Earlier last week we saw the first-ever images of a Black Hole, a scientific breakthrough which most of us will never fully understand the significance of. Years of research conducted by hundreds of people and mountains of data all processed through an algorithm to give us the blurry yellow image we see above. A marvel of science and engineering and math which rivals the significance, if not the glamour, of the first orbital space missions. Both of which made possible by the brilliant minds working diligently to see them through. By the brilliant women seeing them through.
Margaret Hamilton is the MIT computer scientist who wrote the first computer codes to launch a shuttle and successfully landed a man on the moon. This was a time when computers took up entire rooms and the term she created, ‘software engineer’, was a radically new idea. Margaret Hamilton is currently 82 years old, holds the Honor of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and is the current CEO of Hamilton Technologies Inc.
Katie Bouman, the 29-year-old computer scientist who developed the software algorithm that turned the stacks of hard drives in front of her into one single visible image of the black hole 55 million light-years away in the Messier 87 galaxy.
We live in an age of marvels, where it is possible to look up to the sky and reach for the stars, or, at least, the photons. But for many of our girls and young women, seeing the possibilities for themselves in scientific fields can still feel like a bit of a stretch. As is disappointingly common, when textbooks reveal the amazing stories of scientists working to unravel the mysteries of the universe, certain voices are often left out. Blurry, black and white images often reveal groups of stiff-backed older white men standing sternly in front of a blackboard. Women and people of color are, more often than not, conspicuously absent.
Of the top 50 science celebrities followed on twitter, only 4 are women. FOUR. That is less than 10% in a world where women make up 50% of the population. But while women and people of color are woefully underrepresented, they are there, they are making a difference and, more than that, they always have.
In Ancient Times
- Hypatia (400 AD) was a world-renowned astronomer, philosopher, and mathematician. She was so revered that people traveled from around the world to study at her school, regardless of gender. Socrates even wrote about her in The Historia Ecclesiastica- “Hypatia of Alexandria… made attainments in literature and science that far surpassed all the philosophers of her own time.”
- Brahmagupta (600 AD) was the North Indian Astronomer who discovered the mathematical properties of zero, something we take entirely for granted. He thought of himself as an astronomer and a poet, but it is his breakthroughs in math we remember today. In fact, most of his work was written in lyrics!
The Age of Enlightenment
Shown above in order are Benjamin Banneker, Caroline Herschel, Sophie Germain, Mary Anning, and Ada Lovelace.
Benjamin Banneker 1731 – 1806 Benjamin rose to acclaim in a time when African Americans were more often seen as property than academics. He published a series of almanacs, on every subject imaginable with incredible accuracy. He rose to such acclaim that, when writing to Thomas Jefferson, urging the then Secretary of State to work against slavery, he included a handwritten copy of one of his almanacs. Jefferson, after writing back to Banneker, sent the almanac on to the French Academy of Sciences as proof of the capabilities of people of color as a whole.
Caroline Herschel 1750-1848 When she was only ten, Caroline fell sick with typhus, which stopped her from growing. Unlikely to marry, she moved to live with her brother in England and worked with him on telescopes. But soon Caroline began to work more on her own, cataloging everything they found. Caroline discovered three nebulae, eight comets, and was awarded the Gold Medal of Science by the King of Prussia for her achievements. She was the first woman to ever discover a comet and two of her astronomical catalogs are still being used to this day!
Sophie Germain 1776 – 1831 When she was 18, the Ecole Polytechnique (a school of mathematics) was founded in Paris, but would not take female students. Using a fake name, she submitted a paper to J.L. Lagrange, who was very impressed with her work, even more so when he found out she was a woman and became her mentor. Sophie was able to enter a circle of scientists and mathematicians that she would have otherwise been excluded from. She wrote to German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss about her work on Number Theory, which many believe still does not receive the credit it deserves. Gauss helped convince the University of Gottingen to award her an honorary degree in mathematics.
Mary Anning 1799-1847 Mary Anning is known as “The greatest fossilist the world ever knew”, and yet few people know her name. The family found and sold fossils in Lyme Regis to make ends meet. In the 1820s Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Birch auctioned off his fossil collection and donated the money to the Anning family, most of which the family had found originally. Mary took over the family fossil business, having a keen eye and an impressive knowledge of anatomy. She made many great discoveries, starting at age 10 with the first known Ichthyosaur fossils, and the first every Plesiosaur. The Plesiosaur, which looks like the Loch Ness monster, was initially doubted. But when it was discovered to be real, it launched the family, and Mary Anning, to international fame.
Ada Lovelace 1815-1852 Ada Lovelace was the daughter of poet Lord Byron and is largely considered the world’s first computer programmer, over 100 years BEFORE the first computer. She was exceptionally gifted at numbers and languages and was tutored by notable figures including Mary Somerville, the first woman admitted to the Royal Astronomical Academy. She began working at age 17 with Charles Babbage, who created the first ‘Difference Engine’. Babbage also had ideas for an Analytical Engine before he died. Ada was asked to translate an article on the Analytical Engine from French to English. She added her own notes, which ended up being three times longer than the original article. Ada described how codes could be created to recognize letters and symbols, not just numbers, and suggested a method or repeated instructions called ‘looping’ which is used in computer programming today.
Percy Julian 1899-1975 A renowned chemist who isolated and chemically synthesized many compounds found in nature which proved to have medical value. He was the first to synthesize physostigmine, which is used to treat glaucoma and is still being researched today in the treatment of Alzheimer’s. He also conducted research that leads to the discovery of such medicines as Cortisone and modern-day Birth Control.
Charles Drew 1904 – 1949 Charles Drew held both Doctor of Medicine and Masters in Surgery degrees, but is best known for his work in blood research. In addition to other areas of research, Drew was the first doctor to develop a method for separating blood plasma from platelets and red blood cells. Because Plasma lasts longer than whole blood, it can be collected and ‘banked’. Drew’s work created the first-ever blood banks, which saved thousands of lives during World War II, and millions of lives around the world ever since.
Rosalind Franklin 1920 – 1958 The discovery of DNA is usually credited to scientific duo Watson and Crick. However, it was Rosalind Franklin’s work in X-Ray Crystallography imaging that truly allowed for the discovery of DNA’s double helix (twisty ladder) shape. She and Roger Wilkins worked at King’s College in London. While Wilkins was away, Franklin and a student managed to produce the two clear images of DNA which proved Watson and Cricks’ theory. She continued to produce incredible breakthroughs in DNA research up until her death. The Nobel Prize for their work on DNA was awarded several years later to Watson, Crick, and Wilkins – despite Rosalind’s work, the Nobel Committee does not allow posthumous awards.
Annie Easley (1933-2011) While Kathryn Johnson was the rock star of the hit movie ‘Hidden Figures’, there was another woman there whose name you may remember. Annie Easley was the mathematician and human-computer working at NASA who taught herself how to speak to and code computer programs with FORTRAN. As human computers were eliminated in favor of machines, Annie remained. She would continue to work on everything from battery-powered cars for space exploration, to measuring the damage to the ozone layer, and testing nuclear facilities at Plum Brook.
Gladys West (GPS) (1930) Another ‘Hidden Figure’, Gladys West was the Engineer and Mathematician who programmed an IBM 7030 computer to create super accurate calculations for the first ever Global Positioning Device. That’s right, she created the forerunner to the GPS system that you use every day. Gladys has been inducted to the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame for her work.
Mae Carol Jemison (62) Famous as the first woman of color in space, Mae Carol Jemison is so much more than that. She is also a physician who worked as a general practitioner. She served in the Peace Core for over two years in countries such as Sierra Leone and Liberia. She speaks Russian, Japanese, and Swahili. Jemison was also a professor at Dartmouth College, and the founder and president of not one, but two tech companies. Mae Jemison continues to serve as one of today’s leading role models and a living example of the ethos “If you want to achieve something, don’t let anyone or anything get in your way”.
Shurouq Al Hamaideh (22) Shurouq attended a Social Entrepreneurship training program in 2016 before starting a business with her friends teaching computer programming and website design to teenagers in Tafila, Jourdan. Despite limited resources, barely three months after launching, 33 teens and young adults had graduated the program, half of them girls. “Children are the future of the country, and if girls are empowered, as much as boys, to learn and pursue careers in technology, we can make a lot of progress.”
Katie Bouman (29) The young computer scientist and member of the Event Horizon Telescope team that created the first-ever true image of a black hole. She led the development of the algorithm which created the image from millions of data points. Katie worked with hundreds of others to see the project to fruition and played a significant role by verifying images, selecting filtering parameters, and developing the algorithm that put all the images together into the picture we recognize today. She will begin teaching at the California Institute of Technology in June of this year.
The POWER of STEM
Women and girls make up roughly 50% of the world’s population. When women are empowered to achieve the same goals and success as their male counterparts, it benefits everyone. This is especially true of encouraging women in STEM and STEAM as the job market continues to shift. The Global economy is changing, and while service industry jobs will continue to disappear, opportunities in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics will continue to grow. (see here for more info). If girls are represented and encouraged equally in STEM fields when compared to boys, they will be in a better position in the decades to come.
Representation matters, especially with kids. Where you see the people in your life around you reflects what opportunities you see for yourself in the future. When kids see people who look like them succeeding in a field, no matter what it is, it makes it easier for that child to see themselves in that role one day. Exposing kids to a broad variety of options and possibilities gives them access to an equally broader range of opportunities in the future. This is just as true in art and music as it is in business and politics, but holds particularly valuable in the world of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. We should always endeavor to give our children every resource they need to succeed, every tool they need to help them reach for their own stars…
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To learn more about the Black Hole photo, the amazing technology that made it possible, Katie Bouman and other rock-star women in science, check out some of these links below ⇓
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