CHEMISTS, SCHOLARS, AND STARGAZING PHILOSOPHERS

Other Amazing Women of Science

HYPATIA

CA. 350/70–415 One of the baddest babes of the first millennium, Hypatia became head of the University of Alexandria’s Neoplatonist School at just thirty years old, teaching the male students philosophy, math, and physics. Despite living in Christian-controlled Egypt, Hypatia continued to practice her Hellenistic pagan ways and pulled off lots of other rebellious acts, like driving her own chariot, wearing teacher’s clothes instead of traditional women’s garb, and preaching philosophy in the streets. A seventh-century Coptic bishop would later describe her as “devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes and instruments of music” who “beguiled many people through [her] Satanic wiles,” which sounds like a compliment to me.

SOPHIA BRAHE

CA. 1556–1643 You may have heard of Tycho Brahe, the famous Danish astronomer credited with, among many other discoveries, realizing that what we see in the night sky is not static but, in fact, constantly changing. Good ol’ Tycho had a sister—Sophia—who assisted him with much of his research and about whom we almost never hear. (Shocking, I know.) Highly educated in horticulture, chemistry, medicine, literature, poetry, and alchemy, Sophia not only taught herself astronomy but also paid for books and translations with her own money, like a true independent woman. As a teenager, Sophia helped her brother lay the groundwork for planetary orbit prediction, including predicting a lunar eclipse. Though she’s often denied credit where credit is due, Pierre Gassendi’s seventeenth- century biography of Tycho does give her a little shout-out, saying that Sophia “love[d] astronomy” and was “especially ready to engage in these exciting studies.”

ÉMILIE DU CHÂTELET

1706–1749 Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, marquise du Châtelet (heck of a name!), lived in France during the so-called Age of Enlightenment, when humanity was emerging from the (metaphorical) darkness of times past and learning all the things. A prodigy who, as a teenager, used math to win at gambling in order to bankroll her book habit, Émilie went hard after her education, hiring private tutors and attending lectures dressed as a man (since they were all no girls allowed about it). She also lived and collaborated with the writer and philosopher Voltaire for many years. She published many influential papers, including criticisms of John Locke (not the LOST guy, the Enlightenment philosopher). Émilie’s scholarship even predicted the existence of infrared light—a pretty solid foundation for her arguments that women too deserved higher education.

MARIE CURIE

1867–1934 No chapter on women in science is complete without the great Marie Curie. After moving from Poland to Paris at age twenty-four, Marie studied during the day and tutored in the evenings to make rent (for an unheated attic) before obtaining two master’s degrees from the Sorbonne: one in physics and one in math. After years of rebuffing advances from her fellow scientist Pierre Curie, Marie married him in 1895 and stayed to do doctoral work at the Sorbonne. Not only was Marie the university’s first female professor, she also developed the theory of radioactivity for her dissertation (not bad). She went on to discover two elements (radium and polonium); prove that atoms are divisible; found the Curie Institute; win Nobel Prizes (the first woman ever to win and, remarkably, the only woman ever to win two); and coin the term radioactivity. Sadly, all this excellence had some unfortunate side effects (like basically melting to death from the inside because of radiation poisoning), but it was all in the name of science, and that’s about as metal as it gets.

LANYING LIN

1918–2003 Lanying Lin, the “Mother of Aerospace Materials” and the “Mother of Semiconductor Materials,” was born into a prestigious Chinese family and spent her entire life battling to pursue her passion for science. Lanying was accepted to China’s Fukien Christian University to study physics at age eighteen and continued her studies at thirty, after having taught for several years at her alma mater. After moving to the United States and obtaining a PhD in solid state physics from the University of Pennsylvania, she worked as a semiconductor engineer before returning to her homeland (though the FBI tried to convince her to stay—that’s how awesome her work was). Back in China, she developed the first silicon monocrystal and helped her country become a leader in microelectronics. In later years, Lanying began studying microgravity semiconductor materials (aka crystals in space) and teamed up with the All-China Women’s Federation to fight for women’s right to be educated.

ROSALIND FRANKLIN

1920–1958 Born to a prominent Jewish family in Notting Hill, London, Rosalind Franklin studied at Cambridge University and earned her PhD by age twenty-five, thanks in part to her work to help the war effort at the British Coal Utilisation Research Association. A few years later, she began work at King’s College in London (which was co-ed, even though men and women were required to eat separately), where she did research using X-ray diffraction, a method of identifying the structure of molecules that she applied to DNA fibers. By January 1953, she’d concluded that DNA takes the double-helix form that we’re now all so familiar with. Rightly realizing she was on to something, she sent her findings to the journal Acta Crystallographica in March—a full day before James Watson and Francis Crick, the so-called discoverers of the double helix, completed their model of the structure. Coincidence? Hardly. Watson and Crick’s model was based on a photo of the double helix that Rosalind had taken, which they got their hands on through back channels. Watson—who told Rosalind to her face that he didn’t think she was smart enough to interpret her own photos correctly—and Crick were awarded a Nobel prize for their work in 1962; Rosalind never was.

MARIE M. DALY

1921–2003 The first Black American woman to receive a doctorate in chemistry, Marie was the daughter of an immigrant from the British West Indies. She loved nothing more than to read about scientists from books in her grandfather’s impressive library. Her father had run low on funds before he could finish his chemistry degree, but Marie was determined to pick up where he left off. Busting through gender and race boundaries, she attended Queens College for her bachelor’s degree in chemistry (with top honors!), NYU for her master’s (in one year!), and Columbia for her doctorate. (Her professor at Columbia, the wheelchair-using biochemist and teacher Dr. Mary L. Caldwell, was also super rad.) Marie then went on to work at Howard University, the Rockefeller Institute, Columbia University, Yeshiva University, the American Heart Association, the Einstein College of Medicine, and the New York Academy of Sciences (phew!). She set up a scholarship in her father’s name for Black science students at Queens College, forever cementing her dedication to education.

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