Female Innovators Who Changed Our World
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Female Innovators Who Changed Our World

How Women Shaped STEM

Emma Green

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eBook - ePub

Female Innovators Who Changed Our World

How Women Shaped STEM

Emma Green

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We are not all born with equal opportunities. Yet there have been countless of women who have overcome a range of barriers such as prejudice, illness, and personal tragedy to advance our understanding of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). They used their knowledge to change the world, and their stories are fascinating. This book offers a concise introduction of the lives of 46 women, taking you into the cultural and social context of the world they lived in. Through their intelligence, courage, and resilience, they used STEM to defy expectations and inspire generations to follow in their footsteps.Some of them invented items we use day-to-day and discovered causes and treatments for epidemics that ostracised whole sections of society, whilst others campaigned for the reproductive rights of women and harnessed mathematics to send people into space and break ciphers. These women are proof that females can and did have a hugely significant role in shaping the world we live in today.

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Chapter 1

World Defining Moments in History

Joan Clarke (1917–1996)

Mathematics, Cryptanalysis
If Joan Clarke had not worked alongside Alan Turing as part of the team who cracked the Enigma code at Bletchley Park, our world would be a very different place. Whilst it would be an oversimplification to say that code breakers led the allied forces to victory, Sir Harry Hinsley, an expert on British intelligence did say that the work done at Bletchley Park was responsible for ending disruption caused by German U-boats and therefore instrumental in restoring food security for citizens of the UK.1
Clarke was born on 24 June 1917 and attended Dulwich High School for Girls. She won a scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridge2 to study mathematics and excelled to the point where she became the highest-scoring student on her course, earning the title of ‘Wrangler’. Because the University of Cambridge did not award degrees to women at the time,3 Clarke received no official qualification. However, her talent did not go unnoticed. As the Second World War broke out, it became obvious to those in the know that German coding methods had become more sophisticated since the First World War and that the British would need to pull together as many intelligent minds as possible to combat this. The severity of the challenge left little room for gender preference and as it became acceptable for women to be hired for classified government projects, Clarke was interviewed for a position at the UK Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) by her former geometry supervisor, Gordon Welchman. Details of the advertised role were deliberately vague, but Clarke took a leap of faith and accepted the job. All she knew was that mathematicians seemed to excel at the place she was going to.4
Once settled into to her work environment in Hut 8, Clarke was introduced to a bombe – a machine that aided the deciphering of messages encrypted by the Nazis’ Enigma machine. Turing had developed this for GC&CS the year before from an earlier Polish design, and Clarke’s initial task was to use it on messages that had been intercepted. This was a complex and repetitive task as the Enigma code was changed every twenty-four hours.
The bombe machine, along with the rest of the work done at Bletchley Park was praised by Prime Minister Winston Churchill for contributing to the shortening of the war and saving countless lives. Developed from a Polish device of a similar name, it worked on a number of features that were known about the German Enigma machine. The most critical of these was that an Enigma machine would never encode a letter as itself, so an ‘A’ in the message would never be an ‘A’ in the cypher. Additionally, connections made on the plugboard meant that pairs of letters were linked; if the ‘W’ and ‘T’ were connected then ‘T’ could not be connected to anything else. The bombe used these flaws to break the code. It would rattle through different combinations of starting position and plugboard connections based on a ‘menu’ of rotor orders, looking for contradictions. If it found a contradiction then that combination was known to be wrong; if no contradiction was found then it was understood that those settings were a possibility.5 Clarke became so knowledgeable about the machine and the process that she developed ways to increase efficiency, speeding up the process of cracking codes and deciphering messages.6
Clarke quickly gained responsibilities; although three-quarters of employees at Bletchley Park were female,7 she was unusual in that she worked in an office with men and early on in her employment at Hut 8 was trusted to work the night shift alone. Her senior position did not cause any day-to-day challenges but seemed to cause issues with payroll, primarily because the pay grade for ‘female cryptanalyst’ did not exist. Instead, Clarke was listed under the ‘linguist’ grade, despite none of her work involving translation. Even when she was promoted to deputy head of her hut, Clarke still received a lower salary than the rest of her male colleagues.8
The wartime ‘goings on’ at Bletchley Park have now been declassified,9 which is why we are able to learn about and celebrate the significant contributions made by Joan Clarke. After the end of the Second World War, many women who had served at Bletchley Park returned to their previous, more domestic, lifestyles. However, Clarke’s experiences in Hut 8 had introduced her to the type of job prospects open to women who excelled at logical thinking.
She was briefly engaged to Turing during her time at Bletchley Park, however it was whilst at her post-war job at GCHQ, the successor to GC&CS and Bletchley Park, that she met her future husband, Lieutenant Colonel John Kenneth Ronald Murray. Apart from taking a break due to Murray’s ill health, Clarke worked until her retirement in 1977.
Clarke passed away aged 79 in her house in Headington, where an Oxfordshire Blue Plaque has been displayed since 2019 as a reminder of this talented woman who so enthusiastically gave her brilliant mind to help her country.

Rosalind Franklin (1920–1958)

The story of Rosalind Franklin is a tough one to stomach. Ever since her under-publicised contribution to the discovery of DNA that earned Crick, Watson, and Wilkins a Nobel Prize came to light, it has been all too easy to focus on the negativity and unfairness that clouded her short life. It is often easy to simplify and vilify, but in reality, most scientific discoveries and advancements come about because of a team effort. It can be difficult to fairly apportion credit surrounding innovation; there may be the person who makes the initial discovery, then the person who finds an explanation for it, followed by the person who develops the theory or finds a useful application. Unfortunately, it is impossible to change history but whatever controversies surround the complex detail of her time as a researcher at King’s College London we should never forget the absolute gem of a gift that Rosalind Franklin gave humanity: the work that, once shared, started the domino effect that led to our current understanding of the structure and role of DNA and, perhaps even more importantly, the role it plays in diseases and medical conditions.
Born in London in 1920, Franklin was determined and headstrong, both useful qualities for women who strived for equal opportunities and wished to have their work taken as seriously as their male peers. She excelled at school and entered the same Cambridge College as Joan Clarke (p.1). But whilst Clarke’s interests lay in mathematics, Franklin was interested in physical chemistry. By the time she had finished her undergraduate degree course, Britain was in the middle of the Second World War. This changed university life considerably, with staff being either called away to contribute to the war effort or detained if they were German. The arrival of refugee and French scientist Adrienne Weill at Cambridge was a significant event in Franklin’s life1 as she gained a mentor and friend who would support her for years to come. To aid her country during the rest of the war, Franklin investigated the structure of coal, specifically the effect of temperature and carbon content on the size of pores.2 The larger the pores, the larger the molecules that can pass through the material, in the same way that small seeds can pass through a colander but not a sieve. By providing an understanding of its microstructure, Franklin’s work helped in classifying types of coal and predicting their efficiency when used as fuel. Another important property of coal is its ability to react with and adsorb liquid or gas molecules, which is useful when considering applications such as gas masks. Although this research was conducted whilst working for the British Coal Utilisation Research Association, she submitted her findings to the University of Cambridge and received a PhD.
With the help of Weill, Franklin embarked on an exciting new chapter of her life after the war, moving to Paris in 1947 to work at the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de l’État. Her laboratory leader, Jacques Mering, was skilled at an experimental technique that used an X-ray split into different directions; by measuring the angles and intensity of these beams, the atomic and molecular structure could be observed. Franklin applied this to her ongoing studies of coal and materials that contained carbon and she became an expert at X-ray crystallography.
Having received a fellowship, Franklin returned to England in 1951 and started working at King’s College London. She continued to use her talents as a crystallographer but at the request of the director of the Medical Research Council’s Biophysics Unit, swapped her work on coal for DNA research. Unfortunately, Franklin’s new position got off to a bad start even before her first day in the laboratory. Unbeknownst to her, there was already a physicist researching DNA at the same institution; Maurice Wilkins and his PhD student Raymond Gosling had advanced the study of the elusive molecule to the point where they had managed to take some photographs of it.3 Franklin was of the opinion that she would be the sole scientist working on the X-ray diffraction of DNA. Wilkins on the other hand, was not aware that Franklin had been appointed to take over this part of the research and that Gosling was to become her assistant. Thus, their relationship had a rocky beginning and became worse over time when Wilkins realised that his new colleague would be there in more than an ‘advice-giving’ capacity.4
The pressure started to mount early in 1953, as it became apparent that the American chemist Linus Pauling had a keen interest in DNA.5
Whilst the group at King’s ramped up their efforts to obtain significant X-ray diffraction data, James Watson and Francis Crick were working on a physical model at Cambridge University. The problem faced by Watson and Crick was trying to line up the principles that the bases involved in the construction of a DNA molecule were effectively random, but somehow the X-ray diffraction data showed that molecule could crystallise.6 This indicated that some part of the structure exhibited regularity. Franklin had recorded a lot of relevant data and had included it in an informal report which she showed to Max Perutz, head of the Molecular Biology Unit at the Cavendish Laboratory. He in turn passed this to Sir Lawrence Bragg, who showed it to his colleagues Watson and Crick. None of this information was confidential as it had been previously presented by Franklin herself at a seminar held at King’s 7. Watson had been present at the time, though had not understood the implications.
Meanwhile, Gosling had taken an image called ‘Photo 51’8 which was to go down in history. In a turn of events that has caused much controversy over the years, Wilkins decided to show this image to Watson when the Cambridge researcher was visiting King’s.9
Franklin was gradually realising that DNA had a double helical structure with complementary bases. However, she was not able to provide a satisfactory mathematical model to back this up. Franklin’s data, combined with ‘Photo 51’, had made a significant contribution to Watson and Crick’s understanding of the molecule and by March 1953 they had created a physical model. Upon its completion, Franklin and Wilkins were invited to Cambridge to review the breakthrough; both agreed that the model was correct.10 Given that this had taken much effort from both groups at Cambridge and King’s, it was decided that Watson and Crick were to publish their paper on the structure of DNA.11 This was to be followed up by Franklin and Wilkins’ separate publications of the supporting data. All three papers were published in quick succession in the journal Nature in April 1953. However, by the time the papers were published, Franklin’s discontent with the working environment had caused her to leave King’s and her work on DNA.
When Franklin died of ovarian cancer at the age of 37, she was known mainly for her work on viruses. She had been able to isolate the infectious part of the virus that caused Tobacco Mosaic disease.12 The timing of her early death in 1958 possibly led to the perceived academic snub that Franklin’s legacy sadly became defined by. The delay between the discovery being published and the Nobel Prize being awarded in 1962 meant that Franklin fell foul of the rule that the prize cannot be awarded posthumously.
In conclusion, there are several aspects of her time at King’s that culminated in the events of the often-sensationalised story of Franklin and the double helix. Her strong character and rocky professional relationships led to her poor treatment and undoubtedly made her work environment at King’s very unpleasant. Secondly, there was clearly some mismanagement and poor communication surrounding the research interests of Franklin and Wilkins that led to ill feeling, even before they started collaborating. Additionally, lack of formal procedure regarding the sharing of information between universities led to the incident of ‘Photo 51’ being messier than it needed to be.
Most important was the commitment to scientific advancement and quality of research. Franklin achieved incredible results, despite her solitude and lack of strong team connection. Because of her exacting standards she also chose to defer from publishing some aspects of her interpretation, rather than putting out a theory that could not be rigorously backed up with maths and chemistry. This does her credit as a scientist; truth should be held in higher esteem than any promise of public recognition or professional prestige.

Ada Lovelace (1815–1852)

Ada Lovelace’s path into science was an unusual one. Her father was the famous poet, Lord Bryon, who was notoriously troubled and an unashamed womaniser. He and his wife separated when Lovelace was just five weeks old. Lady Byron remained bitter about her husband’s character for a long time after their separation and insisted that her daughter be subjected to a rigorous mathematical education in the hope that developing a logical mind would ward off any ‘madness’ she might inherit from her father. Despite her good education, Lovelace’s childhood was full of challenges; her health was not good and she was constantly watched over by her mother’s friends, who were looking for signs of immorality. Despite this façade of motherly concern, Lady Byron’s true feelings for her daughter may be more accurately portrayed in a letter in which she referred to Lovelace as ‘it’.1 Fortunately, the girl was able to form positive relationships with her maternal grandmother and with her tutor, Mary Somerville.
By the age of 17, Lovelace was intelligent enough to understand one of the latest technological developments, the difference engine, invented by Charles Babbage. She was introduced to the inventor in the summer of 1833 and took great interest in this machine, which when recreated by the Science Museum in 1991 to commemorate the bicentenary of Babbage’s birth, measured 3.4m long and 2.1m high.2 The concept of using mechanical parts to com...

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