A Funny Thing Happened on Ada Lovelace Day…

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, a day to celebrate and encourage women in the fields of science and technology. The day is named after “Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace, born Byron”, or Lady Ada Lovelace for short. You can read up more on her life and contribution to computer science at Wikipedia, for instance.

But it’s not really fair to half of the world’s population to dedicate just one day to observing the contributions of female scientists and then lavish all the laurels solely on Lovelace. So last year, the day after Ada Lovelace day, Brian Benchoff sent an internal e-mail at Hackaday HQ suggesting we tell the stories of other women in science. We put our heads together and came up with a couple dozen leads so quickly, it was clear that we were on to something good.

From a writer’s perspective, the stories of women in science are particularly appealing because they are undertold. Sure, everyone knows of Marie Curie’s brilliant and tragic dedication to uncovering the mysteries of radioactivity. But did you know how Rita Levi-Montalcini had to hide from the Italian Fascists and the German Nazis using fake names, doing research on scarce chicken eggs in her parent’s kitchen, before she would eventually discover nerve growth factor and win the Nobel Prize? We didn’t.

Do you know which biochemist is the American who’s logged the most time in space? Dr. Peggy Whitson, the space ninja. But the honor of being the first civilian in space goes to Soviet skydiver Valentina Tereshkova. Margaret Hamilton was lead software engineer on the code that got the first feet on the moon, but in the days before astronauts had learned to trust the silicon, John Glenn wanted Katherine Johnson to double-check the orbital calculations before he set foot in the Friendship 7.

And on it goes. Maria Goeppert-Mayer figured out the structure of nuclear shells, Kathleen Booth invented assembly language, and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi discovered HIV. Stephanie Kwolek even saved Hackaday writer Dan Maloney’s life by inventing Kevlar.

In all, we’ve written 30 profiles of women in science in the last year — far too many to list here by name. You can browse them all by using the Biography category. (We’ve thrown in biographies of a few men too, because women don’t have a monopoly on neat stories.)

We’re not done yet, either. So thank you, Ada Lovelace, for giving us the impetus to cover the fascinating stories and important contributions of so many women in science!

Publish or Perish: The Sad Genius of Ignaz Semmelweis

Of all the lessons that life hands us, one of the toughest is that you can be right about something but still come up holding the smelly end of the stick. Typically this is learned early in life, but far too many of us avoid this harsh truth well into adulthood. And in those cases where being right is literally a matter of life or death, it’s even more difficult to learn that lesson.

For Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian physician-scientist in the mid-19th century, failure to learn that being right is attended by certain responsibilities had a very high cost. Ironically it would also save the lives of countless women with a revolutionary discovery that seems so simple today as to be self-obvious: that a doctor should wash his hands before seeing patients.

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The Flight of the Seagull: Valentina Tereshkova, Cosmonaut

That the Cold War was a tense and perilous time in history cannot be denied, and is perhaps a bit of an understatement. The world stood on the edge of Armageddon for most of it, occasionally stepping slightly over the line, and thankfully stepping back before any damage was done.

As nerve-wracking as the Cold War was, it had one redeeming quality: it turned us into a spacefaring species. Propelled by national pride and the need to appear to be the biggest kid on the block, the United States and the Soviet Union consistently ratcheted up their programs, trying to be the first to make the next major milestone. The Soviets made most of the firsts, making Sputnik and Gagarin household names all over the world. But in 1962, they laid down a marker for a first of epic proportions, and one that would sadly stand alone for the next 19 years: they put the first woman, Valentina Tereshkova, into space.

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Sophie Germain: The Mathematics of Elasticity

When a 13-year old Marie-Sophie Germain was stuck in the house because of the chaotic revolution on the streets of Paris in 1789, she found a refuge for her active mind: her father’s mathematics books. These inspired her to embark on pioneering a new branch of mathematics that focussed on modeling the real world: applied mathematics.

Post-revolutionary France was not an easy place for a woman to study mathematics, though. She taught herself higher maths from her father’s books, eventually persuading her parents to support her unusual career choice and getting her a tutor. After she had learned all she could, she looked at studying at the new École Polytechnique. Founded after the revolution as a military and engineering school to focus on practical science, this school did not admit women.

Anyone could ask for copies of the lecture notes, however, and students submitted their observations in writing. Germain got the notes and submitted her coursework under the pseudonym Monsieur Antoine-August Le Blanc. One of the lecturers that she impressed was Joseph Louis Lagrange, the mathematician famous for defining the mathematics of orbital motion that explained why the moon kept the same face to the earth. Lagrange arranged to meet this promising student and was surprised when Germain turned out to be a woman.

Gauss and Germain

‘Le Blanc’ also corresponded with German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss on number theory. When Napoleon’s armies occupied the town the famous mathematician lived in, Germain enlisted a family friend in the army to check that Gauss had not been harmed. Gauss didn’t realize who had helped him out, until he discovered that ‘Le Blanc’ was Sophie Germain, he wrote to her thanking her for her concern and praising her mathematical prowess given the hurdles set before her.

“How sweet is the acquisition of a friendship so flattering and precious to my heart. The lively interest you took during this terrible war deserves the most sincere recognition….But when a person of this sex, who, for our mores and prejudices, must recognize infinitely more obstacles and difficulties than men to become acquainted with these thorny searches, knows how to get rid of these obstacles and to penetrate what they have, most hidden,  must undoubtedly, she has the most noble courage, talents quite extraordinary, genius superior.”

As well as working on the thorny and theoretical problems of number theory, Germain worked on applying mathematics to real world problems. One of these was a challenge set by the Paris Academy of Science to mathematically describe the elasticity of metal plates. An experimenter called Ernest Chladni had demonstrated that a metal plate would resonate in odd ways when vibrated at certain frequencies. If you put sand on the plate, it would collect in different patterns created by the resonance of the plate, called Chladni figures. To win the prize, the solution had to predict these figures.

The Mathematics of Stress and Strain

Mathematically predicting the behavior of metal plates could make it easier to design metal objects and predict how they would behave under stress. The prize was set in 1808 but was so difficult that Germain was the only one who decided to try to solve it, as it required coming up with a whole new way to analyze and describe how materials bend and change under stress.

The first two solutions that she submitted were rejected due to mathematical errors, but the third version won her the prize in 1816. However, due to the Academy policy of not allowing women to join (and to only attend events if they were wives of members), Germain was not able to attend the ceremony where the prize was granted. She was also not allowed to attend meetings of the Academy. After the Academy failed to publish her prize-winning work, Germain had to pay to publish the work herself in 1821.

Later, her friend Joseph Fourier allowed her to attend meetings and presentations, but the mathematical establishment never really accepted her, or her work. In a letter to a colleague in 1826 she complained about the way they rebuffed her:

“These facts are my domain and it is to me alone that they remain hidden. That’s the privilege of the ladies: they get compliments and no real benefits.”

In the same letter, Germain complained of suffering fatigue and she was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly afterwards. She died in 1831. Her final years were spent working on a solution to Fermat’s Last Theorem, and just before her death she published a partial solution that was the basis for much research into the theorem, which was finally solved only with computer help in the late 1990s.

Although Sophie Germain never earned a degree in her lifetime, she was given an honorary degree in 1837 from the University of Göttingen at the suggestion of Gauss, who noted that

“she proved to the world that even a woman can accomplish something worthwhile in the most rigorous and abstract of the sciences and for that reason would well have deserved an honorary degree.”

The Academy that snubbed her also now offers an annual prize for mathematics in her name. Perhaps more importantly, her work formed the basis of the study of elasticity and stress in metals that allowed engineers to build larger objects and buildings. Creations such as the Eiffel tower in 1887 were directly influenced by her work, and it laid some of the groundwork for Einstein’s theory of General Relativity.

Modern scholars argue that Germain could have been more than she was: her work, they argue, was hamstrung by a limited understanding of some of the fundamental concepts that Gauss and others had described. Although her work was fundamental and important, if she had been given free access to the education that she wanted and deserved, it’s easy to imagine that she would have gone farther.