Women of Science

podcast May 21, 2018

The Fathers of Science Fiction are Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clark, but who is the mother?  

Women in Science Fiction

Our vote is Mary Shelley, Author of Frankenstein (The Modern Prometheus). At age 18, in the summer of 1816, she visited Lake Geneva with her husband Percy Shelley, their friend Lord Byron, and John Polidori. Often sitting around inside due to the weather, the company took to telling German ghost stories, thus prompting Lord Byron that they all write a story of their own. Mary Shelley wrote in her introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein: “I busied myself to think of a story – a story to rival those which had excited me to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror – one to make the reader dread to look around, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beating of the heart.” Mary was the only one to finish her story during the trip and come to publish it in 1818, paving the way for all science fiction authors, men and women, to do the same. Other influential and impactful names in science fiction are:

  • Octavia Butler
  • Andre Norton
  • Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Anne McCaffrey
  • Connie Willis
  • Jane Yolen


Women of Science

Vera Cooper Rubin:

In the 1970s, Vera Rubin began to study the rotation of spiral galaxies when they observed angular motions different than that of their predictions! She found that galaxies were rotating way to fast for the amount of gravity present. Sound familiar? Dark Matter! That’s right, Vera Rubin hypothesized this interstellar glue holding galaxies together for what we have no termed, Dark Matter.

Carolyn Porco

In the 1980s, Carolyn got to work on the Voyager missions to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. In fact, she’s considered one of the world’s foremost experts on the planetary rings and moons of those planets. She led the imaging team on the Cassini mission, which was orbiting Saturn until it intentionally crashed into the atmosphere. Lastly, she is the one who discovered those huge geysers and plumes of icy particles on Saturn’s moon, Enceladus.

Nancy Grace Roman

She was born in 1925, organized a backyard astronomy club with her friends when she was just 11 and clearly never stopped. Nancy got her Ph.D. in astronomy at the University of Chicago in 1949 and became NASA’s first chief of astronomy AND the first woman ever to hold an executive position there. Roman’s greatest achievement is by far being instrumental in developing orbiting telescopes, like Hubble, which has given us unbelievably beautiful images of our universe as well as hunt for planets beyond our solar system.

Sally Ride was the first woman in Space in 1983

Mae Jemison was the first African American woman in space in 1992,

Carolyn Shoemaker has discovered more comets and asteroids than any other astronomer (800 asteroids and 32 comets) and discovered Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9 that eventually broke apart in July 1992 and collided with Jupiter in July 1994, providing the first direct observation of an extraterrestrial collision of Solar System objects.


-From NASA.gov

Before the development of electronic computers, the term “computer” referred to people, not machines. It was a job title, designating someone who performed mathematical equations and calculations by hand. Over the next thirty years, hundreds of women, most with degrees in math or other sciences would join as computers at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory.

The first computers at Langley, organized into a central office in the Administration Building, took on calculating work that had originally been done by the engineers themselves. According to a 1942 report, computing sections were designed to process test data more efficiently, relieving engineers of this essential, but time consuming work. Engineers were free to devote their attention to other aspects of research projects, while the computers received praise for calculating data “more rapidly and accurately,” doing more in a morning than an engineer alone could finish in a day.

While the specific tasks a computer did varied according to need and her department, the majority of computing work involved three components: reading film, running calculations, and plotting data. All this work was done by hand, using slide rules, curves, magnifying glasses and basic calculating machines.

Margaret Hamilton

One of those 400,000 people was Margaret Hamilton… Hamilton, a computer programmer, would wind up leading the Software Engineering Division of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory (now Draper Labs). Computer science, as we now know it, was just coming into existence at the time. Hamilton led the team that developed the building blocks of software engineering – a term that she coined herself. Her systems approach to the Apollo software development and insistence on rigorous testing was critical to the success of Apollo. As she noted, “There was no second chance. We all knew that.”

Annie Jump Cannon

Annie Jump Cannon entered Wellesley College in Massachusetts in 1880 to study astronomy. She became interested in stellar spectroscopy, the process of breaking light from stars down into its component colors so the various elements can be identified. After suffering from scarlet fever, which left her hearing impaired, she earned her masters degree. Over the course of her life, Cannon classified the spectra of over 350,000 stars and story has it that she could look at any stellar spectra and classify it in just three seconds, assigning each one its place in the sequence O, B, A, F, G, K, and M.

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

In her Ph.D. thesis, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin proposed a brilliant idea for explaining the composition of stars. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, says that "Payne's 'Stellar Atmospheres' is widely regarded as the most brilliant Ph.D. thesis ever written in astronomy, and that "It became the standard text in its field.

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