Growing up in the seventies, I remember whaling away to radio songs in the back seat of my dad’s Pontiac car.
When I’d hear Debby Boone’s popular song, “You light up my life”, it meant something completely different back then. The words described a woman sitting by her window pining for her man to come home. She knew that if he brought her enough light, she could hope and live again.
Women today would snicker at this old-fashioned image, one that still lives in some of our popular country songs. But in truth, women and light have nothing to do with waiting by a window. Women have been lighting up the world on their own and in revolutionary ways for centuries.
(PC: Nobel Prize website)
Scientists like Hypatia and Donna Strickland did it standing next to a lectern and hunched over light-based technologies that were brilliant enough to drive scientific progress.
Hypatia was a mathematician, philosopher, and astronomer during the 4th century A.D. Widely respected for her intellect and work, she did everything from lecturing and counseling government officials to building complex instruments like astrolabes, and planispheres used in astronomy.
Centuries later in 2018, Donna Strickland rocked the science world with her high-intensity, optical pulses of light.
Working with little fanfare out of the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, Donna was considered unworthy of a Wikipedia entry until hours after winning the Nobel Prize for Physics.
Donna’s win for women in science adds to a familiar adage I’ve been hearing all year – that we are enjoying the Year of the Woman. If that’s true, although I think every year is the year of the woman, I can’t help but wonder what it means to be a woman in science.
Actress Rachel Weisz tackles that question when she plays Hypatia in the movie Agora. I’m hoping to rent it on Netflix and learn a little more about Hypatia’s life and death in a more modern context. What’s particularly noteworthy is how Hypatia and her philosophies have continued to influence us and philosophers after her.
The Wisdom of Hypatia: Ancient Spiritual Practices for a More Meaningful Life is a book which harnesses the advice Hypatia to students who relished it regardless of their religious practices and beliefs. This new book promises to provide a hands-on guide for finding purpose, peace and spiritual depth in life, so I’m actually thinking it might be a great holiday gift to shake things up for some of my country and western friends!
No doubt Hypatia’s work was powerful and brought enlightenment as did Donna Strickland’s scientific work. Donna admits she’s conscious of her new role as one of the few women in science, especially now that she’s been recognized with a Nobel Prize.
Recently, Donna talked to Elizabeth Gibney from the Nature International Journal of Science (Oct. 10/18). She shared her thoughts about the award and her belief that when we stop talking about it in the context of gender, we’ll see true progress. I couldn’t agree more.
You’ll see however from the interview below that Donna also some meaningful advice for younger scientists. While she believes things are changing for women in many scientific fields, the real test is for society to keep moving forward.