Womens in Science

One of the greatest and most admired mathematicians of this century, and in the top five of my favorite scientists’ list, is Emmy Noether. Although she is still not very well known, she’s considered one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century.

Her life was no less than extraordinary, being invited to join the Gottingen University in Germany, where she got, with a great amount of struggle of course, a teaching position after World War I, (previously it was not allowed for women to have teaching positions), but still she wasn’t at the pay level as her fellow male professors. With the Nazi regime, in 1933 all Jewish and female professors were fired, unfortunately she belonged to both groups, so she left Germany and moved to the US.

She did a remarkable work with the publication of her theorem in 1916, the “Noether’s theorem”, relating symmetries and conservation laws, which is fundamental to explain several effects in modern physics, including quantum physics. In any reference to symmetries and conservation laws, at any scale from quantum to cosmological sizes, Noether’s theorem is there, as part of the explanation.

Symmetries, are effects in which an object is subject to some sort of transformation and still seems unchanged; a simple example is rotational symmetry, if we apply it to an equilateral triangle, and we do a full rotation of it, this will be the transformation, but the triangle will look just the same as before. There are different types of symmetries; translation, time, rotation, etc. and some more interesting and essential in particle physics like charge, parity or time reversal symmetry.
Regarding conservation laws is just the reproducibility of certain effects such as a ball drop, no matter how many times we do it, this effect will be the same if we have the same initial conditions. This means that these laws don’t change.

What Noether’s theorem establish is that you have conservations if the correct symmetries are involved. This is not just a mathematical trick, but a fundamental property in nature, being both simple and beautiful, and a fundamental component several branches in physics.

Several examples like that of Emmy Noether are present in science, supporting or creating extraordinary work that is later used by other (mostly male), scientist to publish great discoveries. Here are some additional examples.

Henrietta Swan Leavitt

Henrietta Swan Leavitt

Henrietta Swan Leavitt – space.com

Henrietta Swan Leavitt, an American astronomer, worked at Harvard University as a “computer”, analyzing photographic plates to catalog star’s brightness, and through her observations she discovered the relation between the period of Cepheid variables, stars that pulsate and have variation in luminosity due changes in temperature and size at regular intervals. With these observations Henrietta discovered a method to measure stellar distances. And it was her work which gave Edwin Hubble the necessary tool that allowed him to make one of his main discoveries, realizing by measuring a Cepheid variable in the Andromeda nebula that it was at a much greater distance than of what was estimated, and thus realizing that Andromeda was not part of the Milky Way, but another Galaxy in itself.

Annie Jump Cannon

Annie Jump Cannon – space.com

And continuing with the great team of “Harvard computers”, a group of women who, working for Edward Pickering, director of the Harvard College Observatory, did a star classification by analyzing the increasing number of plates being produced by this observatory, once astrophotography was improved. This work was delegated to women, as it was considered boring, as in implied to look at these plates for hours to classify each one of the stars registered as little dots in them; working six days a week, and creating an outstanding star’s classification database, this work was led by Annie Jump Cannon, who created the system to do classify stars, from the hottest to the coolest, based on a seven letter classification O, B, A, F, G, K, M. To memorize this classification, Cannon conned the phrase “Oh! Be A Fine Girl/Guy – Kiss Me!” as a keyword to remember them! Her system that was adopted by the International Astronomical Union in 1922, but still called the “Harvard system of Spectral classification”, classification used the respective today’s Hertzsprung -Russell (or H-R), star classification diagram, to classify star’s magnitude and luminosity in function of its temperature.


Women’s progress in science still has big gaps to cover, but is still improving, and my favorite example is that of Fabiola Gianotti, who since 2016 was named director-general of CERN, The “European Organization for Nuclear Research”, the institution that runs the Large Hadron Collider, the biggest science experiment ever created by humanity.

No doubt that in science there’s no difference on the pursue for discovery, and the passion to learn. Is with passion how all obstacles, sooner or later, are surpassed and these discoveries are made, but is important to properly recognize the contributions made by each individual and group; the goal and destination is common, we just need to improve the journey.

ScienceKindle, celebrando el Día internacional de la Mujer 2018

Regards, Alexlan – ScienceKindle.


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