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July 16, 2018 | by  | in Super Science Trends | [ssba]

Super Science Trends

From Her Heart and From Her Hands
For this issue, I’m addressing the most unfortunate science trend of them all: the erasure of women’s contributions. So to help rectify this, here are a few of my favourite lesser known ladies of science.

Maria Sybilla Merian (1647-1717)
Considered by David Attenborough to be one of the leading contributors to entomology (the study of insects), Maria Sybilla Merian was a German-born painter and naturalist who, in 1699, became the first person to self-fund their own scientific expedition. Travelling to Suriname in South America, Merian observed and painted the native insects and plants, making a point to learn their names in the indigenous languages. She published her detailed observations and gorgeous colour paintings in a two-volume book, Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, which was heavily referenced by the father of taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus.

Wang Zhenyi (1768-1797)
Growing up in the twilight of the Qing Dynasty of feudal China, Zhenyi educated herself by poring through her grandfather’s entire library before studying mathematics under her father. Her most famous contributions were to astronomy, where she used her mathematical knowledge to write papers explaining the equinoxes, the planet’s rotations, and the lunar eclipse, the latter of which was thought to be a supernatural occurrence. She also authored math textbooks, practiced martial arts and archery, and wrote politically-charged poetry criticising the upper classes for ignoring the plight of impoverished rural farmers. She died at age 29, leaving us to wonder what we’re doing with our lives.

Mileva Marić (1875-1948)
E might equal mc2, but in the interest of real equality we should acknowledge Albert Einstein’s first wife Mileva Marić, who shared classes with him at the Polytechnic Institute of Zurich. She was the second woman ever to complete a physics degree there, scoring a grade point average near equal to Einstein (4.7 to his 4.6). Marić and Einstein married in 1903 and worked on applied and theoretical physics together, leaving historians to debate how much she contributed to Einstein’s work. Einstein would write that he loved working with Marić, who would keep him focused and prevent him “meandering”. After their divorce in 1919, he made a point to give her a portion of his Nobel Prize money. Regardless of where the exact credit lies, I highlight Marić and Einstein’s relationship because it shows that science is a labour of collaboration, not always the work of a single great man, working alone and waiting for inspiration.
Lynn Conway (b. 1938)
Conway’s contributions to the development of microchip technology and increasing miniaturization of transistors have only having recently been acknowledged, due to having undergone a gender transition halfway through her career. Recruited by IBM in 1964, Conway helped to develop their supercomputers but was fired when IBM bosses wouldn’t employ her while transitioning. After her transition, she re-entered the workforce in “stealth mode”, using her IBM experience to become a computer architect for Memorex in 1973, then went on to coauthor a definitive textbook on very-large-scale integration (VSLI) systems in 1979, which helped burgeoning electrical engineers make huge leaps in transistor miniaturization, enabling greater computer processing power from smaller microchips. Today, Conway (80) is happily married, and working to encourage queer youth to pursue careers in STEM.


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