Welcome to the Jennifer Joy Podcast: Where Science Meets Art!
In this first episode, Benu Muhammad (vocal sound FX master) and I try to answer: What is life? Enjoy!
Welcome to the Jennifer Joy Podcast: Where Science Meets Art!
In this first episode, Benu Muhammad (vocal sound FX master) and I try to answer: What is life? Enjoy!
The SciArt6 is an eco-performance troupe – performance for the environment. We do comedy, music, dance and more. Check out the first video…
This spring, my environmental performing troupe, The SciArt6, has some touring gigs in upstate NY. We’ve got some fresh work! We have new pieces focusing on environmental racism. We’re also updating our sketch comedy with the latest from the Paris accords and the TPP.
See https://jenniferjoyonline.com/sciart6 for the latest!
What’s the most effective way to teach junior high and high school students about science? Long, droning lectures? Or by using comedy, characters and hip hop-style vocal sound effects??
My collaborator, Benu Muhammad, and I think students learn best when they’re having fun. So we’re doing a podcast series that’s playful and funny – and we’re doing it in a professional sound studio, so we can really pull in educators. Please support us here:
I had a terrific time this past Saturday with the high school students in the DC Environmentors program. These folks pair a scientist-mentor with a high school student interested in science, especially environmental science. The students work on science projects for local, state and national science fairs.
I was incredibly impressed by these students. They’re smart, creative and expressive. They are also very quick learners! They learned the concepts around effective presentations more quickly than most adults I’ve taught! Here’s what they had to say about the workshop:
Ever since I read E=mc2, A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation, I’ve been fascinated with Lise Meitner. Born in 1878 in Vienna, this Jewish woman overcame extraordinary prejudice against educated women, and the even greater prejudice against women in science, to become one of the world’s most remarkable physicists. Her crowning achievement came not when she was in her 20’s, like so many genius male scientists, but rather, at 59 years old, after a narrow escape from Nazi Germany.
Lise’s Childhood: A Love for Education
Lise’s father was a lawyer, and there were always other lawyers, legislators and writers visiting the family, providing a very intellectual atmosphere. Lise herself loved to study and learn. Education for girls in Vienna, however, only went through age 14. After that age, girls stayed at home until they got married. In 1897, when women were suddenly allowed to go to universities, the Meitner family rallied around its daughters. Each was given the opportunity to complete the preparatory work that was required to attend a university. Lise completed the equivalent of 8 years of education in 2 years. She worked so hard, her younger siblings would tease, “You’ll fail! You just walked across the room without picking up a book!”
At the University of Vienna, Lise fell in love with physics. She had a beloved professor, Ludwig Boltzmann, who welcomed women into his classes. He treated his students like family. Lise excelled, continuing her studies until she became the 2nd woman to earn her PhD in Physics at the university, in 1906.
Berlin or Bust
After graduating, she had few choices. She excelled in research and lab work, but there were no jobs for women in research. She started teaching (the equivalent of high school teaching) and did research at night. She was so engaged with her scientific work that she published 3 papers in one year. She knew she had to go further.
She had heard a lot about the work being done at a university in Berlin. Since she was being paid so poorly for her teaching work, she was still being supported by her parents. So she had to ask their permission to go to Berlin. They agreed.
What she didn’t know before she went to Berlin is that women were not yet allowed in universities there. She walked into a decidedly male atmosphere. She felt so uncomfortable, she said, “I became very reserved, very shy. I had almost a fear of people.”
Obstacles after Obstacles
Still she pushed on. She went to Max Planck himself to ask if she could attend his classes. He didn’t think women belonged in science, but he reluctantly agreed. (Later, after he saw her work and got to know her, he would become one of her greatest allies.)
As for research, she approach a lab run by Emil Fischer, who was quite stridently opposed to women being in science. He did not want to give her lab space. When one of his young chemists, Otto Hahn, wanted to work with Meitner, he reluctantly agreed. She could use a basement carpenter’s shop, with a separate entrance. She had to promise not to set foot on the upper floors.
A year later, women were allowed into universities. Fischer relented, and said she could come to the main floors. Still, many male students pointedly ignored her and otherwise let her know she was not welcome. She was paid nothing until 1912, while the men earned at least a small stipend. Her parents had to continue to support her.
Recognition for Her Talents: A Career in Physics
The younger physicists were different. About them, Lise commented, “Not only were the brilliant scientists, they were also exceptionally nice people to know. Each was ready to help the other, each welcomed the other’s success.”
She was also welcomed into Planck’s circle of physicists. She reflected, “The more advanced students and physics assistants were regularly invited to his home… we played tag in the garden, in which Planck participated with almost childish ambition and great agility…”
Given this atmosphere, Lise’s talents were eventually recognized and rewarded. By 1917, Emil Fischer named her the head of the Physics section at the lab (that was now renamed the “Kaiser Wilhelm Institute”) in 1917. KWI also gave her the status of Professor in 1919, the first woman to achieve that status in Germany. She was officially a part of the golden age of physics. She had a rich life in Berlin, with lots of friends. She was respected in her field.
This continued even after Hitler took power, in 1933. Lise was 54 years old.
Engaging in Scientific Revolutions with Nazis Breathing Down Her Neck
She still had her Austrian citizenship, which provided her a little protection against the Nazis. Also, she was very much wanted at the Institute. In 1934, Irene Joliet-Curie and her husband Frederic induced artificial radioactivity in Aluminum, a breakthrough for which they received the Nobel. It was a thrilling time to be in physics. Lise really didn’t want to leave Berlin and her work.
So she stayed. She repeated Fermi’s experiments – he tested every element for artificial radioactivity – and confirmed his results. In 1937, she enlisted her former lab partner, Otto Hahn, to begin experiments on artificial radioactivity using “slow neutrons”.
By July of 1938, though, Nazis had infiltrated every part of German life. Nazi scientists pressured Otto Hahn, who was now the head of the KWI, to fire her. “The Jewess endangers us,” they claimed. Hahn resisted for awhile, but then word came down that the secret police were actually getting ready to arrest her. She escaped, with the help of Dutch colleagues, with only a couple of small suitcases of summer dresses. All of her work and the rest of her belongings were left behind. Her life, and her career, would be completely shattered by this.
A Refugee’s Stunning Scientific Breakthrough
She was now a refugee. If she had left in earlier years, she might’ve found another position. Einstein left early and got a position at Princeton. Many other physicists did the same. There were few positions available now. She ended up in Sweden, at a new institute where she was given no lab, no lab assistants and no respect. Had she known this position was so bad, she wouldn’t have accepted it.
Meanwhile, Hahn was continuing the experiments that she had set up. He was often confused by the results, and would write her requesting explanations. Fritz Strassman, their lab assistant, later reflected about their team, “Lise Meitner was always the intellectual leader.”
On Christmas Eve of 1938, Meitner and her nephew, Robert Frisch, were spending time together. Frisch was also a physicist. He wanted to go skiing, so he skied while she walked. They puzzled over Hahn’s latest letter. It seemed that he thought that the Barium they were using as a sort-of adhesive for the radium experiments, was sticking to bits of radioactive particles. This made no sense at all… until Meitner realized that the radium atom might have split. She quickly sat down on a tree stump and made calculations. She realized that the radium atom was already so packed full of protons, that pushing in the additional neutrons could cause it to split wide open – thus fulfilling Einstein’s special relativity predictions.
Many of the scientists working on artificial radioactivity had actually induced fission, as it came to be known, but didn’t recognize it. Lise did. This was the crowning achievement of her career. And Otto Hahn won the Nobel for it.
Yes, good ol’ sexism. For his part, Hahn ended up working for the Nazis. He was proud of his Nobel and insisted it belonged to him and to the field of chemistry. Physicists were outraged by this, but the Nobel committee would not change their decision.
Redressing Injustice: Meitner’s Place in History Restored
Thankfully, Lise Meitner left her papers to Cambridge. She kept Hahn’s letters and made copies of her own. The papers were there when historians were finally ready to recognize women’s contributions to science.
In the last 25 years, her contributions have increasingly been recognized. In 1992, physicists in Darmstadt, Germany, fused a bismuth isotope with an iron isotope to create a new element. They named this element meitnerium. The lead of the team, Peter Armbruster, declared, “Lise Meitner should be honored for her fundamental work on the physical understanding of fission. She should be honored as the most significant woman scientist of this century.”
From the beginning of her life, Barbara McClintock knew she was different. Born in 1902 in Hartford, CT, she was never content being a “good girl”, or later, becoming “ladylike”. She loved to play sports with the boys, and she relished learning, even those most “unladylike” subjects, math and science.
Luckily, Barbara’s parents were themselves mavericks. They encouraged her to be fully herself. When a neighbor woman tried to lecture Barbara on being “ladylike”, Barbara’s mother immediately called her and told her in no uncertain terms never to speak to Barbara again.
Barbara’s parents prized the individuality of all their children. Barbara not only defied gender categories, she also defied social expectations. She loved to be alone. From babyhood, she could sit quietly by herself, just thinking while other children played together. This gift for contemplation and concentration was the foundation for her genius.
Her genius was in the area of genetics. She worked on corn (“maize”) and she began surpassing even her mentors while she was still in college. Her ability to identify individual chromosomes was her first huge contribution to the field. Her list of published papers grew quickly as a grad student and post-doc, but she could not get a university job. Most universities were adamantly opposed to hiring women instructors or researchers.
But Barbara had incredibly supportive colleagues, who rallied around her. With their support, she got her first research grants, and a 5-year research position at the University of Missouri. However, she was isolated from the overall university structure. She wasn’t invited to faculty meetings, or included in other activities. She knew she had to leave.
She ended up at Cold Springs Harbor, on Long Island in New York state. What was supposed to be a short stopover at this venerable research institution ended up becoming a lifelong home. While there, she would make her Nobel-winning discovery about the true nature of DNA.
The “central dogma” about genes at this time was that they were just inert packets of information. They were like pearls on a string, and all the information was downloaded into the RNA, which coded proteins. McClintock discovered that DNA was not so inert. It could change positions. It was self-regulating. And the changes could be triggered by the environment. Thus – the field of epigenetics was born.
She made these discoveries in 1951. But the scientific community wasn’t ready to have their “central dogma” overthrown, and certainly not by this woman, this eccentric woman. It took them a full 20 years before they realized that she had been correct all along.
To the credit of the scientific community, this is one woman who did get the rewards she deserved. She got her Nobel in 1983, and received numerous other awards and recognitions as well.
What I admire most about her is that even when she was not being recognized for her achievements, even when she was being discriminated against for being a woman… she held fast to her individuality. She didn’t try to change herself. She decided in college to wear pants and cut her hair – it was just practical, given that she was in the corn field all day. This of course caused shock waves across her campus (she went to Cornell). But she knew from the time she was in high school that she was different. She knew she would pay a price for being different. And she made a very conscious choice to do as she like and pay whatever price she had to. She prized loyalty to herself above social approval.
Today, we can see her attitudes and choices reflected in many women around us. But in the 1920’s, being herself made her a radical. But to manifest her genius in the world, she needed great courage. We are lucky
indeed that she had that courage.
I’m excited to announce that I’ll be giving my talk, Get Inspired: Four Brilliant Women Scientists on March 26 at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.
When I first started researching the history of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), I assumed that it would be an easy, quick study. After all, sexism has held women back for centuries in every area, but especially in STEM. Still, I thought, Marie Curie couldn’t be the only remarkable woman scientist in the last 200 years or so. There had to have been others.
Oh. My. Goddess. After 6 weeks of steady reading, I had still only scratched the surface. Smart and persistent women have pushed through sexism to make their mark in all areas of science. I decided to create a talk about a few of them.
Next challenge: a talk shouldn’t be more than an hour. Who would I choose? It was impossibly difficult to narrow the field. I finally decided to go for diversity of background… at least, for this first talk. I include Lise Meitner, an Austrian Jewish woman who worked in Berlin in the 1920’s and 1930’s, Chien Shiung-Wu, a Chinese woman who emigrated to America to study science in 1936, Barbara McClintock, a Connecticut-born “gender rebel”, and Shirley Ann Jackson, profiled below.
For my the next four blog entries, I’ll do short profiles of each women featured in my talk. Their achievements are especially impressive, given the obstacles they each faced. First up: Shirley Ann Jackson, an African American woman who defied the odds and helped make the world a better place for all of us.
Shirley Ann Jackson is a physicist and leader. She was one of the first 2 African American women at MIT, and she eventually co-founded the Black Student Union there. She is a unique individual, with considerable gifts in both science and building consensus. These dual talents eventually led her to work with state nuclear regulatory commissions. President Clinton then tapped her to head the National Nuclear Regulatory Commission. She was one of the first to enforce the laws and demand that nuclear power plants actually bring their plants into compliance with regulations. She also became concerned about the nuclear stockpiles of unstable nation-states, and helped to found the International Regulatory Commission. Today, she is the first woman and the first African American president of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
Next up: Barbara McClintock, a genius geneticist who was decades ahead of her time!
I’d love to book more talks while I’m in the Midwest – get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or fill out the form below.
I borrowed this image from littlebighistory.com. Cool right? Recently, I got to perform at the International Big History Association conference. Funded generously by Bill Gates, this group “…seeks to understand the integrated history of the Cosmos, Earth, Life, and Humanity, using the best available empirical evidence and scholarly methods.” (From ibhanet.org)
So – my work fits right in, since I use the scientific history of the universe as a frame and back drop for a comedic love story in my show, The Physics of Love. (https://jenniferjoyonline.com/physics-of-love)
It was a fun performance!