Monday, 8 June 2015

Pioneering Women in Physics - IOP event

On the 4th March, a few of us graduates took the day off work and took a trip to London to the all-day Institute of Physics event ‘The Lives and Times of Pioneering Women in Physics. It was such a fun and inspiring day so I’ve put together some highlights. The first one is of course that we got to meet grand-daughter of Marie Curie – Hélène Langevin-Joliot, who has been a nuclear physicist herself. She told us some lovely personal accounts of her grand-mother’s life. We made sure to get a picture with her:

Grand-Daughter of Marie Curie (middle) with (from left to right) Alex, Katy, Ailsa and Sarah
As soon as we arrived at the IOP building, we noticed that all of the rooms are named after inspirational female physicists, and instead of seeing lots of typically-male pictures of Nobel-prize winners dawning the walls, we saw lots of pictures of female physicists! It seems that the Women in Physics group have a large influence.
After coffee and biscuits the talks began with an introduction from Professor Edward Davis, Chairman of the History of Physics Group, who generated gasps of disbelief from the audience when describing a newspaper article from the previous day which described an incident in an all-boys school where a pupil had said – “Women shouldn’t be in science, they should stay in the kitchen” to a female lab-technician.  Heather Williams then greeted us and prepared us for a day with the aim “…to see how far we’ve come, and how far we need to go”. I’m going to give some of the highlights of each talk, and it’s my interpretation – so don’t quote the speakers on it!
Order of speakers (click on links):
Dr Gillian Butcher - The contribution of women to physics: a historical perspective
When Dr Butcher told us that the first mention of a female ‘scientist ‘ was in about 2700BC in Egypt, we knew we were in for a truly historical overview. This Egyptian woman was called a chief physician. However by the time Hippocrates came around in 460-370BC, he claimed that the cause of women’s health problems and emotional instability was a ‘wandering uterus’ – which we didn’t think our Egyptian Chief Physician would agree with… There are also various mentions of women scientists in Ancient Greece, and some doing Alchemy (which was classed as science) in Alexandria.
In the Middle Ages, there was not much science going on in Europe in general, but in China, India and Arab countries, universities were beginning to be founded, and the scientific method was making an appearance. Most of the mentions of female scientists in this period are from convents, such as the famous Hildegarde of Bingen who produced scientific and medicinal writings.
Elsewhere in Europe, Italy had female students and staff, and in England there were female surgeons by the 16th Century.  However, women were more often than not getting punished for having knowledge, as shown by the life imprisonment of the Duchess of Gloucester, Eleanor Cobham, who was accused of witchcraft.  This fear of women’s intellect and sexuality had grown by the time of the Restoration in 1660, when there were many more witch trials. During the civil war the Diggers (or Levellers) argued for absolute equality for women, but the industrialisation of the country started to divide gender roles even more.
Science was progressing though, and Francis Bacon was leading the way, however he didn’t have much of an opinion of women as shown by this quote “Science is mastery of man over nature, nature as the bride is seduced, conquered and stripped of power”. The Royal Society in 1612 was more like a private Gentleman’s club. Opportunities for women in science mainly lay with middle and upper classes who could afford technology such as the telescope, microscope and printer. In 1694 Mary Astell published the lovely book below, arguing for women’s education.

In the 17th and 18th Century, more and more women were beginning to play a role in science, especially in Italy; however they were all from wealthy families, and only ever assistants to men.
In the 18th Century we see the rise of professional science, it becomes more restricted, women are not allowed, neither are those of the ‘wrong’ religion or class. Only in the 19th Century do we start to see more women scientists, Marie Curie, Annie Jump Cannon and Lise Meitner. In the 1870s and 1880s women were being admitted to Oxbridge and by 1919 Oxford started to allow women onto degree courses. By 1920, 14% of those earning doctorates in physical and biological science were women, however by  1960 that had reduced to 5%. At the moment we have about 15% women studying for doctorates in just physics. This shows that it’s not a linear process; it depends so much on time, location, religion and many more factors (to be explored later).
Dr Butcher took us on a whirlwind-tour of the history of women in science, and ended on a quote from Rachel Ivie from the American Institute of Physics “Even if I tried not to choose physics – it would choose me”.
Professor Lander gave a nice overview of Lise Meitner’s work and life; he started off with what is written on her gravestone “A physicist who never lost her humanity”.  She had a very difficult career, having to deal with many prejudices and barriers. When she first started her job in Berlin she was not even allowed in the front door of the university, she had to go in the back entrance. Being Jewish, she also faced difficulties being in Nazi Germany and had to escape in 1938. She was still in contact with Hahn, her previous supervisor, who had detected (what he thought was) radium for the first time after bombarding uranium with neutrons.  Living in Copenhagen and working with Bohr, they persuaded Hahn to check the chemistry of the radium and he discovered that it wasn’t radium at all, and was actually barium. Meitner and her nephew Frisch, also a physicist, took a walk in the woods and whilst talking about this discovery realised that the cause must have been nuclear fission. They published this discovery in Nature, but took too long, and Hahn had already published his paper using the term fission. It was soon after this that the Manhatten Project was started.  Meitner was asked to work on it but refused, and was horrified after Hiroshima. In 1945 it was announced that the Chemistry Nobel Prize was going to Hahn alone, which is generally considered a great injustice. Hahn never acknowledged Meitner publically but did share the prize money with her.

Lise Meitner - Pioneer of nuclear fission
Professor Hélène Langevin-Joliot, Grand-daughter of Marie Curie  - Marie Curie (1867 – 1934): Pioneer of Radioactivity
Before Professor Langevin-Joliot’s talk we learned that they have 5 Nobel prizes in their extended family! Professor Langevin-Joliot gave a lovely personal account of Marie Curie’s life which was amazing to hear first-hand. She affectionately called her ‘Marie’ for the talk so I will too! Marie had a very difficult life, but had a huge love of science, she worked very hard for her achievements and said once “I have a sort of hope that I shall not disappear…into nothingness”. She was considered ‘just an assistant’ to her husband for a very long time.
Marie and Pierre met in 1895, just when she had been given a grant for her research and Pierre was to help. After one afternoon of talking about physics with Marie, he apparently changed his mind about women and fell in love. Pierre wanted to get married, but Marie had to go home, and he convinced her to return by his letters. She ‘chose Pierre and the Scientific Dream’. They had very different personalities – ‘Pierre was as dreamy as Marie was organised’, but they had the same dream about society. They were married in the same year they met and Marie was allowed to work at the school where Pierre was a professor. In 1897 they had their first daughter (Professor Langevin-Joliot’s mother). They were doing research into a ‘spontaneous reaction’, which was very surprising and unexplained at the time. Becquerel had given up trying to find the cause of this, but Marie had persevered, looking at other materials for similar behaviours (e.g. Thorium). It was her decision to investigate the mineral Pitchblende (uraninite) which led to the discovery of radium. She signed the paper and coined the term ‘radioactive’, but Pierre got the prize in the end…  They continued their huge success working in ‘The Shed’ – their lab, until Pierre tragically died in 1906. In Professor Langevin-Joliot’s words ‘it broke her life’. Marie took over from Pierre and became the director of the lab, the first woman in this role. A feminist victory, but Marie was very depressed, and was still writing to Pierre – ‘some fools congratulated me’ on her new job.
She finally got the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911 for the discovery of polonium (named after her country of birth).  She claimed the two most important qualities for success are self-confidence and diplomacy. After that Marie became more interested in the medical application of her discoveries, as Pierre had been. She travelled to America in 1921 to set up “The Curie Foundation”, and she became vice-chair of the International Committee for Intellectual Cooperation. In a letter to her daughter she said “I have given a great deal of time to science because I wanted to, because I loved research”. She has become a mythic figure, and caused a shift in the field of nuclear physics. So many outstanding achievements for an outstanding woman, who overcame many struggles.

Marie-Curie - Pioneer of radioactivity
Professor Allan Chapman - Mary Somerville and her work in astronomy and optics, c 1820-1991.
Allan Chapman, a prominent historian (just look at his Wikipedia page!) has written an entire book on Mary Somerville, so he knows his stuff. He gave a hugely entertaining and very interesting talk. We got an instant feeling about what kind of person Mary Somerville was with Professor Chapman’s first fact – she lived for 92 years and died correcting proofs at her desk! We also learned that she was a big character with a ‘racy tongue’, she was ‘no prude!’ and ‘could swear like a British trooper’. Basically she had a tremendous personality, was a strong feminist and from a young age was fascinated by the strange symbols in maths textbooks. Her father thought that reading these books would soften her brain so he confiscated the books, but she memorized the pages. Her first husband had similar opinions, but when he died, she was still in her late 20s and started to pay for private classes in physics and maths (since she wasn’t allowed to attend university). She became bored with the maths of the UK – it seemed to her to be behind it’s game, so she bought books from France by Euler and Laplace and started corresponding with them, and started to get interested in crystallography and astronomy.
Luckily her second husband encouraged her intellect and was actively proud of her pursuits. By then it was the end of the Napoleonic wars and suddenly she had the option to visit France. It turned out she was already quite famous there from her correspondences, even considered one of England’s finest mathematicians. Her husband William became a fellow of the Royal Society and Mary subsequently met Faraday and Herschel and soon started doing research. She published the first paper by a woman in the Phil.Trans journal and went onto write several more distinguished pieces. At age 90, she was living in Italy and her Nephew comes along with an ironclad battleship. She was so curious that she went to visit and boarded it, insisting that they fire the guns for her!
Professor Chapman finished his talk by showing us a picture he has drawn of her telescope, which they are reconstructing for Somerville College in Oxford. She was and still is an inspiration to many women; they have even named a crater of the moon after her!

Mary Somerville
When Edith Stoney wanted to attend university, having already been privately educated, she had limited options. The local Dublin universities did not accept women, so she went to the Royal College of Science for Ireland, science was the only option.  By the time she had finished her studies there, Cambridge was accepting women but not issuing them degrees, but she went to study maths there. She then became a maths teacher at Chaltenham Ladies College and then a physics lecturer at London School of Medicine for Women where “her lectures mostly developed into informal talks”.
England was particularly slow at that time to realise how important physics was to medicine. Edith and her sister Florence were pioneers of medical physics and set up the first radiology service at the Royal Free Hospital. Edith was a suffragette and political activist. When war broke out Edith and Florence offered to go to the front line with their equipment but were rejected. Florence went anyway with the Women’s Imperial Service League and got an OBE for her efforts.  Edith joined the Scottish Women’s hospitals through the Suffragists. She ran X-Ray services under the French Red Cross. They had a hard time during the war, Edith was working in Serbia, changing gas in the X-ray tubes, treating gangrene and foreign bodies, doing electric bath treatments. Of course, there was no radiation protection then, and the women were getting radiation burns.
In all of the reports from the time she is judged for her appearance rather than being praised for her knowledge and skills “Grey uniform, grey hair, pale blue eyes”, “a mere wraith of a woman”. Edith earned herself 5 war medals in the end. At the end of the war she got a lectureship at Kings College, she could not get a medical physics job since she had no formal qualifications. In her retirement, she studied the effects of UV and vitamin D on osteomalacia. The first woman in medical physics, and a physicist to the end.
Edith Stoney - Pioneer of medical physics
Professor Gillian Gehring – The first female physics professors in the UK, Daphne Jackson (1936-1991) and Gillian Gehring
The next speaker was a true role model for physicists everywhere. Gillian Gehring, you just have to read her blurb on the University of Sheffield’s webpage . The second ever woman in the UK to hold a professorship, and talking about her mentor Daphne Jackson, who was the first. I was particularly inspired by Professor Gehring and her subject, because not only was she talking about two physicists with very important and interesting research, but also who have taken hugely important steps to help women stay in physics, while allowing them to have a family life as well.
Daphne Jackson was the first female professor at the young age of 36, and the youngest ever IOP fellow. Almost half of her papers were on science on society, and most of the rest on medical physics. She was always concerned about the lack of women in physics and called it ‘an appalling waste of talent’. Her own experience of caring for her own mother with dementia, and getting no support from social services spurred her onto setup the ‘Women Returners to Science and Engineering’ Fellowship, and this turned into Daphne’s hobby. She hoped it would be taken over by a public body. She lobbied, wrote articles, raised £400,000 from donors and got 132 applicants. The idea is that the selected fellow works part-time for 2-3 years and undergoes a re-training programme, allowing them to gradually enter back into their professions. Daphne took a major role and acted as a councillor to the follows. Unfortunately Professor Jackson died young, aged 54, she had tragically and ironically contracted Breast cancer while studying it. Now her legacy lives on however, and is now called the ‘Daphne Jackson Trust’ and has helped over 250 women restart their careers, and now also helps men as well. Gillian still helps with the trust, which struggles to get enough funding for the number of suitable applicants. Hearing Dr Gehrings enthusiasm on the scheme, and hear her talk about this amazing friend of hers who set it up was really inspiring.
Daphne Jackson

Dr Kate Crennell: Women in Crystallography
Dr Crennell, a crystallographer herself gave a nice overview of various women in crystallography. She set up a biographical website for these women which gives a nice historical overview of their lives and works . We learned about the pioneers of crystallography – Dorothy Hodgkin, Rosalind Franklin, Kathleen Lonsdale, Helen Megaw, and Louise Johnson.  Rosalind Franklin did breakthrough work on the structure of DNA, and may have just missed out on the Nobel Prize if she hadn’t passed away so young (aged 37). Instead Crick, Watson and Wilkins (who worked in the same laboratory as Franklin- and who allegedly showed Crick and Watson her data before she had published it), were awarded it in 1962.
Kathleen Lonsdale- “Housewife, mother, Quaker, scientist and teacher” was so promising to Bragg, that he found her funding for childcare so he could do research with her (we need more of that now!).  She famously discovered that the Benzene ring was planar. She was a strong pacifist and when the war broke out she refused to pay her fine for not doing civil defence duties and went to prison for a month. One structure of diamond is named after her ‘Lonsdaleite’.
Dorothy Hodgkin, a student of Somerville college, and who supervised Margaret Thatcher, was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel prize. She was also president of the Pugwash organisation (physicists for peace) – another pacifist like Lonsdale.
Dr Heather Williams – History’s Lessons: opportunities and challenges for women in physics today
Dr Williams, co-founder and director of ScienceGrrl gave an informative evidence-based talk (just what we scientists like!) – pointing out that we’ve come a long way, but there is still a long way to go. She started by highlighting that the lack of women in science is actually a culturally specific problem – the numbers of women in science roles varies hugely country to country.
All of the data she gave however, showed fewer than 50% women in science in each country. Interestingly, the number of women doing science subjects at GCSE is approximately 50%, but as soon as you look at A-Level students, it drops to about 25%, which stays approximately constant when you go to Undergraduate and Postgraduate. Then you hit Researcher and it starts to drop, again for Lecturer positions, and by the time you get to professor level it’s shockingly only about 5% women. There is a similar trend in all subjects, although the baseline is higher (~50% at the beginning, dropping down to ~20%). 
Heather highlighted some of the issues affecting women as they progress in their careers, including gender expectations in relation to child care and housework, lack of affordable childcare or flexible working arrangements, difficulties in progression after periods off from work , job insecurity, the ‘two-body problem’ (explained very nicely here),  and unconscious bias. She showed the figures for % of female entry into A –level subjects. The lowest was computing at a mere 7%, physics was 21%, maths at 39%. The highest were performing arts (88%), art and design (75%), psychology (74%).  However, interestingly Heather showed some figures showing that once females have decided on a science subject they tend to stay in that field, but fewer of them finish their degrees it seems.
Heather then went back to the problem of culture and showed some examples of the terrible gender stereotyping that crop up all over the place in our society. She also highlighted the huge impact these seemingly trivial gender biased toys, confectionary, cards, books, journalism (etc) have with a  quote from Gina Rippon, Professor of Cognitive Imaging at Aston University –“ The brain is much more plastic than early neuroscientists ever dreamed, it is hugely  permeable to society’s influences. Life’s experiences can (literally) be brain-changing  - and any talk of hard-wiring is to misunderstand neural development. Until social factors are controlled for, it is impossible to say any differences are solely due to gender. Our brains reflect the society we live in” – quite scary really when you watch kids adverts for toys.
What is also scary is that even at home males tend to be encouraged to be engineers, scientist and tradespeople, where girls are not. Heather finished off by encouraging us, the audience to do more – complain about gender stereotyping in adverts and shops, don’t be afraid to be a role model and educate others about the misconceptions about science. We left feeling enthused and determined to make a difference.
The day was a delightfully cheering account of some hugely inspiring female role models by some great characters, and a good excuse to go to the pub in London afterwards 

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