Katherine Johnson: Calculations Sent Crews into Space
Katherine Johnson was one of a handful of African American women hired to do computing in the guidance and navigation department at Langley’s Research Center in Virginia. The women battled both racism and sexism. As Johnson told public television station WHRO in 2011, none of it held her back. Her work spoke for itself, and she rose in ranks at NASA. She became a well-respected figure and many of the astronauts made sure that Johnson verified all of the numbers for their expeditions before taking off. But that doesn’t mean she got the appropriate amount of credit for her work.
In 1962, Johnson and engineer Ted Skopinski were working on equations to launch, track, and maneuver a spacecraft on an orbital flight that would end with the spacecraft landing at a specific position. The equations in that report — which were mostly Johnson’s equations — provided the mathematical backbone for America’s first spaceflight in May 1961 and America’s first orbital mission in February 1962. It was a significant piece of work. And it was a significant thing to claim credit for, especially for a woman of color in 1960 whose employer had nominally desegregated its workforce in 1958 but whose supervisor, Henry Pearson, was “no fan of women,” as Johnson put it. In September 1960, Pearson was pushing Johnson’s coauthor, Skopinski, to finish the report and put his name on it. But Skopinski insisted Johnson finish the work because “she had done most of the work.”
In 1905, Nettie Stevens published a paper establishing that chromosomes, not environmental factors or diet, determine the sex of an organism. The same year, E.B. Wilson, a more celebrated male colleague, independently arrived at a similar conclusion and received most of the credit. She observed that male mealworms produced two kinds of sperm, one with a large chromosome and one with a small chromosome. Before this, there were many different theories as to how gender was determined during procreation. Aristotle believed a child’s sex was determined by the body temperature of the father during sex. “Aristotle counseled elderly men to conceive in the summer if they wished to have male heirs,” the textbook Developmental Biology explains. In 19th-century Europe, it was widely believed that nutrition was the key to gender determinant. Poor nutrition led to males, good nutrition to females.
Wilson was working on the same questions as Stevens, and he published a similar result around the same time. Wilson had worked on a species where the male actually has one less chromosome than the female, which is less common in nature. Stevens’s model of an X and Y chromosome is the basis for human gender determination. Plus, Stevens’s model better supports Mendel’s theory on genetics â that some genes take on dominant roles and override the instructions of their gene pairs. It is generally stated that E. B. Wilson obtained the same results as Stevens, at the same time. But Wilson probably did not arrive at his conclusion on this until after he had seen Stevens’ results. Because of Wilson’s more substantial contributions in other areas and sexism at the time, he tends to be given most of the credit for this discovery.
Rubin is the astrophysicist who confirmed the existence of dark matter in the atmosphere. She was also an ardent advocate for equality for women in astronomy, and in society. A role model for many, Rubin overcame high cultural barriers to succeed in observational astronomy. Rubin’s greatest passion was for spiral galaxies. It was her measurements of the speeds at which stars orbit around galactic centres, arguably her most important work, that confirmed theories of dark matter. It had long been assumed that this rotation would slow down with distance from a galaxy’s centre, just as the planets orbit more slowly the farther they are from the Sun. She worked with astronomer Kent Ford in the ’60s and ’70s, when they discovered the reasoning behind stars’ movement outside of the galaxy. She’s dubbed a “national treasure” but remains without a Nobel Peace Prize due to Ford claiming most of the credit.
But what is dark matter? According to NASA: “We are much more certain what dark matter is not than we are what it is. First, it is dark, meaning that it is not in the form of stars and planets that we see. Observations show that there is far too little visible matter in the universe to make up the 27% required by the observations. Second, it is not in the form of dark clouds of normal matter, matter made up of particles called baryons. We know this because we would be able to detect baryonic clouds by their absorption of radiation passing through them. Third, dark matter is not antimatter, because we do not see the unique gamma rays that are produced when antimatter annihilates with matter. Finally, we can rule out large galaxy-sized black holes on the basis of how many gravitational lenses we see. High concentrations of matter bend light passing near them from objects further away, but we do not see enough lensing events to suggest that such objects to make up the required 25% dark matter contribution.”
There are few scientific geniuses that compare to Lise Meitner. Meitner was a student under the legendary physicist Max Plank, and Meitner was the first German woman to hold a professorship at a German University. In 1923, Meitner discovered the radiationless transition known as the Auger effect, which is named for Pierre Victor Auger, a French scientist who discovered the effect two years later. In the height of conflict and unease in Germany in the 1930s, the young Jewish scientist was forced to flee her home country. She continued her work at Manne Siegbahn’s institute in Stockholm, but with little support, partially due to Siegbahn’s prejudice against women in science. Otto Hahn and Meitner met clandestinely in Copenhagen in November to plan a new round of experiments.
In 1938, Hahn and Meitner joined forces to outline the concept of nuclear fission. This was the groundbreaking moment that would, in just five years, give rise to the awesome destructive capacity of the atomic bomb. However, she did not receive the credit for it. In 1944, Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his research into fission, but Meitner was ignored, partly because Hahn downplayed her role ever since she left Germany. The Nobel mistake, never acknowledged, was partly rectified in 1966, when Hahn, Meitner, and Strassman were awarded the Enrico Fermi Award. Meitner retired to Cambridge, England, in 1960, where she would pass on October 27. In 1992, element 109, the heaviest known element in the universe, was named Meitnerium (Mt) in her honor. Many consider Lise Meitner the “most significant woman scientist of the 20th Century.”
Alice Ball was a young chemist at Kalihi Hospital in Hawaii who focused on Hansen’s disease, a.k.a. leprosy. Ball studied chemistry at the University of Washington, earning a bachelor’s degree in pharmaceutical chemistry in 1912 and a second bachelor’s degree in the science of pharmacy two years later in 1914. Alongside her pharmacy instructor, Williams Dehn, she published a 10-page article, “Benzoylations in Ether Solution”, in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. Publishing an article in a respected scientific journal was an uncommon accomplishment for women – especially for Black women at this time.
After graduating, Ball was offered many scholarships. She received an offer from the University of California Berkeley, as well as the College of Hawaii (now the University of Hawaii), where she decided to study for a master’s degree in chemistry. Her research sought to find a cure for the disease by figuring out how to inject chaulmoogra oil directly into the bloodstream. Topical treatments worked, but had side effects patients weren’t interested in. Sadly, Ball became sick and returned home, where she died in 1916. Arthur Dean took over her study, and Ball became a memoryâuntil a medical journey now referred to the “Ball Method.” Her method was used for over two decades all over the world to cure the disease.
Hedy Lamarr: Radio Guidance System (later becoming GPS and Wi-Fi)
Austrian-born, American actress Hedy Lamarr, who in addition to becoming a star of the Silver Screen during the Golden Age of Hollywood, collaborated with composer George Antheil to create a radio guidance system for Allied torpedoes. At first, Lamarr’s brilliant mind was ignored, and her beauty took center stage when she was discovered by director Max Reinhardt at age 16. She studied acting with Reinhardt in Berlin and was in her first small film role by 1930, in a German film called Geld auf der StraÎ²e (“Money on the Street”). However, it wasn’t until 1932 that Lamarr gained name recognition as an actress. After a few years in the industry and one failed relationship, she met Howard Hughes. Hughes helped to fuel the innovator in Lamarr, giving her a small set of equipment to use in her trailer on set. While she had an inventing table set up in her house, the small set allowed Lamarr to work on inventions between takes.
In 1940, Lamarr met George Antheil at a dinner party. Antheil was another quirky yet clever force to be reckoned with.Antheil recalled, “Hedy said that she did not feel very comfortable, sitting there in Hollywood and making lots of money when things were in such a state.” After her marriage to Mandl, she had knowledge on munitions and various weaponry that would prove beneficial. And so, Lamarr and Antheil began to tinker with ideas to combat the axis powers. The two came up with an extraordinary new communication system used with the intention of guiding torpedoes to their targets in war. The system involved the use of “frequency hopping” amongst radio waves, with both transmitter and receiver hopping to new frequencies together. The Navy pretended it wasn’t interested in the technology, but of course it was. They stole Lamarr and Antheil’s idea, classified the patent and, by the 1960s, had begun to incorporate the technology into a host of new weapons systems. The technology they developed would one day form the basis for today’s WiFi, GPS, and Bluetooth communication systems.
Margaret Knight, born February 14, 1838, made her greatest contributions to production in an era where industry and men ruled. Often referred to as Lady Edison, Knight was a well-known inventor, mostly because she had the wherewithal to stand up for her rights. Much like other women of STEM, Knight demonstrated a knack for tools and invention from an early age, and she was said to have contrived a safety device for controlling shuttles in powered textile looms when she was 12 years old. In 1868, at which time she was living in Springfield, Massachusetts, she invented an attachment for paper-bag-folding machines that allowed the production of square-bottomed bags.
In 1868, Knight was working for the Columbia Paper Bag Company when she invented a machine that automatically folded and glued paper bags into the formation familiar to shoppers today. As Knight worked toward the completion of a metal prototype, a machinist named Charles Anan visited her plant. Unbeknownst to Knight, the random machinist filed for a patent for her invention. She only learned of his deception when she applied for her own patent. Fortunately for Knight, many witnesses were on hand as she worked through her invention. This proved more than compelling in a judgment that ultimately awarded the patentâand all future royaltiesâto Knight. Other of Knight’s inventions included a numbering machine and a window frame and sash, both patented in 1894, and several devices relating to rotary engines, patented between 1902 and 1915. Although she was not the first woman to receive a patent, she was one of the most productive of female inventors, having some 27 patents to her credit. She failed to profit much from her work, however.
Elizabeth “Lizzie” Magie is one of countless women whose contributions were minimized, largely ignored, or in some cases, deliberately erased. And with Monopoly, understanding the story of its true inventor provides a fascinating window into not only one woman’s life and times, but how the game that sits in many closets isn’t necessarily what we thought it was. In the 1930s, Parker Brothers introduced the gameMonopoly to American families. The game made a millionaire out of an unemployed heater salesman named Charles Darrow. He became the first board-game millionaire, and a symbol of the quirky unpredictability of the American Dream. The only problem: he didn’t invent the game. Some thirty years prior, a woman named Elizabeth Magie created “The Landlord’s Game.” It’s intent was progressive in nature, designed to illustrate the evil of business monopolies. The game was prophetic, coming well in advance of the Great Depression.
Ironically, it was this catastrophic era that led to Darrow’s unemployment and his subsequent fascination with a game played by some of his Quaker friends in Atlantic City. Darrow would develop this exact variation of the Landlord’s Game into his pitch for Parker Brothers, including Atlantic City street names and places. Perversely, Darrow transformedMonopoly into a game that seems to celebrates dishonest business practices. On its way to retailing one of the most popular board games in history, Parker Brothers purchased Magie’s patent. The game’s original inventor would net a rough total of about $500 for her stroke of gaming genius. So is the sad fate of women in history.
Often compared to Marie Curie, Chien-Shiung Wu worked on the Manhattan Project (one of the few women working on the project) where she developed the process for separating uranium metal. In 1934, Chien-Shiung graduated at the top of her class with a degree in physics from the National Central University in Nanking, China (now known as Nanjing University). After graduation, she worked in a physics lab in China. Her mentor, Dr. Jing-Wei Gu, another woman working in the field of physics, encouraged Chien-Shiung to continue her education in the United States.
She was the first woman hired as faculty in the Physics Department at Princeton. Shortly afterwards, in 1944, Dr. Wu took a job at Columbia University in New York City, and joined the Manhattan Project. The Manhattan Project researchers were working towards the creation of the atomic bomb. Chein-Shiung’s research included improving Geiger counters for the detection of radiation and the enrichment of uranium in large quantities. In 1956, she conducted the Wu experiment that focused on electromagnetic interactions. After it yielded surprising results, Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen-Ning Yang, the physicists who originated a similar theory in the field, received credit for her work, winning the Nobel Prize for the experiment in 1957.
Ada Lovelace, who happened to be Lord Byron’s daughter, was one of the world’s first computer geniuses and celebrated in history of women in science. Sadly, her role is often minimized by male historians. When Ada Lovelace was twelve years old, she wanted to fly. She approached the problem methodically, examining birds and investigating various materials that could serve as wingsâfeathers, paper, silk. In the course of her research, which began in February, 1828, according to her biographer Betty Alexandra Toole, Ada wrote and illustrated a guide called “Flyology,” to record her findings. She toiled away on this project until her mother reprimanded her for neglecting her studies, which were meant to set her on a rational course, one meant for a girl of Ada’s status.
In 1843, the mathematically gifted Lovelace collaborated with inventor Charles Babbage at the University of London. Babbage was working on something called an Analytical Engine, an early prototype of the computer. Lovelace contributed detailed and extensive notes to Babbage’s work, particularly by articulating the way Babbage’s machine could be fed data to complete complicated math problems, or even compose complex music. These ideas may mark the earliest recorded proposition for what would eventually become computer programming and algorithms. Today, Lovelace’s contributions are obscured by debate, and most often by the dismissive and unmistakably misogynistic characterizations of her role.
The ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) was the first computer ever built. In 1946, six brilliant young women programmed the first all-electronic,programmable computer, the ENIAC, a project run by the U.S. Army in Philadelphia as part of a secret WWII project. They learned to program without programming languages or tools (for none existed)âonly logical diagrams. By the time they were finished, ENIAC ran a ballistics trajectoryâa differential calculus equationâin seconds. Yet when the ENIAC was unveiled to the press and the public in 1946, the women were never introduced; they remained invisible.
The ENIAC, an amazing creation by these amazing women, was not a stored-program computer; it is “better described as a collection of electronic adding machines and other arithmetic units, which were originally controlled by a web of large electrical cables.” It was programmed by a combination of plugboard wiring and three “portable function tables”. One of the peculiarities that distinguished ENIAC from all later computers was the way in which instructions were set up on the machine. It was similar to the plugboards of small punched-card machines, but here we had about 40 plugboards, each several feet in size. A number of wires had to be plugged for each single instruction of a problem, thousands of them each time a problem was to begin a run; and this took several days to do and many more days to check out. When that was finally accomplished, we would run the problem as long as possible, i.e. as long as we had input data, before changing over to another problem. Typically, changeovers occurred only once every few weeks.
Margaret Keane is an American artist best known for her trademark “Big Eye” paintings. They gained popularity in the 1960s. But many people didn’t even know that Margaret Keane was the artist behind the work – they thought her husband was the artistic mastermind. Walter Keane began selling his wife’s paintings as his own without permission in the 1950s. Eventually, Margaret discovered what Walter was up to. When she confronted him, Walter used threat, intimidation, and emotional abuse to force her silence. Her husband convinced her that it was easier to earn money this way. They spent a year arguing, but then she agreed that her husband would sell her works as his for the next 13 years. As the works gained in popularity, Margaret continued to toil in obscurity, while Walter enjoyed celebrity.
In 1965, the two were divorced. In 1970, Margaret revealed the truth to the public. Walter denied her allegations, which ultimately led to a surreal 1986 courtroom scene in which the two were forced into a head to head paint-off. Walter claimed his sore shoulder prevented him from painting. Naturally, Margaret produced a perfect facsimile of her earlier works, earning the rightful claim to her works in perpetuity. Tim Burton’s Big Eyes is a movie about this story. Amy Adams and Christoph Walts played the main characters. Amy Adams even won a Golden Globe for it.
Trotula of Salerno is one of the earliest victims of historiographical misogyny. Trotula was one of the most famous physicians of the time. She is considered the world’s first gynecologist. Trotula di Ruggiero came from a wealthy family. Her birth and childhood remain a mystery. Trotula was a pioneer in women’s health and specialized in obstetrics, gynecology, cosmetics and skin disease. She wrote many medical works, her most famous being Passionibus Mulierum Curandorum (The Diseases of Women), also known as Trotula Major. This work was comprised of sixty three chapters pertaining to the special health issues of women.
The purpose of this work was to educate male physicians about the female body because male physicians knew little at that time. Another work Practica Secundum Trotam was a larger work of a general nature. Her writings have remained instrumental building blocks in our knowledge about human health, and women’s health specifically. And yet, her authorship had been cast into doubt over the ensuing centuries, entirely because historians and medical professionals were skeptical that a woman could have produced works of such accuracy or importance. Yup, you read that right. But this idea was so ingrained in the general public, that many even doubted that Trotula of Salerno existed. This convenient doubt ultimately allowed numerous male physicians over subsequent years to cut and paste their own names over her work.
Obviously before Caresse Crosby, women had methods of containing their bosoms. Some historical accounts credit one person with inventing the bra – but in reality, the bra doesn’t have just one inventor. Over the centuries, bra design has evolved from concept to concept and design to design to become what it is today. The early 1500s marked the arrival of the corset among women in France. It grew in popularity as an undergarment that helped give women what was considered to be the perfect figure: the inverted cone shape. At this time, most corsets had a long piece of wood or whalebone sewn into the casing. In 1889, French designer Herminie Cadolle cut a corset in two, creating two separate undergarments. The top section supported the breasts by means of straps, while the lower piece cinched and shaped the waist. And the bra metamorphosed once more in 1910 with the invention of the modern bra.
Mary Phelps Jacob, now known as Caresse Crosby, made history for women around the world. Frustrated with the constrictions of her whalebone corset, she sewed together two pocket-handkerchiefs and some pink ribbon to create a prototype bra in 1910. Based on its instant popularity, she was awarded the first patent for the modern bra, which she eventually sold for a pittance to Warner Brothers Corset Company, who went on to make millions. Her life was transformed in 1920, with the arrival of a young soldier seven years her junior. This was Harry Crosby, 22-year-old war hero, wealthy scion of a prominent Boston family and nephew of J.P. Morgan. He met Caresse – then known as Polly Peabody – at an Independence Day fair where she was acting as chaperone. He told her he loved her in the Tunnel of Love, she succumbed two weeks later, and after two years of scandalizing Boston high society, her husband granted a divorce and they married and sailed for France. But most women probably celebrate her happy ending.
Candace Pert: Neuroscience Findings
Candace Pert was an internationally recognized neuroscientist and pharmacologist who published over 250 research articles. She was a significant contributor to the emergence of Mind-Body Medicine as an area of legitimate scientific research in the 1980’s, earning her the title of “The Mother of Psychoneuroimmunology”, and “The Goddess of Neuroscience” by her many fans. While a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, she developed a receptor-binding assay that employed the antagonist naloxone, radiolabeled to high activity, to bind to and detect specific binding in brain homogenates, resulting in the 1973 publication by C.B. Pert and S.H. Snyder in Science, âOpiate receptor: demonstration in nervous tissue.’ This was the first demonstration of a receptor in brain, and it ushered in a new era of neuropharmacology and receptor identification in the brain. This game-changing neuroscience revelation was so important that it led to an awardâfor her professor. Dr. Solomon Snyder was recognized for his student’s achievement.
When Pert wrote a letter of protest to the award committee underscoring her determinant contributions, Dr. Snyder mansplained in response, “That’s how the game is played.” Men like Dr. Snyder have been playing this game for centuries. Although Candace’s scientific work was centered on the pharmacology of peptides and receptors, her achievements went beyond academia and drug development. A shift in her intellectual focus was evident in a 1985 publication in the Journal of Immunology, in which she proposed that neuropeptides and their receptors form a psychosomatic network throughout the brain and body. Internationally recognized, she began to lecture on neuropeptides and their receptors in the broader context of the âbodymind’ in health and disease.
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