Quick: Name a woman scientist.
Chances are the name you came up with is Marie Curie, the physicist and chemist who won two Nobel Prizes more than a century ago for the discoveries she and her husband Pierre made about radioactivity.
But who else? In a new book titled “Her Space, Her Time,” quantum physicist Shohini Ghose explains why women astronomers and physicists have been mostly invisible in the past — and profiles 20 researchers who lost out on what should have been Nobel-level fame.
“This issue around having low representation of women in physics is something that’s common all around the world,” Ghose says in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast. “And I’ve certainly faced it in my own experiences as a physicist growing up. I really didn’t know of any woman physicist apart from Marie Curie.”
The road to “Her Space, Her Time” began with a TED talk that Ghose gave in India in 2019. That talk highlighted the case of Bibha Chowdhuri, an Indian physicist who played a key role in unraveling the mysteries of subatomic particles and cosmic rays in the 1940s.
Chowdhuri wasn’t able to follow up on her findings, in part due to shortages brought on by World War II. Instead, it was a British physicist named Cecil Powell who won the Nobel Prize in 1950 for discovering particles known as pions. Chowdhuri’s work went largely unrecognized.
That’s the way it typically went with the other women researchers profiled in Ghose’s book. The litany includes Annie Jump Cannon, who in the early 1900s came up with a stellar classification system that’s still in use today. (The Star Trek saga gives a nod to Cannon’s letter-based system every time it references an “M-class star.”)
Another woman on Ghose’s list is Henrietta Leavitt, who figured out how to use variable stars as a cosmic measuring stick, calibrated by their periodicity and apparent brightness. Leavitt’s research opened the way for Edwin Hubble to discover that there was more than one galaxy in the observable universe, and that the universe was expanding.
NASA celebrated Hubble’s legacy by naming a space telescope after him. Leavitt’s work was recognized — but not widely celebrated.
“None of the major space telescopes have a woman’s name attached to it,” Ghose says. “So when the James Webb [Space Telescope] was being planned, before it was called James Webb, I was very excited. I was hoping they would name it after Leavitt or any of the other women who have contributed. But you know, that didn’t happen.”
NASA’s decision to go with Webb, who was the space agency’s first administrator, drew criticism because of his reported connection to government discrimination against employees in the 1950s and ’60s based on sexual orientation — the so-called “Lavender Scare.” After a review of the historical record, NASA decided to stick with the JWST name. But Ghose still wants to see a Leavitt Space Telescope.
“There are many reasons why we can do better with our naming,” she says. “Hopefully NASA will learn and do better next time.”
You could argue that NASA executives and other leaders of the scientific community already have learned their lesson, at least when it comes to naming telescopes.
The Vera C. Rubin Observatory, a wide-angle survey telescope that’s expected to revolutionize ground-based astronomy starting in the mid-2020s, pays tribute to one of the women astronomers profiled in “Her Space, Her Time.” And NASA’s Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, due for launch in 2027, honors an astronomer who led the charge for the Hubble Space Telescope — so much so that she became known as the “Mother of Hubble.”
Ghose approves of the trend, but says efforts to elevate the status of women in science shouldn’t be limited to naming telescopes.
“That’s just part of a much bigger issue that women have been facing for a long time,” she says. “I’d say there’s basically some very specific practical barriers that we still see. For example, there’s still a gender wage gap. There are issues around fair hiring practices.”
Studies have shown that women in physics and astronomy continue to face discrimination and harassment, and tend to be given fewer resources than their male counterparts.
“They have slower paths on their career journeys, so they don’t get promoted as much,” Ghose says. “They don’t get invited as much to give talks at major conferences, which are really important if you want to get those promotions. Grant funding levels are lower for women. So there is this whole series of issues, and these are structural problems.”
Ghose argues that scientific institutions have to increase their efforts to address those structural problems.
“Unfortunately, what often happens is that instead we focus on things like mentoring women or having science camps for girls … or we have work-life balance kids of approaches to, you know, help women balance their family time vs. work better,” Ghose says.
“If you think about it, the common pattern in all of this is that we’re aiming at the women, as in ‘fix them, make them somehow better,'” she says. “We have to fix all these structural issues, and not just focus on ‘fix the women.’ Let’s fix the system instead.”
Cosmic Log Used Book Club
Ghose says she’s been too busy with the buildup to her own book’s publication — and with her duties as a professor of physics and computer science at Wilfrid Laurier University and chief technology officer at the Quantum Algorithms Institute — to do much outside reading. But she does have a work of fiction on her must-see list.
“I’m really looking forward to watching ‘Lessons in Chemistry,’” she says, referring to the Apple TV+ adaptation of Bonnie Garmus’ bestselling novel. “I was reading the book, and of course it is also a book that features a woman scientist, a chemist. So that’s exciting, and it’s a really fun read.”
That recommendation justifies adding “Lessons in Chemistry” to the Cosmic Log Used Book Club’s reading list. For more than two decades, the CLUB Club has featured books with cosmic themes that have been around long enough to become available at your local library or secondhand-book shop. Dig into the CLUB Club archive for more than 100 other selections.
In addition to Cannon, Chowdhuri, Curie, Leavitt and Rubin, the women physicists and astronomers highlighted in “Her Space, Her Time” include Anna Draper, Williamina Fleming, Antonia Maury, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Margaret Burbidge, Mary Golda Ross, Joyce Neighbors, Dilhan Eryurt, Claudia Alexander, Harriet Brooks, Lise Meitner, Marietta Blau, Hertha Wambacher, Elisa Frota Pessoa, Maria Mitchell and Chien-Shiung Wu.
My co-host for the Fiction Science podcast is Dominica Phetteplace, an award-winning writer who is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and currently lives in San Francisco. To learn more about Phetteplace, visit her website, DominicaPhetteplace.com.
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