The mad (female) scientist

Image result for ilaria capua usa

Thinking about great women scientists, in these hours, we especially have in mind Katherine Johnson (see the photo at the bottom) and Ilaria Capua, well-known virologist that absolves Italy from its new “infective stereotype”… “Coronavirus is already in Europe, Italy has only diagnosed it before” article (Corriere del Ticino): “The italian virologist Ilaria Capua, now professor at the University of Florida’s One Health Center of Excellence, had foreseen it a week ago: “The coronavirus will arrive in Italy, so you have to get organized”. And today she says: «It has been circulating for weeks, it is good news because for many it is simple flu. Not as lethal as feared. The flu-like syndrome caused by Coronavirus has now reached several Italian regions and caused 11 deaths. But these people who died had already compromised clinical conditions. There is little to be optimistic about, you say. True, but this does not mean that we must stop looking at things from the right perspective. I am convinced that several European countries have coronavirus cases that will be diagnosed in the coming days. This aspect will also be clarified in the coming weeks, as well as the effective extension of the infection in Italy. Perhaps, very banal, we have diagnosed more and earlier. The infection in Veneto and Lombardia circulated before the first death, at least for about twenty days (…), or weeks, if not even a few months. So it could be that the number of infected is greater than we thought. And the lethal potential of the virus, much less. This would indicate that in the vast majority of cases coronavirus is incapable of causing a disease worthy of being brought to the attention of doctors. Or, when it was brought to the attention of Italian doctors, it was treated by Italian doctors exactly as it was treated by Chinese doctors. That is, they thought it was influence. Coronavirus is a virus that knows how to hide very well, behind traditional flu. Probably we will have to deal with the coronavirus until late spring or before summer. The virus will travel around the world quickly enough, because we are many and the virus will find many bodies, such as batteries. But it does not mean that there will be serious forms, on the contrary, most likely it will be increasingly weak».

Who invented the telescope, penicillin and wireless telegraph? Even if they don’t come to mind, you’ve certainly heard of them. Because there are many important inventions, which “has made the History”, for as many important and recognized names: Galileo Galilei, Alexander Fleming, Guglielmo Marconi

But who has come up with other inventions that have similarly revolutionized our lives, such as the reflexless photographic lens, the medical syringe and wireless technology?

Nobody knows. And even the names of Katherine Blodgett, Letitia Geer and Hedy Lamarr, suggest little or nothing.

But Blogdett was the first female scientist at General Electric’s, who in 1935 discovered a way to transfer thin monomolecular coatings to glass and metals. That is: it eliminated any possible reflection and distortion from them, and it was clearly a revolution for cameras, microscopes, glasses and much more; Geer was a New York nurse who in 1899 patented the first syringe as we know it today, to be used with one hand; the last one, Lamarr, is a very particular “character”, an Austrian actress and scientist. Born in Vienna in 1914, she initially gave up her engineering degree to pursue the artistic career, working on more than 30 films with actors such as Clarke Gable and Spencer Tracy. But when she decided to return to her studies it was a historic choice: she and a friend of hers, the composer George Antheil, were responsible for the invention, in the first half of the 1930s, of a modulation system for encoding information to transmit on radio frequencies. Her discovery led to cryptography and remote control of torpedoes and naval vessels, but it was also decisive for mobile telephony and any wireless computer system.

Why nobody knows them is perhaps not so much linked to the importance of the invention, as to the difference that those who invent entail. Inventors vs (female) inventors (the feminine word in Italian even exists – “inventrice” vs “inventore” -, but it is not used either).

Il gioco Landlord's Game prima di diventare Monopoly (con la foto della sua inventrice, Elizabeth Magie Phillips)

Landlord’s Game board before becoming Monopoly (with a photo of her inventor, Elizabeth Magie Phillips)

Maybe women have less genius. Maybe we are more naive. Or perhaps they have always had less means. It is at least strange to live with men in the same reality, which, however, only for women, sometimes becomes harder and more restrictive, a condition that has continued throughout History and whose aftermaths remain at more or less strong levels depending on the Countries and cultural areas. Having fewer means and more obstacles means necessarily having less chances of succeeding. At that point, only few could have done it.

Until the end of the 19th century, at least in most of the western world, “legally married women had rights similar to their children”, they could not own anything, not even their wages, let alone patents. Those who were registered were deposited in the name of husbands or fathers. Hence also the difficulty in verifying the true fatherhood (or motherhood!) of inventions.

Certainly many of the first inventors were Americans – “US was the first nation that faced the problem of female education not only on an intellectual but also a professional level: women finally had access to fields of study equally to men, with the creation of new schools, which were initially exclusively female and then mixed. In the 20th century, the two world wars contributed greatly to the achievement of gender equality, also thanks to the fact that the decrease in male labor opened up all fields of work to women; and women’s work gradually grew in importance with the industrialization of states”.

At the beginning women looked at the improvement of their environment in which they were more or less circumscribed: the house. From the dishwasher (1872, Josephine Cochran) to the “rolling pin” (1891, Catherine Deiner), from the car heater (1893, Margaret A. Wilcox) to the central heating for the houses (Alice Parker, 1919), from the bucket that opens with the pedal (1900, Lilian Gilbreth) to the refrigerator (1914, Florence Parpart) up to the Monopoly board (1904, Elizabeth Magie)…

The latter is a curious story. This game design forerunner, Elizabeth Magie, invented a game called The Landlord’s Game to spread the economic theory of Georgism against the injustices of uncontrolled capitalism. Which makes even more “ironic” what happened 30 years later: the patent expired and so a man named Charles Darrow reorganized the game board and the message, selling it to Parker as Monopoly and hitting the bank until today. The idea of Magie distorted and sold off for only $ 500 and no rights.

Ninkasi, l'antica dea sumera della birra

Ninkasi, the ancient Sumerian goddess of beer

But apart from this stage, most of the women’s inventions were useful to men and their work.

Just think of one of the most consumed products in the world, and above all by men (about 60% against 31% of women, even if uphill), which is the invention par excellence, ever set: beer. In fact, most of the ancient civilizations considered it a drink from the goddesses, and the first recipe was found in an ancient Sumerian poem, dating back to 3,900 years ago, which honored Ninkasi, the patron goddess of beer. For this reason, in many countries, not only Middle Eastern, women were the only ones authorized to produce and sell it.

Or think of the circular saw, invented by the American Tabitha Babbitt in 1813, a young Puritan Calvinist (Shaker) who one day watched two men use the log saw with difficulty, and noticed that half of their motion was wasted. Many disagree with this attribution, given that “there is no historical documentation to verify this claim”, on the other hand in her life she was a toolmaker and inventor, and precisely because she was a Calvinist she never registered any of her inventions.

The roots of the computer era come from the mid-19th century and it was none other than Ada Lovelace Byron (English this time), the famous poet’s daughter, who made the first “prediction” of it. Compared to her father, she seems to have been brilliant in a field opposite to him, mathematics, and is in fact remembered as the first computer programmer in the world. From 1842 she began to work on the analytical machine designed by Charles Babbage. Among her notes we find an algorithm to generate Bernoulli numbers, considered the first expressly intended to be processed by a machine.

Maria Telkes, a biophysic of Hungarian origin associated with MIT (Massachusett Institute of Technology), in 1920 during the Second World War, invented a shipwreck distiller, capable of producing a few liters of fresh water from the sea (through a simple process of evaporating salt through the heat of the sun). And she didn’t stop there with her studies on the sun. Solar energy, so fashionable now, was “caught” by her, already in 1947, when she was responsible for the construction of the first house heated by the sun. She collaborated with the architect Eleonora Raymond to do it, using a chemical that can “store” and then radiate solar energy again to offer constant temperatures. Telkes worked on solar technologies until her death in 1996.

Anyone who has ever had to drive through rain or snow thanks the windshield wipers, and therefore the American Mary Anderson. But unfortunately she also had problems with the patent, unable to sell the rights before it expired. It was not “an idea of sufficient commercial value to justify a sales company” replied a Canadian car company, thus preventing her from earning any profit when then its basic design became the standard in every automotive production since the 1922.

Ada Byron and the thinking machine…

Speaking of means of locomotion, planes and cars were male inventions, but also in this case perfected by a woman. The former American teacher El Dorado Jones, called “the iron woman” (after inventing the electric and light iron), in 1917 invented the silent muffler for the car and then considered that it could also work for planes. She led a mechanical company in Illinois made up of women only. She was granted a patent in 1923, but due to previous negative experiences, she was very suspicious of businessmen and this prevented her from capitalizing on her invention.

Margaret Hamilton, computer scientist, born in Indiana in 1936, was director of the Software Engineering Division of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory that developed the on-board software for the Apollo 11 space program.

To get to the most recent discoveries:

The essential research to elucidate the DNA’s structure conducted in the 1950s by the English chemist and crystallographer Rosalind Franklin.

Kevlar! A synthetic fiber invented in 1965 by Stephanie Kwolek that has, as its main feature, the great mechanical resistance to traction, so much that for the same weight it is 5 times more resistant than steel. Used in practically everything, but especially for bulletproof vests and for racing cars and motorcycles. Kevlar, for example, is allowing for the first time to probe the abysses: it is the material that lines the cables of submarine robots.

The “jumping gene”, discovered by the American geneticist Barbara McClintock, considered one of the most prestigious cytogenetists in the world, who in 1983 won the Nobel Prize in Physiology for this discovery, namely the ability of the genes to change position on the chromosome.

The first machine-independent programming language (COBOL) conceived and created in the 1960s by Grace Murray Hopper, navy captain, one of the most eminent figures in computer science. Among other things, she also theorized the debugging method (the elimination of computer “errors” through periodic and continuous analysis of the program’s source code).

An innovative book, Silent spring (1962) by Rachel Carson, an American marine biologist and environmentalist, reported as the catalyst of the modern environmental movement.

Up to the Italian physics Fabiola Gianotti, general director of CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research), the first woman to fill this role in 60 years of laboratory history. Here she is working on various experiments, including Atlas, of which she was coordinator from 2009 to 2013, providing the data that led to the discovery of the Higgs boson (a Nobel discovery) and beyond with the CMS experiment.

An illustration by Serge Bloch from New York Times article. First of all you can see an unexpected one: “Natalie Portman, one of a handful of high-profile actors who happen to have serious scientific credentials, awards, degrees, patents and theorems in her name; Hedy Lamarr, the actress habitually regarded as ‘that most beautiful woman in Hollywood’, was a rocket scientist on the side, inventing and patenting a torpedo guidance technique she called ‘frequency hopping’, which thwarted efforts to jam the signals that kept the missiles on track; Danica McKellar, graduated summa cum laude in mathematics, helped devise a mathematical proof for certain properties of magnetic fields, a theorem that bears her name along with those of her collaborators”.

And then many others female scientists…

So it is for a generic condition of disadvantage that in the world there seem to be, or in fact there are, less inventive women, and that even fame has treated them in an uneven way. Fortunately time is changing and today they are much more around the world, even if the notable ones can be just a few in many countries. Still today, when we think about the “figure of the inventor”, at most a guy like Einstein comes to mind. A woman would never come to mind. And despite Marie Curie! However, she is the only truly known, although easily considered French, despite being Polish. Perhaps she made more fortune than others because she was a pioneer of radioactivity, a field of nuclear physics that subsequently had many interests and effects in the world. On the other hand, no scientist can think about the consequences of a discovery while she/he is discovering it. Marie Curie did not patent her idea in 1902, the radioactivity of radio and polonium (so called in honor of Poland, in fact), leaving free the research process to the whole scientific community.

And it seems that all of those female inventors, even after the 19th century at the time of the patent, encountered problems or prejudices or simply did not want to “define” their discoveries, effectively closing them to new researches.

Then maybe another motivation, in this huge, missed, unfair recognition of women’s work, is that they care less about fame, honor or big gains. Their interest remains purely scientific: that is “whatever it works”.

“A mighty girl” 70 children books collection about science-loving girls: here Hedy Lamarr, Hollywood legend and brilliant inventor; Katherine Johnson, “the woman who brought the man” on the moon, recently deceased at the age of 101; and Rosie the Riveter, cultural icon of World War II, representing the women who worked in factories and shipyards (often as engineers)

Other women inventors:

(1882) Blocks of the alphabet – Adeline D.T. Whitney

(1843) Ice cream machine – Nancy Johnson

(1875) Earth globes – Eliza Ellen Fitz (an American who worked in Canada as a housekeeper, obtained the patent in 1875. Her globes showed the position of the sun and the length of days and nights for the whole year)

(1900) Street cleaning machine – Florence Parpart

(1904) Rotary engine – Margaret Chevalier

(1917) Electric water heating – Ida Forbes

(1930) Chocolate Chip Cookies – Ruth Wakefield

(1950) Disposable diaper – Marion Donovan

(1951) Liquid correctors for paper – Bessie Nesmith Graham

(1952) Test that assesses the health of the child at birth – Virginia Apgar

(1956) Water repellent – Patsy Sherman

(1965) Baby carrier – Ann Moore

(1969) CCTV cameras – Marie Van Brittan Brown

(1971) Computerized telephone switching system – Erna Schneider Hoover

(1978 – 1988) Telecommunication Technology – Shirley Ann Jackson

(1991) Stem cell isolation – Gail Martin, Ann Tsukamoto

(1997) Indestructible, flame retardant and non-toxic material, the Geobond – Patty Billings


Un articolo per il costo di un caffè, quello che ci dà energia tanto quanto voi lettori 🙂 Grazie! ❤ P.S. non mancheranno premi per i migliori donatori!


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