The Invisible Women of Science and Technology
Oct 13, 2008 Other 2484 Views
In 2005 a great uproar among men and women in academia ensued after the Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers suggested that "intrinsic aptitude" could explain why fewer women have excelled in science and math. This article would refute that assertion.
Historical knowledge as we have been taught in schools is often a lopsided account of "His Story", the story shaped by the few men in power at the time. Women representing half of humanity did not share equality with men within the same social class and culture, except during pre-recorded and unwritten oral cultural days of ancient civilization in Egypt and perhaps during Pre-Vedic and early Vedic times in India (before 2500 to 3000 BC approx.). Women's access to basic education, let alone higher learning was severely restricted and discouraged throughout most of the recorded history and even to this day in many developing countries.
In ancient Egypt women used to manage, own, sell private property, bring lawsuits and carry financial transaction without any male help. Marriage required no religious or legal ceremony.
Women like men could divorce for any reason privately without any legal action and were free to marry again at any age. Men worked alongside women in doing housework, rearing children, attending livestock or ploughing fields. Women kept the property rights of any dowry. Husband's deeded property to wives (even if divorced), because children inherited property through mother after divorce or father's death. Egyptian society was matrilineal and there were well over four dozens of references of women pharaohs who ruled Egypt from the very first to twenty second dynasty. Only a few like Queen Hatshepsut, Nefertiti and Cleopatra are commonly known.
Early Vedic literature mentions great women scholars and philosophers (known as Brahmavadinis), such as, Vac, Ambhrni, Romasa, Gargi, Khona, Maitrayee, and Lopamudra. Women, who so desired could undergo the sacred thread ceremony or "Upanayana" - a sacrament to pursue universal knowledge.
Marriage was considered a joint partnership and the marriage vow was described in Rig Veda (Taittiriya Ekagnikanda I iii, 14) as:
"Having paced the seven steps, we have become friends. May I retain thy friendship, and never part from it (Sastri 1918)."
From Paleolithic times to beginings of ancient civilization, diverse images of the Goddess abound everywhere from India to Western Europe, without any male cult figure. It is a historical and anthropological mystery how the face of God and the entire human civilization changed from the feminine to masculine.
Women seemed to enjoy near equality with men in early Greek Civilization. Many women played a central role in the development of early Pythagorean philosophy. Records exist about Pythagoras deriving the greater part of his ethical doctrines from Themistoclea, the priestess of Delphi. Pythagoras'
wife Theano of Crotona wrote treatises on mathematics, physics, medicine, and child psychology and wrote commentaries on marriage, sex, women and ethics. Mclemore writes that Theano's most important work was the principle of the "Golden Mean." Many women who joined as teachers and scholars in the mystery school of Pythagoras lived and worked in a communal manner and published all their writings under Pythagoras. Plato named Diotima of Mantinea as Socrates' mentor, but because of a 15th century false reference, Diotima was considered, until recently, as a fictional character! Aspasia of Miletus was a very renowned scholar at the time of Plato and taught Pericles rhetoric and matters of State. Socrates and others visited her often. Aesara of Lucania applied the normative principle of Harmonia in geometry, arithmetic, music and cosmos. Based on intuitive Natural Law Theory and pragmatic ethics she wrote "The Book on Human Nature."
Hypatia (370? -415) of Alexandria was the most eminent neo-platonic philosopher and mathematician. Her fame as a teacher traveled as far as Libya and Turkey. She was renowned before the age of thirty and taught geometry, mathematics, the works of Plato-Aristotle, neo-Platonism, astronomy and mechanics for 15 years. She is known for expanding and editing the mathematical work on conic sections (introduced by Appolonius).
This concept developed the ideas of hyperbolas, parabolas and ellipses. Unfortunately Hyapatia's work was virtually ignored by Historians for 1500 years! She was a liberal Pagan while politically Christianism was getting strong in Alexandria. A Christian leader spread virulent rumors against Hypatia. In 415 AD, while returning home, a mob attacked and stripped her, dragged her through streets and killed her with pieces of broken pottery! This incident probably sent a foreboding message to society and women in particular about the deadly consequences of pursuit of learning!
Women's position started to take a steep plunge in the Middle Ages. The Holy Office of the Inquisition proudly declared in
1554 that to date they had burned thirty thousand women alive.
Some estimates puts the total number of women killed for "witchcraft" between 14th and 17th centuries as high as 3 to 9 million, a virtual holocaust. Women who were persecuted in middle ages, were mostly healers, midwives, herbalists and naturopaths.
The earliest hand copied medical textbooks Practia Brevia and De compositione Medicamentorum that passed between doctors, generation after generation were written by Trotulla, a famous female physician at the Salerno school of Medicine in Italy. She taught her male colleagues about female physiology, wrote a book on Diseases of Women and advocated pediatrics as a special branch of medicine. She promoted cleanliness, exercise, balanced diet and stress avoidance for maintaining health. The surgical techniques and diagnostic methods she taught were used for centuries. Hostility towards women led to denial of her very existence and her name was misquoted as male Trottus by some Historians. Salerno was sacked by Henry VI in 1094 and Trotulla died in 1097. Trotulla's own books were scattered and lost. With the advent of modern medicine and hospitals (an invention of Florence Nightingale), women were marginalized and pushed out of mainstream medicine totally as herbalists, healers and midwives.
Maria Gaetana Agnesi was by far the most extraordinary mathematician of the 18th century. By the age of twenty she started writing Analytical Institutions as a mathematics textbook for her brothers. When her work was published in 1748, it caused a sensation in the academic world for being a model of clarity and systematic interpretation of the work of various mathematicians. Maria Agnesi is best known for the curve, ironically called the Witch of Agnesi.
Sophie Germain, a French revolutionary decided to study mathematics at the age of 13, after reading the legend of Archimedes' death. Sophie's family, although wealthy tried to dissuade her from the study of math but gave up seeing Sophie's passion for math. Germain is best known for her work on Game theory and the modern theory of elasticity, without which construction of high rise Skyscraper would have been inconceivable. Using her theory Eiffel Tower was erected, but she did not make it to the acknowledgement list of 72 people inscribed on this wonder.
Emy Amalie Noether (1882-1935) of Germany developed the basis of group theory, which is the mathematics behind representation of all modern physics. She was not permitted to hold a paid position, so she researched and taught without pay in German universities. It was her work in the theory of invariants, which led to formulations for several concepts of Einstein's general theory of relativity. Later she worked on ideal theory in abstract algebra, with special attention to rings, groups, and fields. Modern algebra owes much to her work.
There is a good deal of circumstantial evidence that Einstein's received assistance from his own first wife Mileva Maric , who was a brilliant mathematician and a physicist.
Florence Sabin (1871-1953) made the spectacular breakthrough in making invisible lymphatic system visible by staining lymphatic fluid with ink. Lilian Morgan
(1870-1952) invented the first polio vaccine for primates.
Without her work Jonas Salk would not have become a household name. American biologist and early geneticist Nettie Maria Stevens (1861-1912) proved in 1905 that chromosomes determine the sex of organisms. Her work outlined the future of modern genetics research. But the credit for the discovery went to her colleague Edmund B. Wilson. Rosalind Franklin was the unsung hero behind the discovery of double helix of DNA.
Franklin used the x-ray diffraction technique to first capture the image of DNA molecule (famous photo 51), too tiny for regular photography. Without Rosalind's knowledge, her boss showed the picture to James Watson. With that image, James Watson and Francis Crick (winners of Nobel Prize for discovery of DNA structure) could solve the mystery of the DNA structure.
Barbara McClintock won the 1983 Nobel Prize in Medicine for her discovery of genetic transposition, or the ability of genes to change position on the chromosome.
Maria Goeppart Mayer was one of at least two dozen other women scientists who worked in the secret Manhattan project
(1942-44) for making an atomic bomb. She received joint Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963 for her theoretical analysis of atomic structure. Among them were Leona Marshall Libby and Dr Chien Shiung Wu - the renowned Columbia physicist of Chinese descent. Libby directed the construction of the first thermal column and Wu developed the process of separating Uranium-235 from Uranium-238 by gaseous diffusion. Her work also led to the development of more sensitive Geiger counters. Wu turned the discipline of Atomic Physics on its head by disproving the law of conservation of parity, showing that the laws of nature are not always symmetrical with respect to right and left. Despite their initial doubt, Wu's elegant experiment on beta decay proved Lee and Yang's theory, for which they received the Nobel Prize in 1957, but Wu was not recognised!
Ada Byron (Lady Lovelace), daughter of the famous poet Lord Byron was brought up by her mother to be a scientist and mathematician. Ada collaborated with Charles Babbage and wrote the worlds first computer program in 1843. Babbage devised the plan for Analytical Engine in 1841, a forerunner of modern day computer. Ada's scientific paper anticipated the development and creative use of software (including the very term software) and the analytical machine to compose music, produce graphics, carry out personal and scientific tasks including artificial intelligence. British Government's rejection of Analytical Engine, many believe, set the computer technology by 100 years.
One has to wonder what if a Lord, instead of a Lady wrote the paper!
The first electronic all purpose computer called ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer), also called the Beast, was a thirty-ton box that contained 17,000 vacuum tubes, 70,000 resistors and 6000 switches. Six women mathematicians were carefully selected to run ENIAC out of an initial group of 80 women (18-70 years old) who were hired by the army as "trajectory analysts". This involved enormous amount of tedious calculations. No operating systems, manuals or computer languages existed. In February 1946 ENIAC calculated the trajectory of a 155 mm shell in less time than it had taken for the shell to land! Neither the creators of this machine, nor the US Army mentioned to Reporters the crucial role of these six women in the breakthrough; none were invited in the dinner celebration. Four of the six programmers quit the project, but two - Jean Jennings and Betty Snyder stayed and were later involved in the creation of the UNIVAC (Universal Automatic
Computer) - first commercial computer in 1948. Snyder created the C-10 code that allowed simple typewritten commands for programming the device than use of dials and switches. Snyder was also involved in the team that developed COBOL and FORTRAN.
To this day no computer history books mention the names of Jean Jennings, Betty Snyder, Kathleen McNulty, Marlyn Wescoff, Frances Bilas and Ruth Lichterman. It wasn't until Kathryn Kleiman made a film recently about these pioneers that the army changed its mind.
Grace Murray Hooper who revolutionized computer software with her invention of first computer compiler COBOL (1952), also coined the term "computer bug". In 1979 Roberta Williams created first Graphics based computer Game called Mystery House.
Heidy Lamarr invented a highly innovative anti-jamming communication device for use against Nazi Radar. While the US War department rejected her design, years after her patent has expired, Sylvania redeveloped the system using state-of-art electronics. Her concept of frequency hopping is the basis today's wireless technology, including cellular phones. Women were pioneers in inventing the drug or tools needed for Open Heart Surgery, bone marrow transplant; Kidney transplant, first drugs to treat cancer and AIDS. Rosalyn Yalow developed radioimmunoassay - the basis of nuclear medicine by using radioactive isotopes to diagnose everything from cancer to diabetes. Stephanie Kwolek's discovery of a polymade solvent in 1966 led to the production of fireproof and bulletproof Kevlar. Donna Shirley and her engineering team at NASA captured the imagination of the world when their microwave size invention the Sojourner Truth, rolled across the Martian terrain (July 1997). Her male colleagues were ready to scrap the whole project because the cost of the original pick-up size prototype was prohibitive.
It seems women did the basic groundwork, even pioneered many fields of knowledge that opened the path for many later on, but rarely received the recognition they so rightfully deserved. The fall of women in society also signifies the fall of men and the human society as a whole. Society loses immensely when any individual - man or woman is not allowed the creative freedom to wholly express his/her true calling and unique voice. It is time that we teach our sons and daughters about the invisible contribution of minorities and women toward all human knowledge and discoveries.
Reference: 1) Search Amazon and Google with Keywords 2) http://www.womenintheancientworld.com/index.htm