Gina Davidson: Let’s hear it for the smart girls

Are the names of Elizabeth Blackwell, Mary Somerville, Elizabeth Fulhame, Maria Gordon, Charlotte Auerbach, Muriel Robertson or Marion Ross familiar?

Thursday, 16th October 2014, 12:45 pm
Women in science dont get enough recognition. Picture: TSPL

Let’s throw the net wider. How about Ada Lovelace or Mary Anning? Rosalind Franklin or Dorothy Hodgkin? Elsie Widdowson or Anne McLaren?

Still nothing? More up to date then... Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Professor Lesley Yellowlees, Professor Jean Manson, Professor Anne Glover, Tricia Henton, Professor Heather Cubie. Most of these names will mean little to those of us who do not mix in academic circles, who are not involved in science, technology, engineering, maths or medicine (STEMM) careers,.

Which is all, actually, quite okay. We are not all cut out to be the big brains on campus. But if someone were to ask who invented penicillin, or made the word “boson” popular then it’s likely they’d be answered easily: Alexander Fleming, Peter Higgs.

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Women and their achievements in STEMM subjects are all too easily forgotten, or their breakthroughs and research deemed secondary to those of men. All the women listed at the beginning of this article made major contributions to the worlds of astronomy, botany, chemistry, medicine and health, biology, physics, geology... and yet very little is taught about them.

Imagine how inspiring it would be to young girls toying with committing to science subjects to know of the trailblazers who had gone before, rather than the same old stories of how men discovered and invented everything. Apart from Marie Curie of course, she is given her due.

Imagine too how great it would be to no longer have to shout about the fact that women are made presidents of male bastions such as the Royal Society of Chemistry (as Prof Yellowlees was last year) because it’s a ­normal, natural thing.

On Tuesday evening I had the privilege of meeting Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the first female President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the woman who discovered pulsars – stars which, as you might expect, pulse.

There’s no point me even trying to explain why that 1967 discovery was so important (as I can’t) but it has been described by those who know such things as “the greatest astronomical discovery of the 20th century”. Yet if you were asked to name an important astronomer who would you choose? Patrick Moore?

And did Dame Jocelyn win the Nobel Prize for Physics for her work? No – that went to her academic ­superior Antony Hewish and another chap Martin Ryle.

Not that’s she’s bitter about that. Indeed she believes she’s won many other awards for her work as a result of not getting a Nobel. And she’s not a bitter kind of person – but she is angry about the way women are treated in STEMM industries and academia, and is, at the age of 71, still fighting to make sure a culture change can see more women make it to the top.

Her fight began in rural Northern Ireland where she railed against being expected to study “domestic science” at school, rather than just science. She got her way – and came top in her exams. Then she went on to study physics at Glasgow University, the only woman in the honours year, running the gauntlet of boorish male students who thought it appropriate to thump desks and boo every time she walked into a room. The ­lecturers never made them stop.

It is frankly amazing that she got anywhere given the barriers she faced, so what a hero she should be to young girls who gaze at the stars.

Yesterday was Ada Lovelace day, and Dame Jocelyn was speaking at Edinburgh Napier University’s ­dinner in her honour. Lovelace was a 19th century mathematician, credited with developing the first “computer programme”. Until recently though, she was first and foremost known for being the daughter of Lord Byron.

Things have changed, will continue to change for women in STEMM work thanks to people such as Dame Jocelyn and organisations like Equate Scotland. But it all needs to start much earlier. In schools when the achievements of Alexander Fleming and penicillin are celebrated, so should be Muriel Robertson and her work on fighting bacteria which infect wounds.

It’s time these brilliant women took their rightful place.

Losing the Ross Fountain is just not an option

IT’S going to cost £1.5m to restore the Ross Fountain in Princes Street Gardens and get it working again.

The council has already pledged £500,000 towards the work, and is hoping for help in raising the rest. Yet it was just 14 years ago that it was repaired – after a five year drought – for just £40,000.

In 2000, Councillor Steve Cardownie convinced East of Scotland Water to create a partnership and fork out £25,000 for the repairs – with a pledge that the council would look after it from then on in. Then in 2004 it was hit by a fire and stopped working for 18 months, before a pump was replaced.

In 2010 it was closed again because it was leaking. Now the famous monument is in an even worse state and a new sponsor is required.

Losing the fountain is not an option, it’s a big part of Edinburgh’s architectural history (and tourists love it), but again this throws light on what has been a shoddy time for the city’s repairs service.

Red-faced and on the run . .

IF you see a bloke wandering around with armfuls of cash and covered in red dye be sure and let the police know, will you.

They apparently can’t find the man who robbed the Craigentinny branch of RBS despite the fact that he left a trail of banknotes (unlike the recent RBS robbery in Corstorphine, this thief had forgotten his poly bag) and red splashes of paint in his wake.