Four women scientists who should have won nobel prizes.

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Neither feminist nor 'masculinist'.

I was told I was 'condescending' about a woman being well-read in popular science. It was a reminder how sensitive women are, with regard to being treated as intellectual equals. My reply was that, in my own readings of popular science, I had come across three women scientists, who should have won nobel prizes.

In fact, I can think of four. That being the case, it is probably only the tip of an iceberg of hidden injustice to the scientific abilities of women. This is not meant to be a comprehensive case for women's intellectual rights. It is just something I noticed a little of, without even looking for it. Nor is it meant to belittle the present attempts being made in education, to encourage girls and young women to become scientists.

If words are to mean what they say, I dont believe in 'feminism', as a one-sided sexism, any more than 'masculinism'. It is arguable that we now have a 'feminist' culture in this one-sided sense. That is to say an excessive passivity towards restitution for people who are wronged by crime or civil injustice.

But what, you may ask, is masculinism? Perhaps it is shown most blatantly in many old action movies. All the aggressive competition, all the fighting, racing, chasing, all the courageous acts are left to the men. The woman's role is to stand in the wings, in a sort of agonised dither, while the men slug it out. She then falls into the arms of the victorious male in a swoon of admiration and adoration.

In my mis-spent youth, at the cinema, I remember being exasperated by this conventional view, which I now call masculinism. Sometimes, the script was enlivened by a spirited woman. But I learned to expect she would be the one with the tragic ending, while the passive or 'womanly' woman was the one who lived happily ever after, with the hero.

Of course, not all the old action films were like that. One, that was not expected to become a classic, was a Western, which everyone has seen, High Noon. Here, all the towns folk shun the sherriff, asking for help against a gang, gathering to gun him down. One man tries to make him change his mind. But only makes things worse, by fighting him.

Left on his own, the sherriff, one of Gary Cooper's fine manly roles, is surprised from being reduced to tears, by a boy bursting into the office. The boy's offer of help, against hardened killers, has to be refused.
Meanwhile, the sherriff's fiancée is leaving on the train. A Spanish woman ( with her nationality's belief in family loyalty ) tells her she would never leave her man. The fiancée's return, with shot-gun, is true to life, in that her presence both helps the sherriff and makes him vulnerable thru her.

Lise Meitner.

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Shortly before world war two, Lise Meitner worked out a process of nuclear 'fission' leading to the possibility of a chain reaction and the unleashed energy of an atomic bomb, on the basis of Einstein's famous mass-energy equation.
She was sent to the United States with this information because it was too dangerous to send the news by post.

The secrecy, of research that would make Nobel's lucrative dynamite seem inoffensive in comparison, prevented the nobel committee from hearing about it in a hurry. But that has never been a bar from scientists receiving eventual recognition.
In fact, Einstein's nobel prize was delayed, till the evidence for his revolutionary ideas was more assured. And he never did receive the prize for the theory of relativity, with which his name is associated.

When Niels Bohr first heard Meitner's explanation, he exclaimed, to the effect, what fools they had been. This seems a rather ungracious acknowledgement. After all, you could say about many discoveries that they are easy -- when you know how.

Meitner worked with Otto Hahn for thirty years. Like Bohr, Hahn was a nobel laureate. In his autobiography, he decried some ill-informed journalism, making extravagant claims for what Lise Meitner was working on. Again, it struck me as curious that Hahn should choose to refer to his female colleague, in this negative way.

I make no claims to understand the states of mind of these foremost scientists with regard to Meitner. However, there is historical evidence of a male chauvinist attitude that women are no better than they should be. Boys may be brought up with the belief that they are going to be the ones who are going to do great things in the world.
In quite recent years, I heard a woman, of rural background, say her daughter was 'only a girl.' And the same expression, recently, from a boy on tv. Tho, that was good-humoredly challenged.

However, we can safely assume that Bohr's old sparring partner, Albert Einstein thought Lise Meitner deserved a nobel prize, because he pointedly refered to her as 'the German Curie'. He was trying to harness German national pride to her cause. Like her, he was a German Jew: he from Switzerland, she from Austria. And both were forced, by Nazi racism, to become emigrés.

Madame Wu.

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Implicit in the conduct of physical experiments are certain assumptions. When spelled out, they seem no more than common sense. It is thought not to matter to the out-come of experiments when or where they are conducted in space or time, as such. Likewise, it was thought that an experiment that was seen, as if in a mirror, could not be distinguished from direct observation of it.

This was a mirror image ( or 'parity' ) conservation law of physical experiments. Up till the twentieth century, only two forces of nature were known, gravity and electro-magnetism. ( Electric and magnetic forces received a unified treatment in the nineteenth century. ) Tho, Isaac Newton anticipated there might be more forces of nature.

Two more were discovered, as it began to be realised that atoms were real but not the basic indivisible building blocks of matter. The 'strong force' bound the constituents of the atom. The 'weak force' was associated with the spontaneous disintegration of certain of the unstable heavy elements in radio-active decay.

By the middle of the twentieth century, examples of the weak force interactions, posed a dilemma, involving either one 'strange' sub-atomic particle that violated parity conservation, or two such particles, with apparently identical properties.

The physicists Chen Ning Yang and Tsung Dao Lee proposed experiments 'to determine whether weak interactions differentiate the right from the left.' The first team, to carry out these tests, was headed by their friend and fellow Chinese-born American, Madame Chien-Shiung Wu.
Martin Gardner described her, in The Ambidextrous Universe as:

widely regarded as the world's leading woman physicist. She was already famous for her work on weak interactions and for the care and elegance with which her experiments were always designed.

This compliment reminds me of Elizabeth Barrett being called the world's greatest woman poet.
In other words, she was very good -- for a woman!

In Martin Gardner's words:

Madame Wu's experiment provided for the first time in the history of science a method of labelling the ends of a magnetic axis in a way that is not at all conventional. The south end is the end of a cobalt-60 nucleus that is most likely to fling out an electron!

It was pointed out that but for Yang and Lee telling the experimenters what to do, the experiments could never have been performed. This tacitly explained why the two theorists got the nobel prize but not the leading experimenter, who verified the violation of parity.

But experimental ability is also a gift. Ironically, Yang was legendary for his maladroitness anywhere near a physics lab. ( Where there's a bang / There's Yang. ) This is in no way meant to be disparaging of the man, who went onto further great things in mathematical physics -- the Yang-Mills gauge-field theory.
It is merely that experimental ability is equally to be respected as theoretical ability.

And the nobel committee recognised this, for example, with regard to the electro-weak theorists -- and their experimental demonstrators ( as led by Carlo Rubbia, at the CERN laboratory, in Switzerland ). This was the theory that gave a unified explanation of two of the four known natural forces, the electro-magnetic and the weak forces.

Madame Wu's result was just as epochal in the twentieth century history of physics. In justice, not to mention courtesy, a nobel prize should also have been hers.

Rosalind Franklin.

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James Watson's famous story, of the search for the genetic code, The Double Helix, starts by saying only five people in the world mattered, in its discovery. At any rate, one of these was the crystallographer, Rosalind Franklin.
Linus Pauling was known to be on the warpath for his third nobel prize. ( He did eventually win another -- for peace, tho. ) His son came over to Cambridge. With American generosity, he sided with Francis Crick and Watson, in their race to beat his father.

When Pauling came out with his model of a triple helix, it didnt seem quite right. As Crick said, nature does things in pairs.
One of the tale's recurring features was going round to take another look at what 'Rosie' had done. They didnt dare speak to her in such familiar terms, however. And Watson relates that she greeted their double helix idea with a woman's fury and scorn.

In a later edition of his book, Watson sympathises with her for the difficulties she must have faced, as a woman in science. She was to die young of a painful illness, bravely continuing her work till the end. Her notebooks show she was moving towards the double helix explanation.

From Watson's account, one certainly gets the feeling that the superb quality of her X-ray diffraction studies were Crick and Watson's window on the problem.
In The Physicists C P Snow said Rosalind Franklin got 'a raw deal'. She should surely have shared that nobel prize.

Jocelyn Bell.

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Jocelyn Bell was the first to discover an astronomical object, that was to become known as a pulsar, short for pulsating star. This class of things were later to be identified as neutron stars. Like black holes, the possibility of their existence had been theorised, but few had believed in them.

Apart from black holes, neutron stars are stars in their most catastrophically collapsed state, occurring in super-nova explosions. This produces an enormously increased spin, the figure-skater effect, named after the increased spin of a skater after she draws in her arms. With it, goes a greatly increased magnetic field, whose poles may differ from the axis of spin. The former is whipped round eccentrically, by the latter, drawing in nearby charged particles to produce a rotating beam, a light-house effect.

The regularity of this pulsed radio signal made Anthony Hewish's Cambridge team think, at first, that their new large array radio telescope's recording was artificial. However, only the world's best atomic clocks could keep such accurate time, so it was no human interference.
An extra-terrestial contact was next thought of -- LGM or little green men. But then Bell found another such signal.

In his book, Perfect Symmetry, Heinz Pagels said of Bell:

It was ( Hewish's ) extreme good fortune to have Jocelyn Bell-Burnell, a twenty-four-year-old graduate student, on his team. Examining the output of the antenna which swept the sky as the earth rotated, she observed 'a bit of scruff' -- a distinctive radio signal -- coming from a particular spot in the sky. It would be rather easy to disregard such a signal as nonsense noise. The actual output of the antenna was recorded as a line trace on a paper roll, and the 'bit of scruff' was just some short jumps in the trace on hundreds of yards of paper, every inch of which was examined by Bell.

A month later, she saw the signal again and soon thereafter analysed the 'scruff' in detail. She saw that it consisted of periodic pulses about one second long.

Some people thought Jocelyn Bell should also have had a nobel prize. After all, people think the idea is that the prize should go to the person who first makes a first class discovery. And it does seem to me that they are right that she should have had a share in the glory at Stockholm.
But for her, some other radio astronomy group could well have snatched the prize first.
Also, it was a lost opportunity to write in the sky what a diligent young woman in science might achieve -- and be fully recognised and rewarded for.

Richard Lung

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