Wednesday 24 March 2010

Ada Lovelace Day - three scientists

March 24th is Ada Lovelace Day - "an international day of blogging to celebrate the achievements of women in technology and science".

Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (1815-1852), the daughter of Lord Byron and a prominent figure in English society, has over the past few decades become known colloquially as the 'first computer programmer', by virtue of a group of notes she wrote on Charles Babbage's analytical engine, the last of which included an algorithm for the computation of Bernoulli numbers.

I have to admit, I read a biography of Lovelace earlier this year which brought down my uninformed, but very high, opinion of her. In fact, I found her kind of irritating (I know, I know, I'm an awful person).

So for Ada Lovelace day, I'm going to pull out three women who I've greatly enjoyed learning about this year, and recommend a couple of books if you're interested in finding out more yourself.

Caroline Herschel (1750-1848)

German-born astronomer who worked alongside her brother William in England, first as an assistant and increasingly in her own right. She identified numerous comets and celestial bodies, and worked on several important astronomical catalogues. The Royal Astronomical Society presented her with their Gold Medal in 1828 for her work on a catalogue of nebulae; the next woman to be presented with this award was Vera Rubin in 1996.

Richard Holmes' The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science is a fantastic book and contains a very good chapter on the Herschels' work; Michael Lemoick's The Georgian Star: How William and Caroline Herschel Revolutionized Our Understanding of the Cosmos expands nicely on this.

Marie Curie (1867-1934)

Polish-born physicist whose painstaking work in France lead to the identification of radium and polonium, the coining of the word 'radioactivity' (and articulation of what that meant), and contributed to the use of radiation in medical therapies.

Curie was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize, and the first person to be awarded two Nobels (despite the committee's prevarications).

Barbara Goldsmith's Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie is an interesting and well-written introduction to Curie's life and work.

Lise Meitner (1878-1968)

Austrian-born physicist who worked on radioactivity and nuclear fission, initially at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut in Berlin and later - as one of the numerous scientists who were forced to flee Germany with the rise of Nazism - in Sweden.

Despite working closely with Otto Hahn and others on the development of the theory and experimental proof of nuclear fission, she did not share in Hahn's 1944 Nobel Prize for this work.

I'm in search of a good bio on Meitner at the moment - suggestions are welcome.

UPDATE: Since posting this, I've had several recommendations for Ruth Lewin Sime's Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics.

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