For Women’s History Month: The Heroines of STEM

This last Sunday, March 8, 2015, was International Women’s Day. As I watched posts fill my social media feeds highlighting the accomplishments of numerous women who have left their mark on our civilization, I couldn’t help but want to put together something highlighting some of my favorite women from the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.

That was last Sunday. In case you haven’t noticed, it is no longer Sunday, March 8. My list kept growing. I kept thinking of people to add, so this posting is a bit tardy. (Okay, I also spent a lot of time tinkering with CSS style tags.) I suppose I could have waited until Ada Lovelace Day, but I’m the impatient sort. Besides, this is Women’s History Month also.

So here, without further ado, and in no particular order, is a list of some amazing women who have overcome tremendous obstacles to contribute to the collective knowledge of humanity. Odds are that you won’t recognize most of the names on this list, but you should.


c. 370 CE – 415 CE – Hypatia (Ὑπατία) of Alexandria, was a Neoplatonist philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer. She was tortured and murdered by a mob of Christians as part of a political power struggle over the control of Alexandria. Her death is widely regarded as marking the end of the Classical era of science and philosophy.

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Madame Marie Curie

Public domain image via wikiMedia
When pressed to name a famous female scientists, this is the one that comes to mind for most. Recipient of two Nobel Prizes, one in physics, and the other in chemistry. Madame Curie (7 November 1867 – 4 July 1934) conducted pioneering research in the study of radioactive materials. She and her husband Pierre Curie are credited with the discovery of the elements polonium and radium.

While Madame Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, her daughter Irène was the second.

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Inge Lehmann

Inge Lehmann (May 13, 1888 – February 21, 1993) postulated the existence of the Earth’s solid inner core in order to provide an explanation for the behavior of P-waves in seismographic data.

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Marie Tharp

Marie Tharp (July 30, 1920 – August 23, 2006), an oceanographic cartographer, used sonar data to discover the mid-atlantic ridge, a vital piece of evidence for the validity of plate tectonics.

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Ada Lovelace

Image source: Wikipedia. Public domain image from the Ada Image Gallery.

Ada Lovelace (10 December 1815 – 27 November 1852), daughter of the poet Lord Byron, has the distinction of being considered the world’s first computer programmer. In the 1840’s she devised an algorithm for computing Bernoulli numbers on Babbage’s Analytical Engine, an early, never-completed prototype mechanical computer. The programing language “Ada” is named in her honor.

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Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin

Dorothy Hodgkin (12 May 1910 – 29 July 1994) pioneered the use of x-ray crystallography for determining the structure of organic molecules, a technique later used by Crick and Watson for determining the structure of DNA (based upon data collected by Rosalind Franklin – see below). For this work, she was awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

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Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind Franklin (25 July 1920 – 16 April 1958 performed the x-ray crystallographic analysis which Watson and Crick used to determine the double-helix structure of DNA. Franklin had independently arrived at the same conclusion regarding DNA structure, but her data was shared with Watson and Crick without her permission, and they managed to publish their results before she did.

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Emmy Noether

I have to admit that Emmy Noether (23 March 1882 – 14 April 1935) is one of my favorites. She was easily the most brilliant person that most people have never heard of, yet she created a mathematical theorem that forms an important chunk of the foundation of modern physics. Simply put, Noether’s Theorem states that for every continuous symmetry of a physical system, there is a corresponding conserved quantity. (Noether constructed an elegant proof of this theorem using the action principle, but there are alternate proofs as well.) Spatial invariance leads to conservation of momentum, temporal invariance leads to conservation of energy, and so forth. Additionally, she was a pioneer in the field of abstract algebra.

“I do not see that the sex of the candidate is an argument against her admission as privatdozent. After all, we are a university, not a bath house.”

David Hilbert

As a student at the University of Erlangen, she was not permitted to actually enroll due to her gender, but was permitted to audit courses (with the permission of each professor). She passed her exams in 1903, and, after further study at the University of Göttingen, went on to teach for many years at both Erlangen and Göttingen. However, many of those years were spent teaching without pay and under the name of other professors. Her invitation to teach at Göttingen by the prominent mathematicians David Hilbert and Felix Klein was met with considerable resistance by other faculty members.

When Hitler rose to power in 1933, Noether (along with many other scholars and scientists of Jewish descent) was forced out of academia. She relocated to the United States were she spent the remainder of her life teaching at Bryn Mawr. Upon her death in 1935, Einstein wrote an appreciation of his peer which was published in the May 5, 1935 edition of the New York Times.

Despite the gender biases and overt discrimination of her age, Noether and her accomplishments managed earn her the respect and admiration of some of the most brilliant minds who ever lived.

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Grace Hopper

USN Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper (December 9, 1906 – January 1, 1992) was a pioneer in the field of computer programming. She developed the first compiler and was involved in the creation of COBOL.

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Chien-Shiung Wu (吴健雄)

Chien-Shiung Wu (31 May 1912 – 16 February 1997) provided experimental verification of the theoretical prediction that weak interactions do not obey the Law of Conservation of Parity.

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Wendy Freedman

Wendy Freedman (born July 17, 1957) was co-director of the Hubble Space Telescope Key Project, a team effort which utilized the HST to obtain measurements of the Hubble Constant to a previously unattained degree of precision.

Fabiola Gianotti

Particle physicist Fabiola Gianotti (October 29, 1960) first burst upon with the global stage as the spokesperson for the ATLAS team during the unveiling of the discovery of the Higgs Boson on July 4, 2012. (Along with that fame came a bit of good-natured ribbing about her fondness for the Comic Sans typeface.) Starting in 2016, she will be serving as the Director-General of CERN.

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Helen Quinn

Particle physicist Helen Quinn (born 19 May 1943) worked with Howard Georgi and Steven Weinberg on an attempt to unify the electroweak and strong nuclear forces. She also introduced what is now known as Peccei-Quinn symmetry to describe why strong nuclear interaction obey CP symmetry where weak interactions do not. She also worked with Enrico Poggio and Steven Weinberg to develop a correspondence between the physics of hadrons and of their constituent quarks known as quark-hadron duality.

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Sau Lan Wu (吳秀蘭)

Particle physicist Sau Lan Wu was a member of Sam Ting’s team which jointly discovered the J/psi particle, an event which spurred the “November Revolution” in physics in 1974, solidifying the status of the quark model and leading to the formation of the Standard Model of Particle Physics.  Wu also participated in the experimental confirmation of the existence of gluons, as well as participating in the ATLAS collaboration in discovering the Higgs boson.

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Vera Rubin

In 1970s, astronomer Vera (Cooper) Rubin (born July 23, 1928) discovered a discrepancy between the observed angular velocities of  stars as a function of their distance from the galactic center and the values predicted by theory. This galaxy rotation curve problem represents a key piece of evidence for the existence of dark matter.

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Lisa Randall

Theoretical particle physicist and cosmologist Lisa Randall (born June 18, 1962) is also a prolific author and science communicator. With Raman Sundrum, she co-developed the Randall-Sundrum model, a 5-dimensional warped geometry model in which all particles except for gravitons are confined to a 3+1 dimensional brane.

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Sandra Faber

Astronomer Sandra Faber (born 1944) of Lick Observatory was involved in the design of the Keck telescopes. She was also co-discoverer of the Faber–Jackson relation, which describes a correlation between the luminosity and stellar velocity dispersion of elliptical galaxies.

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Jocelyn Bell Burnell

In 1967, Jocelyn Bell Burnell (born 15 July 1943) was a postgraduate student under Antony Hewish when she discovered an odd signal in radio telescope data pulsing at a rate of approximately once per second. Dubbed Little Green Man 1 (LGM-1), the signal marked the discovery of a pulsar (a rapidly spinning neutron star) and proved the existence of neutron stars. In 1974, Hewish was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for this discovery, with Burnell excluded, much to the chagrin of many of her peers.

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Valentina Tereshkova

On 6 June 1963, Soviet Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova (born 6 March 1937) became the first woman to fly in space, piloting the Vostok 6 spacecraft into orbit.

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Sally Ride

Dr. Sally Kristen Ride (May 26, 1951 – July 23, 2012) was the first American woman to fly in space, participating in two missions aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger. As a physics professor at UCSD, her research focused on non-linear optics and Thomson scattering.

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Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson‘s (born August 26, 1918) story is an amazing one. Hired in 1953 by NACA (the precursor of NASA) as a “computer,” she calculated flight trajectories for Mercury and Apollo missions.  When computers were first used to calculate the flight path for John Glenn’s Mercury flight, Johnson was called upon to double-check the results with her own calculations. She was directly involved with calculating the Apollo 11 flight trajectory and participated in dealing with the Apollo 13 crisis.

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Margaret Hamilton

Margaret Hamilton (born 1936), was a lead software engineer for the Apollo space program and developed the onboard software. Her design of that software, which allowed for important tasks to take priority over less-important ones, reportedly averted an abort of the Apollo 11 lunar landing.

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Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr (9 November 1914 – 19 January 2000). Yes, THAT Hedy Lamarr. More than just a sultry silver screen siren, she was also an inventor.

During the Second World War, the US Navy was interested in developing technology to remotely control torpedoes. For obvious reasons, they wanted the control signals to be secure against being intercepted and co-opted by the enemy. Lamar and her collaborator, composer George Antheil, devised a scheme under which the control signals would shift to different frequencies in a pattern known only to the sending and receiving systems. The war ended before the technology could reach fruition, and the Navy lost interest in the project. However, Lamar’s frequency-hopping idea forms the basis of what is now know as spread-spectrum communication, and forms an integral part of WiFi and cellular network technology.

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Mary Leakey

Paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey (6 February 1913 – 9 December 1996) discovered the remains, tools, and footprints of numerous early hominids, and was part of the team which discovered the famous Australopithecus afarensis specimen known as “Lucy“.

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Margaret Mead

Cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead (December 16, 1901 – November 15, 1978) studied cultural attitudes toward sexuality in various cultures. Her work had a huge influence on the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

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Jane Goodall

Dame Jane Goodall (born3 April 1934) is primatologist and anthropologist best known for spending 55 years studying the Chimpanzees of Tanzania. She is also an active proponent of animal welfare and environmental causes.

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Dian Fossey

Primatologist and anthropologist Dian Fossey (January 16, 1932 – c. December 26, 1985) was the world’s preeminent experts on gorillas, having lived in close proximity to them for a period of 18 years. Her work, particularly her book Gorillas in the Mist and the move based upon it, raised public awareness of conservation efforts to protect gorillas. In 1985, she was murdered by poachers.

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Lise Meitner

Lise Meitner (7 November 1878 – 27 October 1968) was a pioneer in the study of radioactivity. With Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman, she was the co-discoverer of nuclear fission, an achievement for which Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

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The Harvard Computers: “Pickering’s Harem”

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Harvard Observatory director Edward Charles Pickering kept in his employ a small army of women who have come to be known as the Harvard Computers. (Keep in mind that, in that era, “computer” was a job title.) Although dismissed derisively as “Pickering’s Harem” by some, these ladies toiled away for little or no wages, pouring over photographic plates and cataloging stars. Along the way, they made major contributions to our body of knowledge about the universe.  A few of these amazing women are highlighted below.

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Annie Jump Cannon

Image source: Wikipedia. Public domain image from 1922 edition of New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper
Annie Jump Cannon (December 11, 1863 – April 13, 1941), despite being deaf due to a case of scarlet fever, was the leader of the Harvard Computers, and devised a system of categorizing stars based upon their spectral properties which is still in use today.
Image source: Wikipedia. Public domain NASA image created by Robert Nemiroff (MTU) & Jerry Bonnell (USRA)
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Henrietta Swan Leavitt

Public domain image from Wikipedia
I’ve written before of Henrietta Swan Leavitt (July 4, 1868 – December 12, 1921), but her mention is worth repeating.  She provided us with a yardstick for measuring the cosmos!

While working as one of Pickering’s unpaid “computers,” Leavitt was tasked with cataloging Cephied variable stars from photographic plates of the Small Magellanic Cloud. As she carried out this duty, she discovered a correlation between the intrinsic brightness of the variables and the period of their variation. Because of this relationship between brightness and the period, Cepheid variable stars could be used as a “standard candle” for determining cosmological distances. This breakthrough allowed Edwin Hubble to subsequently discover not only that “spiral nebula” were galaxies in their own right, external to our own Milky Way, but that they were moving away from us.

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Cecilia Payne

Public domain image from Smithsonian Institution @ Flickr Commons by way of Wikipedia
Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (May 10, 1900 – December 7, 1979) in her PhD dissertation was able to establish a relationship between the spectral characteristics of stars and their temperature.  Furthermore, she was able to determine the basic composition of stars based upon their spectral characteristics.

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About Glen Mark Martin

MCSE-Messaging. Exchange Administrator at the University of Texas at Austin. Unrepentant armchair physicist.
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2 Responses to For Women’s History Month: The Heroines of STEM

  1. T.W.White-Henry Ph.D. says:

    Wonderful post, just & fair…Thank you!
    Long overdue recognition of women’s contribution to knowledge…
    Here’s another link:

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