About Me

I'm Becca Dzombak, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan. I'm a biogeochemist interested in the co-evolution of the biosphere, geosphere, and atmosphere on Earth.

 

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  • Becca Dzombak

For International Women in Science day, I looked up SI units named for female scientists. Zero.

Think of a famous scientist, living or dead. Think of a few more. You probably came up with a few of these:

One woman, Marie Curie, does pop up in the results, but keep scrolling and you find that famous female scientists are sprinkled amidst a sea of (mostly white) men. For anyone familiar with the history of science, or even the state of STEM fields today, this isn't surprising - sexism, patriarchal practices, and traditional gender roles long kept women out of the lab, and women who did dive into math and science were ignored or written off. Thankfully, as a result of collective effort by women and men alike, we are in the process of rectifying that biased history and giving female scientists throughout history their due.


The same gender bias that limited women's place in scientific history is reflected in scientific units, too. Pascals, newtons, watts, volts, ohms, joules, hertz: all SI units all named for scientists, all named after men. Of non-SI units, the curie is sometimes attributed to Dr. Marie Curie, the French scientist of radioactive fame. However, the original Nature notice specifies that it is named in honor of 'the late Prof. Curie' - not the woman who physically created the standard.


Text from the Nature communication (by E. Rutherford) on the standardization of radioactive emissions. Rutherford E., 1910, Radium standards and nomenclature. Nature 84, 430-431.


Dr. Curie aside, the one scientist who has a (non-SI) unit named after her is Dr. Maria Goeppert-Mayer, a Nobel-winning* theoretical physicist (the second woman!) who proposed the shell

model of the nucleus. Her unit, the goeppert-mayer, is related to the ability of a molecule to absorb two photons, creating an excited state and fluorescence**. Dr. Goeppert-Mayer predicted this in her doctoral work, and her prediction was finally demonstrated over three decades later.


Progress can be slow, painfully so. Even though questions of women and the 'leaky pipeline' have been cropping up for decades now, many STEM fields remain dominated by men. (And those that do see increases in women can suffer from a drop in prestige - and pay, which is a separately issue.) Hopefully, as we continue improving gender balance in STEM fields and editing accepted scientific history to include the women who helped get us where we are today, scientific units will expand to include more female scientists.


*Dr. Marie Curie was the first woman to win the Nobel prize in physics. Dr. Goeppert-Mayer was the second, and was not followed until Dr. Donna Strickland's award in 2018.

**I'm a geologist, not a theoretical physicist, so my ability to describe Dr. Goeppert-

Mayer's work is... limited. But she seems like an incredibly smart lady.