Women in Science

the recent stupid comments by Nobel laureate Tim Hunt over the presence of women in science labs falling in love, has caused a lot of fuss, and rightly so. the following is from Boyd Tonkin in the I newspaper:

“As it sometimes does, last October the Nobel Committee for the prize in physiology or medicine split its award. Half the pot went to the ?British-American neuroscientist John O’Keefe, the other to the Norwegian couple who have charted the grid cells in the brain that enable our pathfinding and positioning skills via a sort of “internal GPS”.

May-Britt Moser and Edvard I Moser have worked together over 30 years. Professor Moser (May-Britt) said after the Nobel nod:”It’s easy for us because we can have breakfast meetings almost every day.” Professor Moser (Edvard) stated: “We have a common project and a common goal… And we depend on each other for succeeding.”

“There were a lot of things that made me decide to marry Edvard,” the other Prof Moser has recalled. Not all had to do with neurological breakthroughs. Once, Edvard gave her a huge umbrella. Open it, he said. “So I  opened it above my head and it rained down small beautiful pieces of paper with little poems on about me.”

This week, another Nobel laureate in the same discipline – Sir Tim Hunt, found himself in need of a titanium umbrella in order to fend off the media flak. the 72-year-old biochemist told a conference in South Korea that “girls” cause mayhem in the lab. “You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.” Cue the avalanche of outrage that has now driven Sir Tim – married, but the way to the distinguished immunologist Professor Mary Collins – out of his honorary post at University College, London. In Britain, where only 13% of scientific and engineering professionals are female, his off-the-cuff “banter” has gone down like a tungsten.. balloon.

so it should Yet the champions of equality of science who have justly hooted at Sir Tim’s antique ditty might spare a thought for the Moser’s partnership. The Norwegian pair are not alone in fusing personal commitment with top-grade scientific collaboration. Last year, in a fascinating study for Nature, Keri Smith reported that, according to the UHS National Science Foundation, “just over 1/4 of married people with doctorates had a spouse working in science or engineering” A 2008 survey found that the proportion of research posts that went to couples had risen from 3% t in the 19709s to 13%.

Smith consulted a range of high-flying scientific double-acts. they included the Taiwanese cell biologists Lily and Yuh-Nung Jan, who have collaborated since 1967. Lily Jan praised the joint progress made possible by a “very consistent long-term comraderie”. After years of long-distance romance and research, physicists Claudia Felser and Stuart Parkin now live together in Germany with plum posts at the Max Planck Institutes in Dresden and Halle…

these partnerships in life and lab follow a different,m far more equal pattern to the liaison of master and muse, once common in the arts. Scientists tend not to bother much with history . But the rising number of collaborating duos will know that they can hail as their forerunners the most intellectually fertile paring of all: between Marie Sklodowska-Curie and Pierre Curie.

Marie had plentiful Hunts of her own to vanquish. In 1903 only a late objection by a Swedish mathematician with feminist sympathies prevented her first Nobel Prize, in physics, from gong to Pierre and Henri Becquerel alone. Not that the Nobel selectors learned their lesson. Lise Meitner, who first explained the significance of nuclear fission, never got the call. when Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins share the Nobel for their work on DNS in 1962, no mention was made of Rosalind Franklin  (who had died in 1958). Her research into the double-helix structure had made their triumph possible.

As any woman scientist will tell you, such neglect and condescension die hard and slow. Yet the atavistic Hunt and his denouncers are a common position. Both would banish Eros from the bench. Cases such as the Mosers suggest that, in some cases, intimate bonds may even seed creativity. Expel love from the lab, and who knows what angels of deliverance might flee as well?

As Marie and Pierre Curie experimented to isolate radium and investigate its properties in a tumbledown hut on the Paris School of Physics site, another kind of bliss took hold: “It was in this miserable old shed that we past the best and happiest years of our life, devoting our entire days to our work.” Marie and Pierre’s shared quest embraced rapture as well as reason.

In which case, the flight from emotion – from Tim Hunt’s dreaded tears and love – may sterilise more than fertilise. shun “girls” by which he seems to mean all subjectivity, and the seeker risks falling into an antiseptic void. ”

Men and women, no matter how much we strain for equality, are different – complementary opposites – so it makes sense that couples should be able to work well together. and people at the cutting edge of any field tend to be passionate about what they’re doing. so this all makes sense, in fact it’s surprising that couples are not more common.


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