Out of the Shadows: Contributions of Twentieth-Century Women to Physics
Edited by Nina Byers and Gary Williams
Cambridge University Press, 2006,471 pages, ISBN-13 978-0-521-82197-1
This is an important collection of essays depicting the lives and scientific accomplishments of forty women physicists and astronomers during the 20th century. It provides a comprehensive overview of the role that women have played in physics during the past century while at the same time describing the obstacles that most of them had to overcome solely because of their gender. As might be expected the stories told here cover a diverse range of scientific accomplishments and life histories and as such also provide an interesting overview of twentieth-century history from a scientific and academic perspective.
The essays were commissioned to be about 3000 words long, and all but one follow a set format in which a summary of the most important scientific achievements is presented first along with a description of the nature of the work and its place in the general progression of physics and astronomy. The second part of these essays are biographies which always give curriculum vitae type information and in most cases details of the subjects’ personal lives. Most were written by scientists who are familiar with the impact that these women had on their fields. The list of authors is quite impressive and includes many very well known physicists and astronomers. Since most of the authors are not experienced biographers the writing style varies, partly as a result of strict adherence to the prescribed format which occasionally leads to repetitive content since in many cases critical biographical details are tightly connected to professional achievements.
The strength of this book is, of course, the compelling nature of the stories themselves. We learn about the critical contributions made by these physicists and astronomers, many of whom are unknown to most of us, told by people who are able to fully appreciate what these women achieved. In addition many of the writers know or knew these women personally, in some cases they are their husbands and/or scientific collaborators, and they write with direct knowledge of the difficult conditions in which many of these women worked. For example Maria Goeppert Mayer, who is a Nobel laureate, did not have a regular paid position from the time she completed her doctoral work in 1930 until 1946 when she started working for Argonne National Laboratory. During the war she worked on the Manhattan project as a group leader but did not have a regular paid position. Agnes Pockels made important contributions to the early development of surface science. She performed quantitative measurements of the properties of mono-molecular thick surface films while “working alone in her kitchen with an apparatus fashioned out of household items”.
In more than a few other cases the women written about here were denied faculty or research laboratory positions because they were married and therefore were supposed to stay at home or because of so-called anti-nepotism rules which were selectively enforced against the female member of a married couple both of whom wanted to work at the same institution. In addition, particularly in the first half of the 20th century, many very well qualified women were denied the higher levels of membership of scientific societies or even official faculty or research positions solely because of their gender. In this regard, Vera Rubin in her essay about the distinguished astronomer Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, tells us that Payne-Gaposchkin was never elected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and that it was only in the 1970’s that the first woman scientist gained membership to this organization.
The book starts with a foreward by Freeman Dyson and an introduction by one of the editors of this book, Nina Byers, both of which give the reader a useful starting point and general perspective. The essays are presented in chronological order starting with Hertha Ayrton (1854-1923) who invented or improved upon several different devices. Her work on stabilizing electric arc lights was of particular importance. The book ends with the experimental high energy particle physicist Sau Lan Wu who received her Ph.D. in physics from Harvard in 1970 and is currently the Enrico Fermi Distinguished Professor of Physics at the University of Wisconsion-Madison. In between we learn of the work of the well known astronomers, astrophysicists and physicists Margaret Burbidge, Vera Rubin, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Marie Curie, Lise Meitner, Maria Goeppert Mayer, Chien Shiung Wu, Mildred Dresselhaus, Rosalyn Sussman Yalow and others.
But perhaps of most interest are not their stories but those presented of the many other women who made important contributions to their fields but who still remain largely unknown to us, thus giving the erroneous impression to many students that there were, and still are, only a handful of very productive women physicists and astronomers and therefore physics and astronomy are not appropriate fields of study for most women. Some of these scientists are better known than others such as Emmy Noether and Henrietta Swan Leavitt. Emmy Noether who is perhaps best known as a mathematician, also did important work in theoretical physics. She showed us the connection between symmetries and conservation laws, a result that is given a prominent place in physics textbooks for upper division mechanics but almost always without any indication that this insightful connection was discovered by a woman. In a different area we learn of the experimental work of the astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt who provided Hubble and others with a critical tool to measure distances to other galaxies, work that is only now occasionally mentioned in astronomy textbooks. In addition, what we don’t read about is the fact that this “brilliant scientist”, as she was referred to by Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, had little choice as to what she was allowed to work on and that most of her work was officially attributed to Edward C. Pickering the director of the Harvard College Observatory where she worked.
Many of the others written about here are known only to specialists in their own fields and then sometimes only from their publications where their first names, and therefore their gender identity, are usually only given by an uninformative initial. In fact in her introduction Nina Byers states that when this project started as a web site in 1995 she and her colleague Steve Mosszkowski were surprised at the “more than 200 nominations that came in”. And she goes on to write “most of the women were unknown to us”. Consequently the editors of this book had a difficult job picking which women to include. It should be noted that some of the authors of these essays are themselves outstanding women scientists, many of whom are not included in this book. A more representative list of distinguished female physicists can be found on the web site http://cwp.library.ucla.edu.
This is a unique book that, along with the web site mentioned above, begins to inform us about the important role that women have played in physics and astronomy. It is unfortunately still the case that women are woefully underrepresented in physics and to a lesser extent in astronomy. This is particularly true in the United States where our upper division and graduate physics classes often have only one or two women at best. Although women wishing to pursue careers in physics now face no official barriers their small numbers often presents a daunting barrier of its own. This book should be a source of encouragement to female students interested in physics and astronomy and it should be on a bookshelf in the office of every physics and astronomy professor or teacher or anyone else who is in a position to give career guidance to young students.
Dept of Phys & Astron
California State University, Los Angeles