Monday, March 9, 2015

A Woman's Place Is in the Lab

In recognition of International Women's Day, the science-cultist Facebook page I Fucking Love Science posted a lot of memes about women scientists.  One of my friends reposted the one above.

It's certainly interesting, so I decided to look Noether up in Margaret Wertheim's useful book Pythagoras' Trousers (Norton, 1997).

This meme gives the false impression that Noether remained in Germany under the Nazis. In fact, says Wertheim, she "soon found herself desperately seeking a post abroad. Unlike Einstein and Hermann Weyl, who had been installed at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, Noether was unable to obtain a research position. In the end she took a post teaching undergraduates at the women's college Bryn Mawr, but it was clear to everyone that she needed a place where she could continue her advanced work. In 1935, just as it seemed the Institute for Advanced Study was on the verge of appointing her, Emmy Noether died as a result of complications from an operation to remove an ovarian cyst." So, although at least she didn't have to dodge Brownshirts in the US, she didn't receive the recognition she deserved here either, and got shunted off to the side while her male colleagues were taken better care of. As Wertheim observes, "Whatever resistance Einstein himself had faced from the ivory towers of academe pales by comparison with the treatment they [Noether and Lise Meitner, q.v.] encountered" (190).

It's good that women scientists are getting this coverage, but it seems not only tokenistic but somewhat dishonest and evasive, since it overlooks the fierce resistance that women in science faced, not from religious nuts, but from their male scientific colleagues -- or from "science," as IFLS calls them -- right down to the present.

Oh, and P.S.: Einstein's condescending remark about her, quoted in the meme, is interesting too, when you consider that "When Einstein was battling with the mathematics of general relativity, she was one of the people recruited to help him" (ibid.).