How pioneering female scientists deciphered the hidden universe

How pioneering female scientists deciphered the hidden universe

Shohini Ghose is a quantum physicist and professor of physics and computer science at Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada. She is Director of the Laurier Center for Women in Science (WinS) and the NSERC Chair for Women in Science and Engineering. She has received numerous awards, including a TED Senior Fellow and selection for a College of the Royal Society of Canada.

Below, Shohini shares 5 key takeaways from her new book, Her Space and Her Time: How Pioneering Women Scientists Decoded the Hidden Universe. Listen to the audio version – read by Shohini herself – in the Next Big Idea app.

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1. The story of physics and astronomy is incomplete.

There is a much larger, exciting secret history that most of us have never studied. For example, you may have heard of Einstein, Newton, and Galileo, but can you name the woman whose work led to the discovery of the Big Bang, the woman who overturned one of the most important laws of physics, the woman who landed a probe on a comet, or the woman who was nominated for the Nobel Prize 48 times? Women such as Henrietta Levitt, Wu Chien-hsiung, and Lise Meitner, among others, made amazing discoveries that transformed physics and astronomy.

In fact, women have contributed to every major discovery made in physics and astronomy. How do we measure the distance to the stars? Can we image subatomic particles? If dark matter is invisible, how can we detect it? How do we know the Big Bang happened? What was the universe made of? All these questions and many more were answered by women. Their fascinating scientific discoveries and inspiring personal stories hold many lessons. It is time to rewrite our history books to tell the full story.

2. The secret history of physics and astronomy is a global story.

Scientists from every continent have made important discoveries that have changed our understanding of the universe. In my school days, physics textbooks were full of names of European men: Newton, Schrödinger, and, of course, Einstein. I’ve never found a woman’s name there, let alone women from India, where I grew up. I never got to read about Bibha Chaudhary, a remarkable Bengali woman working in British India, who co-discovered two fundamental subatomic particles. I also never knew about Elisa Fruta Pessoa, who co-founded Brazil’s leading physics institute and made fundamental discoveries in particle physics. I am so happy that I can now share their stories and the stories of other women from all over the world.

“Curiosity is a basic human trait.”

Of course, if you think about it, it’s not at all surprising that people of all nationalities and backgrounds have discovered the secrets of the universe. Curiosity is a basic human trait. But what is surprising is that much of this global story of discovery has been ignored or omitted. We can do this now more than ever, as we face global challenges in today’s interconnected world. Global participation in scientific discoveries is crucial.

3. The influence of female scientists has gone far beyond the discoveries of physics and astronomy.

They were activists, leaders, rule breakers and policy makers. For example, Margaret Burbidge asked the American Astronomical Society to establish a committee on the status of women in astronomy. Wu Chien-hsiung became the first woman president of the American Physical Society and was instrumental in establishing the US Office of Science and Technology Policy. Turkish physicist Dilhan Eryurt helped transform physics education in Turkey, participated in building a national telescope there, and in her will left all her assets to the education of Turkish girls. Women scientists from around the world played a large role in the movement that led to a ban on nuclear weapons testing. Being a woman in physics and astronomy requires skill, courage and determination, which is why they have had a lasting impact on science and society.

4. Let’s fix the system, not the women.

These women’s stories are full of wonder and inspiration for scientific discoveries, but also full of the challenges and biases they faced as women encroaching on men’s domain.

For example, Harriet Brooks, Canada’s first nuclear physicist and discoverer of radon among other accomplishments, left physics after her marriage, like many women of her time and even today. Williamina Fleming, who helped create Harvard’s star classification system and catalog tens of thousands of stars, was never officially named astronomer at Harvard, and was paid less than the men she worked with throughout her career. Lise Meitner, Wu Chien-hsiung, and Margaret Burbidge were all ignored by the Nobel Prize committee while the men who worked with them were rewarded.

“They succeeded against all odds, but they did not have to face such hardships.”

Together, their stories reveal patterns of persistent barriers facing women in science that still exist today. They succeeded against all odds, but they did not have to face such hardships. However, instead of addressing these systemic biases and barriers, we continue to focus on mentoring programs, science camps for girls, work-life balance workshops for women, or professional development programs – all of which aim in one way or another to reform women or teach them how to deal with Unfair environment. System. This is just bad science. Let’s do better.

5. The past can help us build a better future as we aim for the stars.

Humanity’s quest to explore the universe holds lessons about how to avoid the mistakes of the past. For example, all footprints made on the moon are made by humans. However, women’s fingerprints are still everywhere on this historic achievement. Navajo women working as cheap labor at a factory in Shiprock helped build the computer chips that put humans on the moon. Cherokee engineer Margaret Ross played a key role in designing the rockets that launched the American space program. Thousands of women contributed to the Apollo lunar program. But even today, space remains the domain of powerful white men, and is seen as the final frontier to be conquered. A gathering of indigenous researchers who were discussing space travel once commented, “We should pity the Indians and the buffalo of outer space.” Let’s heed the warning.

To listen to the audio version read by author Shohini Ghose, download the Next Big Idea app today:

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