Nobel Women In Science

I spent the evenings of the last few weeks reading “Nobel Prize women in science : their lives, struggles, and momentous discoveries” by Bertsch. It was such an overwhelmingly inspiring read. The books includes enticing story telling of the lives of women scientists, how they were raised, introduced to science and fought their way up to be the best in the world. This blog post will not be a book review, but rather my thoughts and observations of the book.

First of all, most women mentioned in the book were raised like boys. at young ages, they exhibit abilities such as, logical, calm, systematic. And the passion for science started early and fueled them their entire lives. In a few cases, their parents believed in equality of the genders and supported them studying science. However, a good portion of them did not believe in that. In the early 1900s, girls in Europe went to finishing schools rather than high schools (for boys), and the materials they learn in finishing schools were domestic responsibilities which did not prepare them for universities. A few women, after graduating from finishing schools, spent a few years studying on their own in order to catch up and be admitted into universities.

Secondly, it was interesting reading about how much the world wars impacted their careers trajectories. On one hand, there was an increasing demand of physicists for the Manhattan project (and the likes in Europe). As more male physicists were summoned to do war research, women scientists had easier times obtaining academic jobs, and also conduct war research in some cases. However, many Jewish scientists in Europe had a hard time staying in the lab, they had to sneak around the labs and made sure not to get caught, many of them fled to more neutral countries. For example, Lise Meitner had to spend years in Denmark, while her collaborators, who were not Jewish, remained in Germany. This made the collaboration a lot harder and it was hard for her to stay in the forefront of research. In the end, her collaborators shared the Nobel without her, even though she was the brain behind the discovery.

Next observation is that even though they are expert in a very narrow area, their interest is very wide and they read a lot of other topics in leisure. In at least 2 out of ~10 women in the book, there were mentions of them reading very wide range of topics of sciences, and sometimes outside of science: literature, politics, history too. For Gerty Cori who won the physiology prize with her husband, she read so widely that enabled her to come up with novel ideas, and her husband who execute experiments following her visions. Also, because of this nature, when they find themselves needing to start a project in a field that they had no experience in, they can quickly learn and become an expert in that field too. So I realized that it is important for me, and everyone, to read a lot, only then the brain will have enough information to form meaningful connections and produce great ideas.

It was also interesting to read about that roughly half of the women never married, and another half was able to have both a family and a career. For the first case, these women never cared about their looks, they wear convenient clothes that didn’t comply with social conventions, and when they interact with men they try so hard to appear as equals that they were not very feminine at all. Of course, not spending time dating people and raising families may save them plenty of time to dive into research, it could be very lonely in my opinion. I prefer to be like the second category, where they are not afraid to appear feminine, and this femininity is what precisely making them likable and shine in a field of all males. For example, Physics Laureate Maria Goeppert was so pretty and witty, that many of her colleagues confessed having crushes on her. Her advisors and mentors all enjoyed her company too. They helped to pull strings so that she could get job offers, and advance her career.

Compared to those women, some of them (e.g. Madame Curie) couldn’t even get access to a proper laboratory or have a professorship until 10 years after wining the Nobel Prize, women today are at a much better situation. Although we are still the minority in science, the fact that school admissions and government fellowships encouraging women applicants is already 1000 times better treatment than a century ago. However, there still are gender stereotypes rooted deeply in our culture, and we still need to keep proving ourselves to the world. I would like to end with one of my favorite quotes from the book, it was used to describe Barbara McClintock:

Women who succeed in science are the ones with the strength to abide in a world where they weren’t wanted. They have to have stamina and brains and nerve and gall to survive. You are not going to find any weeping willow making it.

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