Shohini Ghose is a quantum physicist and Professor of Physics and Computer Science at Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada. She is Director of the Laurier Centre for Women in Science (WinS) and the NSERC Chair for Women in Science and Engineering. She is the recipient of several awards, including a TED Senior Fellowship and selection to the College of the Royal Society of Canada.
Below, Shohini shares 5 key insights from her new book, Her Space, Her Time: How Trailblazing Women Scientists Decoded the Hidden Universe. Listen to the audio version—read by Shohini herself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. The story of physics and astronomy is incomplete.
There is a much bigger thrilling secret history that most of us were never taught. For example, you have probably heard of Einstein, Newton, and Galileo, but can you name the woman whose work led to the discovery of the Big Bang, the woman who toppled one of the most fundamental laws of physics, the woman who landed a probe on a comet, or the woman who was nominated 48 times for a Nobel prize? Women like Henrietta Leavitt, Wu Chien-Shiung and Lise Meitner among others made spectacular discoveries that transformed physics and astronomy.
In fact, women have contributed to every major discovery ever made in physics and astronomy. How do we measure the distance to stars? Can we photograph subatomic particles? If dark matter is invisible, how do we detect it? How do we know the Big Bang happened? What is the universe made of? All of these questions and many others were answered by women. Their fascinating scientific discoveries and inspirational personal stories hold so many lessons. It’s time to rewrite our history books to tell the full story.
2. The secret history of physics and astronomy is a global story.
Scientists from every continent have made critical discoveries that have transformed our understanding of the universe. In my own student days, my physics textbooks were full of the names of European men—Newton and Schrodinger, and Einstein of course. I never found a woman’s name in there, let alone women from India, where I grew up. I never got to read about Bibha Chowdhuri, a brilliant Bengali woman working in British India, who was involved in the discovery of two fundamental subatomic particles. I also never knew about Elisa Frotta Pessoa who co-founded Brazil’s leading physics institute and made fundamental discoveries in particle physics. I’m so glad I can now share their stories and stories of other women from all around the world.
“Curiosity is a fundamental human trait.”
Of course, if you think about it, it’s not at all surprising that people of all nationalities and backgrounds have explored the mysteries of the universe. Curiosity is a fundamental human trait. What is surprising though, is that much of that global story of discovery has been ignored or deleted. We cannot afford to do that, now more than ever, as we face global challenges in today’s connected world. Global participation in scientific discovery is critical.
3. Women scientists’ influence went far beyond physics and astronomy discoveries.
They were activists, leaders, rulebreakers, and policymakers. Margaret Burbidge for example got the American Astronomical Society to create the committee for the status of women in astronomy. Wu Chien-Shiung became the first woman President of the American Physical Society and was instrumental in the creation of the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy. Turkish physicist Dilhan Eryurt helped transform physics education in Turkey, was involved in building a national telescope there, and in her will, left all her assets for the education of Turkish girls. Women scientists from around the world played a huge role in the movement that led to the ban on nuclear weapons testing. Being a woman in physics and astronomy took skill, courage, and determination, and that’s why they made a lasting impact both on science and society.
4. Let’s fix the system, not the women.
The stories of these women are full of the wonder and the inspiration of scientific discovery, but also full of the challenges and biases they faced as women seen to be encroaching on the domain of men.
For example, Harriet Brooks, the first woman nuclear physicist in Canada and discoverer of the element radon among other achievements, left physics after she got married, like many women of her time and even today. Williamina Fleming, who helped create the Harvard star classification system and cataloged tens of thousands of stars, was never officially given the title of astronomer at Harvard and was paid lower wages than the men she worked with throughout her career. Lise Meitner, Wu Chien Shiung, and Margaret Burbidge all were ignored by the Nobel Prize committee while the men they worked with were rewarded.
“They succeeded against all odds but they shouldn’t have had to face such odds.”
Their stories taken collectively reveal the patterns of persistent barriers for women in science that still exist today. They succeeded against all odds but they shouldn’t have had to face such odds. Yet, instead of addressing these biases and systemic barriers, we still focus on mentoring programs, science camps for girls, work-life balance workshops for women, or professional development programs—all aimed at somehow fixing the women or teaching them to navigate an inequitable system. That’s just bad science. Let’s do better.
5. The past can help us build a better future as we head for the stars.
Humanity’s quest to explore the universe holds lessons for how to avoid past mistakes. For example, all the footprints ever made on the Moon have been made by men. Yet women’s fingerprints are all over that historic achievement. Navajo women working as cheap labor in a factory in Shiprock helped build the computer chips that took humans to the Moon. Cherokee engineer Margaret Ross played a key role in designing the rockets that kickstarted the U.S. space program. Thousands of women contributed to the Apollo Lunar program. But even today, space remains overwhelmingly the domain of powerful white men, seen as a final frontier to be conquered. A gathering of Indigenous scholars discussing space travel once commented that we should “Pity the Indians and buffalo of outer space.” Let us heed the warning.
To listen to the audio version read by author Shohini Ghose, download the Next Big Idea App today: