'These are stories that deserve to be told': UBC book talk discusses repressed history of female physicists

Some of the most important discoveries in physics have been made by women, but if you put the words “famous physicist” into Google, you’ll see a list of dozens of men before coming across a single one.

This is why Dr. Shohini Ghose, award-winning quantum physicist and director of the Centre for Women in Science at Laurier University, decided to write Her Space, Her Time: How Trailblazing Women Scientists Decoded the Hidden Universe.

Ghose came to UBC on March 22 to speak about her book on the history of women in physics, which came out this year. She recalled how when she was growing up in India, the only female role model of her background in the field of physics was Lieutenant Uhura, the female communications scientist on Star Trek.

Her book tells the stories of 20 different women who, despite not getting the recognition they deserved, helped uncover crucial secrets of the universe. Each chapter focuses on a different topic in physics and astronomy and explains the contributions that female scientists have made to that particular area. Many of these women were not even granted the title “scientist” for the work they achieved.

Ghose told her UBC audience the story of Joyce Neighbours, the first woman to join the Apollo moon landing team. Her role in NASA’s Explorer 1 mission to send the first US satellite into space was so important that she was given the honour of signing her name on the mission chart.

However, she was told to sign with just her initials so that she couldn’t be identified as a woman. Yet ,the mission leader, Wernher von Braun, was allowed to sign his full name. Von Braun was a former member of the Nazi party — apparently less controversial to NASA in the 1950s than being a woman, Ghose added.

She had to dig “very deep to find the contributions of female scientists.” That can discourage young women from seeing themselves in the field.

Speaking of her own career, Ghose recalled the loneliness she felt studying at Miami University without a single woman of her own background to turn to — a common problem for women entering the field of physics, she said.

Ghose said that there’s a common misconception that barriers to women in STEM are a problem confined to the 20th century, since more and more women are enrolling in STEM programs.

However, Ghose said that the numbers have been pretty static. According to a letter published in Nature this year, only 25 per cent of physics degree recipients in the US are women, and that hasn’t changed since 2005. This is in spite of two important facts: that studies show there is no difference in mathematical performance between men and women; and that there have been increasing initiatives to bring more women into science in past decades.

According to Ghose, this is due to a lack of representation and role models. She discussed a study in which researchers observed parents interacting with their children in a science museum and found that “both mothers and fathers spent far more time explaining scientific concepts to their sons.” This shows that, from a young age males are actively encouraged to pursue an interest in the sciences. Women often don’t receive this same encouragement.

With better role models and stories of female physicists to look up to, that could change. But, Ghose said that her book isn’t about increasing the numbers of women in physics — it’s about celebrating the women that have been here the whole time.

“I don't think my book is about fixing all the problems of gender,” said Ghose. “My book is about celebrating women … These are stories that deserve to be told."