Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Ada Lovelace Day Post: Nobel Prize Winning Women in Science

This post is for Ada Lovelace Day, and will appear on Finding Ada as a book reveiw.

Celebrated annually on 16th October, Ada Lovelace day is a day for sharing online inspiring stories of women scientists, engineers or mathematicians. The Guardian covered it yesterday (article). And if you don't know who Ada Lovelace is, well then she's just one of the amazing women you need to read about on this day.

I've been asked to write a book review about "Nobel Prize Women in Science", by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne. It's a book in which you can read chapter long biographies of 15 women who have won (or significantly contributed to the science of) a Nobel Prize in one of the science fields. Certainly a good theme for a day about celebrating inspirational women scientists. 

When I first read this book several years ago, the thing which struck me most about it, was that it could exist in a (then) complete form. In fact it remained a complete listing of all women who had won Nobels in science fields until 2008 (with Françoise Barré-Sinoussi being a joint winner of the medicine prize that year).

In the last couple of weeks, the 2012 Nobel Prizes in science fields (physics, chemistry and medicine) have been announced. The physics prize went to David Wineland and Serge Haroche for "ground-breaking experimental methods that enable measuring and manipulation of individual quantum systems"; the chemistry prize went to Brian Kobilka and Robert Lefkowitz for work on protein receptors; and the medicine prize went to John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka for their work demonstrating that mature cells could be turned into stem cells. 

These are undoubtably all great contributions to science, and well worthy of the prize (although there has been some controversy over if the chemistry prize winning work really counts as chemistry), but as I watched the announcements roll in I couldn't help be a little bit disappointed that yet again there were no women among the recipients. In 2012, six men won the prizes in science, in 2011 seven men shared the prizes. In fact in the last women to win a science prize were three years ago in 2009 when three of the nine total recipients were women (Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider sharing the medicine prize with Jack Szostak, while Ada Yonath was one of the three winners of the chemistry prize). 

In the whole of the 21st century (2001-2012), only four of the recipients of Nobel prizes in science (out of 89 total winners) have been women (that's just about 4.5%); added to the 10 women who won in the 20th century, that makes 14 women who have ever been given Nobel Prizes in a science field. 

In a sense this is good news for the book which is only missing 4 stories to be complete to this day. But of course it's also disappointing. At the point of it's publication, the book claims that only 2% of the more than 300 Nobel Prizes in Science had gone to women. That we cannot do better than just doubling that fraction in the first decade of the 21st century is not encouraging.  

The book itself is well worth a read. I find it actually rather inspiring and motivating, and often dip into it when in need of a bit of perspective on the struggles of a career in science. The lives of these women were at times so difficult, and not one of them had an easy route. The common factor they all possess seems to be an overwhelming love of science and of discovering the world around them. Nothing more than that could have taken them to the point they reached. 

The book is arranged chronologically, and as such represents an interesting progression, from the outright discrimination and legal barriers faced by the pioneers in the early part of the 20th century (Marie Curie, Physics 1903, Chemistry 1911; or Lise Meitner and Emmy Noether - neither of whom won a Nobel Prize), to more complex (and often WW2 related) problems of the second generation,  (Gerty Cori, Irene Curie, Barbara McClintock, Maria Mayer, Rita Levi-Montalcini, Dorothy Hodgkin, Chien-Shiun Wu, Gertrude Elion, Rosalind Franklin and Rosalyn Yalow). 

 Many of these "second generation" women faced problems with anti-nepotism laws in the US (not allowing univerisities to hire married couples). McGrayne points out that even today something like 70% of women physicists are married to other scientists, and when working in a team with men, women's contributions have historically been overlooked. Several of these women only received formal recognition for their work after they won a Nobel. In the first Chapter of the book McGrayne writes an interesting summary of all these obstacles, concluding with a statement which sticks in my mind:
Given the enormous problems they faced and the important discoveries they made, the real question to be asked about these women is not "Why so few?" A better question is "Why so many?" (Chapter 1, pg 8).
The last two chapters profile what McGrayne calls the "New Generation". These are Jocelyn Bell (whose advisor won the Nobel Prize for the discovery of pulsars which she led the observations of) and Christine Nusslein-Vollard (Nobel Prize in medicine, 1995), who only appears in the Second Edition version. It makes me wonder if McGrayne was expecting this book to become dated quickly as significantly more women from this group won prizes. I wonder if she's disappointed in the still slow progress in the decade since this edition of the book was published. In her afterword some of this frustration already seems to be showing: 
Are women racing into science? Yes and no. The number of women earning science degrees rose steadily between the 1960s and the late 1980s. Then it stopped growing. Why?
She talks about one of the reasons being the poor representation of women scientists in textbooks (usually just Marie Curie appearing). I hope Ada Lovelace day will do its bit to improve this.

Curiously, women (well at least in goddess form, and perhaps less clothed than a typical scientist) are well represented on the medal itself. The reverse shows two female figures, the upright one depicts nature, in the form of the godess Isis, emerging from the clouds holding a cornucopia (a "horn of plenty); while the kneeling women holding up the veil off the face of Isis depicts the "Genius of Science". You can read a full description on the Nobel Prize website.

I hope one day the representation of women winning this prize will be as good. 

I linked to all the Wikipedia articles about these women where you can find some fascinating facts. For example, did you know that Rita Levi-Montalcini is the oldest living Novel laureate, and the only one so far to have reached 100! Also it reminded me of this great Royal Society Workshop happening later this week: Women in Science: Wikipedia Workshop, with the aim of improving wikipedia articles about women in science. The event can be joined online (Twitter hashtag #WomenSciWP). 


  1. Lovelace was close friends with inventor Charles Babbage and was fascinated by his Analytical Engine, a mechanical computing machine which she understood even better than he did. Where Babbage saw a way to flawlessly compute log and trig tables, Lovelace saw a machine capable of composing music and graphics, given the right algorithms, writing that it "weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves". sildenafil citrate

  2. Curiously NPR covered almost this same topic for Ada Lovelace Day - even mentioning the same book: http://www.npr.org/2012/10/12/162813929/is-the-nobel-prize-a-boys-mostly-club