Maria Goeppert-Mayer (Happy Ada Lovelace Day!)

Today is Ada Lovelace Day – a day dedicated to discussing influential women of science!  I decided to talk about Maria Goeppert-Mayer, one of two women to win the Nobel Prize in physics (the other was Marie Curie).  You can read more about Ada Lovelace in this past blog post.

Maria Goeppert-Mayer

Maria Mayer was born in 1906, in what was then Germany.  In 1910, the family moved to Göttingen, where her father had a job as a Professor of Pediatrics.  Her father was in the 7th generation of university scholars in his family, and so it was expected that Maria would get an education.  Maria went to public and private schools, taking the entrance exam for the University at Göttingen in 1924.  She originally intended to be a math major, but switched to physics after taking a physics seminar with Max Born.  Other students of Born’s included Fermi, Oppenheimer, and Dirac.  Maria got her PhD in physics in 1930.  For her dissertation, she she calculated the “probability that an electron orbiting an atom’s nucleus would emit two photons of light as it jumped to an orbit closer to the nucleus.” (  Her calculation was experimentally confirmed in the 1960s.

She married Joseph Mayer, a physical chemist, in 1930, and moved with him to Baltimore, where he had a position at Johns Hopkins University.  Because of anti-nepotism laws, Maria couldn’t have a paid position at the university and instead became a “volunteer associate”.  Nevertheless, until the Mayers left Johns Hopkins in 1938, Maria produced 10 papers, a textbook, and had her daughter.

After her husband lost his job at Johns Hopkins, the Mayers went to Columbia University.  She still could not hold a paid position at Columbia, but she still worked in physics, becoming a member of Enrico Fermi’s lab.  When WWII started, she received a part time, paid teaching position at Sarah Lawrence College.  She also started working on a secret project regarding fuel for nuclear fission weapons at Columbia.  She visited the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico several times.

When the war ended, Maria went with her husband to the University of Chicago, where she was a professor (although the work was voluntary, and she was not paid).  Several months later, she got a paid position as a senior research associate at Argonne National Laboratory.  There, she developed the theory that won her the Nobel Prize – that if electrons orbited the nucleus in shells, the number of electrons in the stable atoms represented “full” electron shells.  These full shells were more stable than non-filled shells.

In 1956, she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.  In 1959, UC San Diego offered paid positions to both Maria and her husband. They accepted the positions and moved to California.  In 1963, she won the Nobel Prize for her shell model of the nucleus.  She shared the prize with another scientist who developed the shell model around the same time as she did.  She became the second woman to win the Nobel Prize in physics, and the first to do so for theoretical work.  No Physics Nobel Prizes have been awarded to women since Maria Goeppert-Mayer.  Maria Goeppert-Mayer died in 1972.

Source: 1, 2

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

Cecilia Payne was born in England in 1900.  While attending Newham College at Cambridge University, Cecilia became interested in astronomy.  She studied physics at Cambridge, but was not awarded a degree, because Cambridge did not offer degrees to women at the time.  She received a fellowship to do research at the Harvard Observatory under the direction of Harlow Shapley, the director of the Harvard Observatory.  She started there in 1923.

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

She received her PhD in astronomy from Radcliffe College, and became the first person (male or female) to receive a PhD in astronomy from Radcliffe.  Her dissertation is extremely highly regarded, and thought by some to be the most brilliant astronomy PhD thesis ever written.  Her dissertation was entitled “Stellar Atmospheres, A Contribution to the Observational Study of High Temperature in the Reversing Layers of Stars”, and it argued that the variations observed in the spectral absorption lines of stars are due to temperature, not due to different stellar compositions.  She also (correctly) suggested that stars were composed mainly of hydrogen.  The fact that we can determine the temperature of a star based on it’s spectrum is absolutely integral to astronomy.  However, many doubted Cecilia’s results because they thought that all astronomical bodies had the same relative amounts of elements.  In her thesis, deferring to those more highly regarded, she wrote that her results were almost certainly incorrect.  But within a few years, most astronomers accepted that hydrogen was more abundant in the sun than on earth.

After completing her thesis work, she was hired by Harvard to continue work in the Harvard Observatory.  In 1926, at age 26, she became the youngest person to ever be featured in American Men of Science.  She married Russian astronomer Sergei Gaposchkin in 1934.  Cecilia collaborated with Sergei in studying all variable stars brighter than 10th magnitude.  These results were published in 1938 in Variable Stars, which became a standard reference in the field.  However, Cecilia’s work was unrecognized and unappreciated at Harvard.  She taught courses, but until 1945, none of them were listed in the Harvard course catalog.  When Harlow Shapley was replaced by Donald Menzel as the director of the Harvard Observatory, Cecilia was given a raise, promoted to professor, and named the chair of the astronomy department.  She was the first woman at Harvard to hold a position that was not specifically for a woman.

Until her death in 1979, Cecilia wrote over 150 papers and published four books on stars and stellar evolution.  In 1934, she received the Annie Jump Cannon prize from the American Astronomical Society.  She received honorary doctorates from many colleges, and, in 1976, became the first woman to be granted the American Astronomical Society’s Henry Norris Russell Prize.

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin helped pave the way for women who came after her.  Women were rarely involved in the sciences in her time, and especially not women with children.  But Cecilia had three children and continued to do her research.  She once shocked superiors by giving a lecture while she was five months pregnant.  Her legacy lives on through her magnificent contributions to astronomy.

Sources: 1/2/3/4

Betty Jean Jennings, one of the first women in IT industry, passes away

I recently wrote about Betty Jean Jennings in my blog post on the documentary “Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of WWII”.  She was featured prominently in “Top Secret Rosies” for her work computing ballistics trajectories for the army during World War II.  Today I learned that Betty Jean Jennings passed away on March 23, 2011, at the age of 86.

Betty Jean Jennings was born on December 27, 1924 in Missouri.  She attended the Northwest Missouri State Teachers College in the 1940s, and majored in mathematics.  After graduating, she went to work for the U.S. Army, computing ballistics trajectories.   This work eventually led to her being selected as one of six women chosen to program ENIAC, the first electronic computer.  At age 20, she was the youngest woman chosen to participate.  She was one of two women who created the trajectory program for the public demonstration of ENIAC.  After the war was over, she worked on BINAC, another early electronic computer, and UNIVAC, the first commercial computer.  She was inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame in 1997.

Betty Jean Jennings made extremely valuable contributions to the development of computers and computer programming and her legacy will live on through her pioneering work.  If you’re interested in learning more about her, I strongly suggest you watch “Top Secret Rosies”, which is instant watch on Netflix!

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace is hailed as the world’s first computer programmer.  She was born in 1815, the daughter of the poet Lord Byron.  Shortly after Ada’s birth, Lord and Lady Byron separated, leaving Lady Byron to raise Ada on her own.  Not wanting Ada to become a poet like her father, Lady Byron made sure Ada was taught mathematics and science.  When she was 17, Ada was introduced to Mary Somerville, who translated Laplace’s works into English.  At one of Mrs. Somerville’s dinner parties, Ada heard about Charles Babbage‘s idea for the analytical engine, a mechanical computer that would be the successor to the difference engine, which was a design for a mechanical calculator.

In 1842, mathematician Louis Menebrea wrote a summary of the analytical engine in an article in French.  Babbage enlisted Ada to translate it into English.  Ada translated it and added a set of notes, which ended up being three times as long as the original article.  Ada Lovelace and Babbage exchanged correspondence about the engine, and Ada predicted it could have many practical and scientific uses, such as composing complex music and creating graphics.  Ada’s notes also included a method of calculating the Bernoulli numbers.  This is considered the first computer program.

Unfortunately, the analytical engine was never built, partially due to a lack of funding.  Ada died in 1852, at the young age of 36, from uterine cancer.

Sources: 1, 2

Mae Jemison

Mae Jemison is an incredible woman and scientist, and is the first African American woman to travel in space.

Mae Jemison was born in 1956 and moved to Chicago early in her childhood.  As a child, she would spend many hours in the library reading about science.  When she was in high school, she decided to pursue a career in biomedical engineering.  After graduating from high school, she attended Stanford University on a National Achievement Scholarship.  Mae graduated from Stanford in 1977 with 2 bachelors degrees – one in chemical engineering and one in African and African-American Studies.  She then went to the Cornell University Medical College, receiving her doctor of medicine degree in 1981.  While she was at Cornell, she traveled to Cuba, Kenya, and to a refugee camp in Thailand to provide people with medical care.  Dr. Jemison became a Peace Corps Medical Officer for Sierra Leone and Liberia, where she also did medical research and taught.  After returning to the U.S., she took a job as a general practitioner.  She also enrolled in graduate courses in engineering and applied to NASA’s astronaut program.  Her first application was turned down, but she did not give up and was one of 15 people accepted from an applicant pool of over 2,000.

After completing astronaut training, Jemison became a science mission specialist.  In 1992, on the 8-day mission STS-47 Spacelab-J, Jemison conducted experiments on motion sickness and weightlessness, as well as an experiment to see how tadpoles would develop in space (they developed fine!).

After leaving NASA, Jemison accepted a teaching fellowship at Dartmouth College and founded The Jemison Group, which is a company that designs and consults on technology.  At Dartmouth, she started the Jemison Institute for Advancing Technology in Developing Countries.  She also started “The Earth We Share” which is an international science camp where students do experiments and learn critical thinking.

In an interview, when asked what tips she could give to young girls about achieving their dreams, Jemison answered:

“First of all, understand that sometimes other people won’t have the same vision of you that you have of yourself. Don’t accept other people’s limitations as being reality. Also, understand that you have as much right as anyone else to be in this world, and to be in any profession you want. That’s the most important thing — you don’t have to wait for permission.”

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4

Sofia Kovalevskaya

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Sofia Kovalevskaya

Sofia Kovalevskaya was a Russian mathematician, born in 1850.  Her interest in mathematics began as a young girl, when she was encouraged by her uncle, Pyotr Krokovsky.  She said she had studied her father’s old calculus notes that had lined the walls of her nursery in lieu of wallpaper, which was in short supply.   Her first proper study of mathematics took place with her family’s tutor.  However, her father decided to put a stop to her studies in math.  When she was 14, she taught herself trigonometry in order to understand a physics textbook that had been written and given to her by her neighbor.  Her neighbor, Professor Tyrtov, was impressed with her talent, and convinced her father to allow her to go to school in St. Petersburg.

After graduating from secondary school, Sofia very  much wanted to continue at the university level.  But as a young, unmarried woman, she was not allowed to travel by herself, and no nearby universities were open to women.  In order to be able to travel, she married Vladimir Kovalevsky in 1868.  After a few months, they moved to Heidelberg, Germany, where Sofia had to convince the school to let her take lessons without being an official student, since women could not matriculate.  In 1870, she decided to move to Berlin to study with renowned mathematician Karl Weierstrass.  After she completed a problem set for him, he immediately started privately tutoring her, because the University of Berlin would not allow women in attendance.  She studied with him for four years, and wrote three papers: one on partial differential equations, one on Abelian integrals and one on Saturn’s rings.  One of these papers, “On the Theory of Partial Differential Equations”, was published in Crelle’s Journal, a leading mathematical journal.  In 1874, she received a PhD from the University of Göttingen, but was unable to find work and returned home to Russia.

For the next six years, she was a writer for a St. Petersburg newspaper, reporting on science and technology and doing theater reviews.  During this time, her and Vladimir even attempted to fundraise to start a women’s university.  She gave birth to a daughter in 1878. Vladimir and Sofia eventually separated, and he committed suicide in 1883.

In 1880, Sofia returned to mathematics, presenting a paper at the Congress of Natural Scientists in St. Petersburg.  A former student of Karl Weierstrass, Gosta Mitag-Leffler, was very impressed with her work and tried to find her a professorship.  Sofia moved to France, and in 1883, was offered a professorship at the University of Stockholm.  In June of 1884, she was appointed to a five year professorship.  She was the first woman to hold a full professorship in Northern Europe.  During her time at the University of Stockholm, she completed important research and became the editor for the journal Acta Mathematica.

In 1888, she was awarded with the Prix Bordin of the French Academy of Sciences for her work on solving the problem of a solid body rotating around a fixed point.  All entries were submitted anonymously, and her entry was deemed so important that the prize was increased by 2000 francs.  This prize gave way to the appointment of a lifetime chair of mathematics at the University of Stockholm.  She also gained membership to the Russian Academy of Sciences.

In 1891, Sofia died of influenza, at the height of her career.  Sofia was an extraordinary mathematician who helped pave the way for women who came after her, by proving that women deserved to be taken seriously in mathematics.  She was a women’s rights advocate who struggled to obtain her own education, but did what she needed to in order to study.

Sources: Prominent Russians: Sofia Kovalevskaya, Sofia Kovalevskaya, Sofia Vasilyevna Kovalevskaya

Gertrude B. Elion: Nobel Laureate, Chemist, Hunter College graduate

Today marks the birthday of Gertrude B. Elion, winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize in medicine.  Elion died in 1999, but her legacy is lasting.

Gertrude B. Elion

Elion was born in 1918, and attended public high schools.  After graduating she attended Hunter College.  In her autobiography, she writes, “Had it not been that Hunter College was a free college, and that my grades were good enough for me to enter it, I suspect I might never have received a higher education.”  She majored in chemistry at Hunter, wanting to become involved in cancer research after seeing her grandfather die of it.   She went on to receive a masters degree from NYU.

She eventually started working with George Hitchings.  With him, she expanded her horizons and studied biochemistry, pharmacology, immunology, and virology.  She tried to pursue her doctorate by going to school at night, but was eventually informed that in order to get her PhD, she would need to go to school full time.  She made the decision to continue working with Hitchings.  She went on to receive honorary doctorates from George Washington University, Brown University and the University of Michigan.

Gertrude Elion contributed significantly to the development of many drugs.  These include the first treatment for leukemia, a drug for suppressing immune responses in organ transplant cases, a drug for treating malaria, and a drug for treating viral herpes.

Elion recieved the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1988, along with George Hitchings and Sir James Black “for their discoveries of important principles for drug treatment”.  In 1991, she became the first woman to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.