Skip to main content
Two people in a lab, working on a mircoscope

Silent achievers: Hidden discoveries in Science

The presence of women in science.

The field of science is meant to be based upon data and logic - but you might be surprised to find out that this doesn't always save Science from being discriminatory.

Margaret Rossiter, the Professor of the History of Science at Cornell University has written about the “undercutting, undercounting and minimising of the presence of women”. 

Madame Marie Curie won two Nobel prizes. She was never admitted to the most prestigious scientific society in the whole world, the Royal Society.

You’ve probably never heard of the physicist, Chien-Shiung Wu. But she was the first scientist to confirm Enrico Fermi’s theory of radioactive beta decay. She also devised the famous “Wu experiment”, which brilliantly redefined the concept of parity in subatomic particles. However, while her two male colleagues shared the Nobel Prize, she did not.

And what about the astronomer, Vera Rubin? In the mid-20th century, she discovered the existence of dark matter, which makes up about 25% of the mass-energy balance of the entire universe. That is an absolutely enormous discovery. You guessed it, no Nobel Prize.

The discrimination in science is embedded across the board. Women in science receive fewer grants (on a percentage basis), the grants they do get are smaller, they win fewer awards, and they are less likely to get hired even with a track record identical to the male applicants. One study of science papers showed that if the author was identified as male, then it was more highly rated.

But there are individual examples of women in science who have overcome all these barriers.

You might have seen the movie, or read the book, Hidden Figures. It’s about the African-American women who did absolutely essential work for the "space race" of the 1950s and 60s.

One of them was Katherine Johnson. Because she was African-American, her local public school in Virginia would not offer her any education past eighth grade. So her parents arranged for her to attend a high school some distance away – which luckily, happened to be on the campus of the West Virginia State College.

The professors quickly realised her mathematical brilliance, and even added new mathematical courses for her to study. She ended up in NASA, and because she was brilliant and stood her ground, she ended up calculating trajectories (flight paths) for American spacecraft. 

She did the spacecraft trajectories for Alan Shepherd (the first American in space), and for John Glenn (the first American to orbit the earth), In fact, John Glenn specifically asked for her, and would not fly until she had personally checked the figures for the trajectory of his flight.

She did the trajectories for Apollo 11 (the first spacecraft to land on the moon) and for the crippled Apollo 13, which suffered an explosion on its way to the Moon.

For the latter, she helped devise a system whereby the returning astronauts could make a sighting on just one single star, and know exactly where they were. As a result, they landed back on Earth safely. 

Recognising the extraordinary contributions of women in science is so important. It makes no sense – and is not good science - to discriminate against half the human race.

22 November 2021

Written by Dr Karl Kruszelnicki

Julius Sumner Miller Fellow, School of Physics