Saturday, September 29, 2012

Weekend Post - Women in science (not in Iran)

I saw a news item on the BBC web site last week that was depressing. I should have known better, the world is over-supplied with depression these days, what with religious extremists taking offense at the slightest of things and thinking that gives them the right to riot, burn down buildings and kill ambassadors. I don’t understand it, I spend most of my life offended by one form of stupidity or another, but I’ve never been tempted to create mayhem, commit arson or murder as a result.

The news item came from Iran, where it has recently been decided that young women may no longer study certain subjects at university. Included in these presumably dangerous subjects are English literature, archaeology and nuclear physics. I'm tempted to launch into a major rant about the idiocy of theocracies doing these things, how when medieval superstitions influence public policy then savagery returns but this is meant to be about science, not fundamentalist-bashing.

The very first thing I thought of when reading the story from Iran, after I overcame the temptation to swear, was to think that it's a good job Marie Curie and Lise Meitner weren't born in Iran today. If they had been, the world would have been a much poorer place.

I don't have any daughters, just sons, but I feel strongly that every girl should learn about Curie and Meitner, perhaps the greatest female physicists in history.

Marie Curie c/o Wikipedia
Marie Curie's achievements are legendary.

She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in science. The only woman to ever win two Nobel Prizes in science. The only person, male or female, to have won two Nobel Prizes in different sciences, Chemistry and Physics.

She discovered two new chemical elements, invented the term "radioactivity", she was the first woman to become a professor at the Sorbonne, France's most prestigious university. She has a chemical element named after her along with many institutions and museums, even a unit of radioactivity is named after her.

She is surely a fitting hero for any girl wondering where life will take her.

It's Lise Meitner's bad luck to be in Curie's shadow. She was another nuclear physicist, the co-discoverer of nuclear fission.

Lise Meitner c/o Wikipedia
Shamefully she was discriminated against because of her gender and also because being Jewish in Germany in the 1930s was perilous. Luckily she was able to escape to Sweden and she avoided the fate of many other Jewish scientists. She was also overlooked when her research partner Otto Hahn was awarded the Nobel prize for the work she had done alongside him. Her treatment was an embarrassment to the scientific community.

I think the examples of Curie and Meitner show that excluding women from science is as illogical as excluding men from the kitchen. Curie and Meitner are perfect illustrations that women are just as capable as men to achieve in science.

The prejudice against women in science is sometimes explained, by those with the prejudice, by the fact that women are somehow genetically different to men, not possessing the qualities that men have that allow them to understand science. Women, they say, are different. However, the voice of reason says, “So what?”

Let's imagine for a moment that perhaps men ARE, on average, naturally better than women at science, just as men are, on average, taller than women. But are ALL men taller than ALL women? Of course not, it's just an average difference. I'm fairly tall but I've met women taller than me. I've always been pretty good at science but some of my science professors were women, clearly more qualified than I was. Just because there’s a difference in averages, that doesn’t mean there’s a difference in individuals. It’s as logical to deny women the right to study physics, as it is to say that women can’t vote, drive or run for political office. OK, forgive me, there ARE countries that still do that, stuck as they are in the Dark Ages.

The science of gender difference is fascinating. There is some evidence that there are minor differences between men and women, apart from the obvious (and entertaining) physical ones but it’s unclear whether these are due to genetic differences or just the way people are raised. There really is no conclusive evidence that there are fundamental psychological differences between men and women and the way they think. However the critical point is that even if some evidence was found it would only be between the average scores of men and women. It would not be able to predict how an individual boy or girl would develop, what skills they would possess or how they would behave.

Like so many other areas of life, it’s surely time to put medieval superstitions about the nature of men and women behind us and embrace science, knowledge and those often challenging things, facts.

And if you have daughters, please tell them about Marie Curie and Lise Meitner. They’ll thank you for it.

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