilliant men, but led the rigorous intellectual work that brought us scientific advancements for a new, ever changing world.
A world in which groundbreaking scientists can rock red lipstick!