Project Brief: Women in Science


Chien-Shiung Wu

There’s a lot of biographical information about Wu here:

Wu was a Chinese-American atomic physicist. She proved that parity conservation, a law that stated physics would behave the same way on a mirror image world as it would in our everyday world, was not a fundamental law of nature. Wu was an expert in beta decay, a process where electrons are emitted from radioactive nuclei as they decay. Theorists had hypothesised that parity conservation could fail in this environment, and Wu devised the first experiment that could test this. Parity conservation implied that there would be no preferred direction for electrons to be emitted in the decay. The experiment was incredibly difficult but Wu was talented and determined. She showed that electrons flew off preferentially in one direction, meaning that the law of parity conservation failed. Her discovery earned the theorists a Nobel prize in 1957, but there was nothing for Wu. She’s noteworthy not just for her determination and commitment to physics, in an environment that did its best to hinder her (as an Asian woman, she faced barriers to attending school, to finding jobs), but for what she found out. Nowadays we know that parity non-conservation is a feature of one of the four fundamental forces in nature; that there is a deeper charge-parity non-conservation law that could explain why we live in a matter dominated universe (it’s a feature that is at the forefront of particle physics research today). Wu’s discovery helped reveal part of the strange, fundamental structure of our universe.

Nominated by: Prof. Tara Shears


Emmy Noether

For more information see:

Noether was a German mathematician who revolutionised the way theoretical physics understands the universe’s structure. Her contribution was to devise a theorem that showed that there was a deep connection between symmetries in behaviour (i.e. if a system behaves in the same way when something changes), and conservation laws in physics (i.e. that a physical quantity associated with the system does not change). For example, if a physical system behaves in the same way, regardless of the time you study it at, Noether’s theorem says that system’s energy is conserved. If a physical system behaved in the same way regardless of where you study in space, Noether’s theorem says that system’s momentum is conserved. It’s noteworthy because until that time, features like energy conservation were just assumed. Noether gave physics that deeper understanding. Her theorem shapes the equations that describe the subatomic universe of particle physics, and shows how important notions of symmetry are to the fundamental universe.

Nominated by: Prof. Tara Shears

Kathleen Lonsdale

British crystallographer who proved, in 1929, that the benzene ring is flat by using X-ray diffraction methods to elucidate the structure of hexamethylbenzene. She was the first to use Fourier spectral methods while solving the structure of hexachlorobenzene in 1931. During her career she attained several firsts for female scientists, including being one of the first two women elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1945 (along with Marjory Stephenson), first woman tenured professor at University College London, first woman president of the International Union of Crystallography, and first woman president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.
Nominated by: Jessica Wade

Hertha Ayrton
British engineer, mathematician, physicist and inventor, best known for her work on electric arcs and ripples in sand and water. In 1899, she was the first woman ever to read her own paper ("The Hissing of the Electric Arc") before the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE), and was later elected a member. She was also the first woman to win a prize from the Royal Society, the Hughes Medal, awarded to her in 1906 in honour of her research on the motion of ripples in sand and water and her work on the electric arc.
She was an active member of the Woman's Social and Political Union and participated in many suffrage rallies between 1906 and 1913. She was a founding member of the International Federation of University Women and the National Union of Scientific Workers. She served as vice-president of the British Federation of University Women and vice-president of the National Union of Women's Suffrages Societies.
"An error that ascribes to a man what was actually the work of a woman has more lives than a cat."

Nominated by: Jessica Wade

Jocelyn Bell Burnell

The British astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered pulsars while completing her PhD at Cambridge University in the late 1960s. Using a radio telescope designed by her advisor Anthony Hewish and Martin Ryle (both men later shared a Nobel prize for their work), Bell Burnell found strange radio pulses coming from a single point in the sky. After a period of confusion about what was causing the pulses, Bell Burnell and her colleagues confirmed that pulsars, as the sources of pulses came to be known, are emitted by rapidly spinning neutron stars.

Bell Burnell was President of the Royal Astronomical Society from 2002 to 2004, president of the Institute of Physics from October 2008 until October 2010, and was interim president following the death of her successor, Marshall Stoneham, in early 2011. She was succeeded in October 2011 by Sir Peter Knight. Bell Burnell was elected as President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in October 2014. In March 2013, she was elected Pro-Chancellor of the University of Dublin.

Nominated by: Professor Sheila Rowan