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Women or just good scientists?

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Out of the Shadows: Contributions of Twentieth-Century Women to Physics

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Cambridge University Press: 2006. 498 pp. £30 $35 0521821975 | ISBN: 0-521-82197-5
Chien-Shiung Wu was the first woman to receive an honorary doctorate from Princeton University.

“I do not agree with sex being brought into science at all. The idea of 'woman and science' is completely irrelevant. Either a woman is a good scientist, or she is not.” Not the provocative statement of a modern feminist, but a plea for equality voiced a century ago by Hertha Ayrton, the electrical experimenter who, in 1904, became the first woman allowed to present her own paper at the Royal Society in London. Ayrton would presumably be furious to find herself the opening entry in Out of the Shadows, a chronologically arranged set of essays on female physicists.

Like Ayrton, most eminent women prefer to be remembered for their achievements, rather than their X chromosomes, but US physicists Nina Byers and Gary Williams have made womanhood an essential criterion for inclusion in this edited collection. Perhaps to fend off accusations of transgressing political correctness, they whittled down their long list of potential entries by choosing the 40 candidates who had made the most notable contributions to scientific progress. As a result, several over-familiar icons, such as Marie Curie, Emmy Noether and Dorothy Hodgkin (hardly a physicist), make yet another appearance, even though the sole factor that unites them — the gender that made it so hard for them to succeed — is deliberately scarcely mentioned.

The contributors were asked to submit short accounts divided into two sections: 'important contributions' and 'biography'. Many of the brisk summaries of scientific discoveries seem oddly redundant — anyone who can follow the boxed discussions of Ricci tensors, 4S or string theory does not need to read them. The editors' prescriptive format has resulted in a book packed with facts, occasionally relieved by a brief anecdote — ideal for diligent students preparing accurate but unreflective assignments.

Nevertheless, the index provides clues to more interesting stories about this book's subjects. The long list of 'firsts' reveals that it was not until 1962 that the French Academy of Science admitted a woman, Marguerite Perey, and that the first woman to receive an honorary doctorate from Princeton University was the physicist Chien-Shiung Wu in 1958. The entries under 'Nobel prize' are dominated by women said to have been unjustly passed over, including astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell, nuclear physicist Lise Meitner and chemist Agnes Pockels (strangely, Rosalind Franklin is absent, despite the presence of another X-ray crystallographer, Kathleen Lonsdale, one of the first two women elected to the Royal Society in 1945). The heading 'Nazis' — referring to the plight of Myriam Sarachik, Marietta Blau, Hertha Sponer and others — demonstrates that, contradicting the editors' desires, biographical accounts often demand discussions of discrimination.

As Byers' introduction points out, most of the contributors are practising scientists who are unused to writing history. Although they each provide a short bibliography, they have mostly omitted the many excellent books and articles written by professional historians of science. This collection would have been of more value for aspiring young women if it had provided a more nuanced appreciation of how individual scientists have been converted into exaggerated stereotypes. Curie, for instance, is often depicted as the laboratory equivalent of a domestic drudge, a selfless heroine who neglected her health and her appearance while she systematically processed tonnes of dirty pitchblende to isolate radium. Such presentations reinforce the view that female scientists are a substandard breed, neither normal women nor stellar intellects. In his foreword, Freeman Dyson perceptively criticizes the editors for not including younger physicists, who would have provided more relevant role models. He also pinpoints what remains, unfortunately, excellent advice for any ambitious woman: marry the right man.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/444548a

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