Nov. 1, 2023Print | PDF
When Shohini Ghose was growing up, the only woman in science she knew of was Uhura, the fictional communications officer on Star Trek. Only as an adult did she learn that a woman from her home region of Bengal, India, Bibha Chowdhuri, had made massive contributions to modern physics.
“Bibha was involved in discovering two fundamental particles in nature, the neutrino and the pion,” says Ghose, a professor of Physics and Computer Science at Wilfrid Laurier University. “She’s Bengali, I’m Bengali, and yet I never heard her name. We didn’t celebrate those stories.”
Ghose is hoping to change that with the release of her new book, Her Space, Her Time: How Trailblazing Women Scientists Decoded the Hidden Universe. It chronicles the inspiring stories of women physicists and astronomers, like Chowdhuri, who made indelible scientific contributions, yet have remained unsung in history.
Ghose, founder of the Laurier Centre for Women in Science and a Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada Chair for Women in Science and Engineering, shares the inspiration for her research and why she hopes readers of her new book are left feeling “hope, inspiration and outrage.”
Science is my inspiration. The universe is full of wonder and excitement, and I feel the same feelings when I read about these women who followed their goals and passions no matter what challenges they faced. In physics and astronomy classrooms, I didn’t have many other women or people from my own background to turn to. It could be quite lonely and I felt like I didn’t belong, to the point that I almost quit. With this book, I want to change the idea that women are not part of the scientific story. It’s empowering to feel connected to women of that caliber.
When I began teaching astronomy many years ago, I wanted to incorporate human stories into my lectures that the students could connect to. It grew from there. At the Laurier Centre for Women in Science, we spend a lot of time thinking about these issues. Whenever I’m studying a particular area of science, I’ve learned that there is probably more to the story than I know of. I now make a point to find out about the ‘hidden’ women who were likely involved in each discovery.
Someone who is close to my heart is Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, an astronomer and astrophysicist who was based at Harvard University during the 1920s. In her PhD thesis, she was one of the first people to use a new theory at the time, the theory of quantum physics. She used the mathematics of that theory to understand the composition of all stars and show that they were made of hydrogen and helium, which we take for granted today. This was a transformational discovery, yet she went unrecognized for many years. She didn’t have an official role at Harvard until much later, when she was finally made a faculty member. Then she became the first woman to ever chair a department at Harvard.
Cecilia is a role model because of her arc of discovery and resilience. No matter how little recognition she got, she kept doing amazing research and eventually left an incredible legacy. And she did it using quantum physics, which is my field, so she’s very special to me.
"With this book, I want to change the idea that women are not part of the scientific story. It’s empowering to feel connected to women of that caliber."
Yes. Often, the men they worked with got awards for their work. A male scientist used the same techniques as Bibha Chowdhuri to confirm her discoveries and won the Nobel Prize. Another woman, Lisa Meitner, was nominated for the Nobel Prize 48 times and never won. She is basically the one who discovered nuclear fission, which led to nuclear energy, the atom bomb, nuclear physics, and so on. She never won, yet she kept going. How do you continue in the face of such obvious resistance? These women were so resilient. It’s amazing, and it’s also infuriating. I hope readers feel outrage for what these women had to deal with just to do what they love.
In addition to their legacies of cutting-edge science, these women addressed challenges and biases that they faced to break glass ceilings. They were rule breakers. They earned leadership positions. They set up awards for young women to be recognized in their fields. They started women in physics committees, which we have everywhere today. These women used their voices to support other women, which is how change happens.