I did not grow up to become a scientist, but I did become a writer. And I knew that’s how I could get more women and girls as interested in science as I was when I watched the original “Cosmos.”
When I was in the third grade in 1980, the original Cosmos series aired on PBS. Watching it became a family affair: with TV trays (and heated up TV dinners) set up in preparation, every week for 13 weeks we lined up on the couch and tuned in for the latest installment, drawn into a world of science, physics, history and astronomy. I found it nothing short of magical. I can still hum the opening bars of the Vangelis theme music, and the show, which remains the most widely watched PBS series in the world (over 500 million people in more than 60 countries), sparked not just my intellectual curiosity but fired up my imagination, as well.
Unsurprisingly for the time, however, it was a story told almost exclusively by, and about, men. One of the series’ writers was Ann Druyan, Carl Sagan’s wife. Other than her behind-the-scenes involvement, there was little about women scientists in the program.
Thirty-four years later, I expected the new Cosmos series, which debuted in 2014 to an audience of eight million and was hosted by African-American physicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, to do better. And it did, in a way. Episode Eight: Sisters of the Sun was devoted entirely to three female scientists who helped found modern astrophysics: Cecilia Payne, Annie Jump Cannon, and Henrietta Leavitt. None of the first seven episodes, however, mentioned a single woman in science.
This isn’t just insulting, it’s an inaccurate representation of women’s role in science. If we are ever going to address the alarming dearth of women in STEM fields, we not only need to create a pipeline by encouraging girls to enter the sciences, we need to consciously examine the deep biases that leave even the most brilliant and accomplished women scientists out of the story. Physics, in particular, is rampant with macho sexism, ignoring the achievements of women: the Nobel Prize committee is not known for evenly distributing its prizes amongst men and women by any measure, but its record for physics is the worst of all. In its history, only two women have been awarded the prize in physics, and one of them was Marie Curie, who won with her husband and another male scientist in 1903.
Even with my love of Cosmos, I did not grow up to become a scientist, but I did become a writer. And when I hit upon the premise for my first novel, Wishful Thinking, in which a divorced mother of two gets the power to be in more than one place at a time, I immediately saw a wonderful opportunity. I would not bestow this power upon my protagonist through magic, but through science—physics, to be exact—and the physicist who invented the wormhole traversing time-travel app the novel is named for would be a woman. It was an absolute joy to bring the character Dr. Diane Sexton to life, and it was especially moving to imagine what her life might have been like as a girl coming of age in the 1960s, her mind afire with physics, in a world that had largely erased from history the women scientists that such a girl would seek as her role models.
In writing Dr. Sexton’s back story, I came up with the notion that she had become a collector, assembling a mini-museum of artifacts and possessions from great women scientists, and learned a great deal along the way. Did you know Florence Nightingale created info-graphics, or that the first computer programmer was the Countess of Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron? I didn’t.
So which women scientists to feature in Wishful Thinking? I hope you find them as inspiring as I did as I wove them into my book, and that you will add to this list, as well:
August Ada King (December 10, 1815 – November 27, 1852) was the daughter of famed poet Lord Byron and later the Countess of Lovelace—better known as “Ada Lovelace”—was born in London. Ada showed her gift for mathematics at an early age. She translated an article on an invention by Charles Babbage, and added her own comments. Because she introduced many computer concepts, Ada is considered the first computer programmer. (Source: Bio.com.)
Mary Fairfax Somerville (December 26, 1780 – November, 28 1872) was a Scottish science writer and polymath, at a time when women’s participation in science was discouraged. She studied mathematics and astronomy, and was nominated to be jointly the first female member of the Royal Astronomical Society at the same time as Caroline Herschel. (Source: Wikipedia)
Florence Nightingale (May 12, 1820 – August, 13 1910), as most know, was a celebrated English social reformer and statistician, and the founder of modern nursing. She came to prominence while serving as a nurse during the Crimean War, where she tended to wounded soldiers. What few people know, however, is that she was “an innovator in the collection, tabulation, interpretation, and graphical display of descriptive statistics.” The rose diagrams Nightingale created to visually illustrate the correlation between mortality and hygiene in the Crimean War are widely viewed as the first info-graphics. (Source: Wikipedia and Biographies of Women Mathematicians.)
Maria Goeppert Mayer (June 28, 1906 – February 20, 1972) was a German-born American theoretical physicist, and Nobel laureate in Physics for proposing the nuclear shell model of the atomic nucleus. She was the second female Nobel Laureate in Physics, after Marie Curie. (Source: Wikipedia and NobelPrize.org)
Maria Sibylla Merian (April 2, 1647 – January 13, 1717) was a German-born naturalist and scientific illustrator. At the age of fifty-two, Merian and her youngest daughter embarked on a dangerous trip to the Dutch colony of Surinam, in South America. Merian had seen some of the dried specimens of animals and plants that were popular with European collectors, and she wanted to study them within their natural habitats. She spent the next two years studying and drawing the indigenous flora and fauna. (Source: National Museum of Women in the Arts.)
Although better known for her silver-screen exploits, Austrian actress Hedy Lamarr (born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, November 9, 1914 – January 19, 2000) also became a pioneer in the field of wireless communications following her immigration to the United States. The international beauty icon, along with co-inventor George Antheil, developed a “secret communications system” to help combat the Nazis in World War II. (Source: Famous Women Inventors. CBS Sunday Morning. Photo: HedyLamarr.org.)
I hope that my creation of Dr. Diane Sexton will inspire more women and girls to explore their own interest in science, wherever that leads them.
Kamy Wicoff is the bestselling author of Wishful Thinking, and founder of She Writes.com, the largest online community for women who write, with members in all fifty states and more than thirty countries. She serves on the Advisory Council for the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, and on the Board of Directors for Girls Write Now. She lives with her two sons, and not her husband, in New York.