If I were to construct my own personal and highly subjective list over the greatest women scientists in recorded history, the top would look something like this: Marie Curie is the undisputed number one, Maria Goeppert-Mayer two and Lise Meitner three. After that it gets trickier. I would say Irène Joliot-Curie, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Vera Rubin, Margaret Burbidge, Emmy Noether, Rosalind Franklin, Antonia Maury, Chien-Shiung Wu, Annie Jump Cannon, Dorothy Hodgkin, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Marguerite Davis, Inge Lehmann, Caroline Herschel, Ada King and Florence Nightingale, in roughly that order.
There are other candidates, such as Barbara McClintock, Lene Hau, Jane Goodall, Marguerite Perey, Ida Noddack, Martha Chase, Mary Leakey, Rita Levi-Montalcini, Hypatia, Sonya Kovalevskaya, Maria Gaetana Agnesi, Marie-Sophie Germain, Maria Mitchell, Ada Yonath, Carol Greider, Elizabeth Blackburn, Linda Buck, Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, Gerty Cori, Rosalyn Sussman Yalow, Gertrude Elion or Mary Anning.
I showed my proposed top twenty list of women scientists to several persons with above average education, and none of them were able to recognize the majority of the names that I had suggested, exceptions being famous ones such as Marie Curie or Florence Nightingale. If we make a list in 2011 over the 100 most important and influential scientists in world history, Marie Curie is the only woman who might, objectively speaking, be included among them. Nobody else comes close to her level, a full century after Curie got her second Nobel Prize.
Out of the different categories of human accomplishment, women clearly have the strongest minority presence in literature. No surprise there. It is a minority presence there as well, though; the greatest writers have disproportionately been men. Literature implies verbal skills, psychological insight and talent for observing people and their relationships, all traditional feminine virtues. Women’s presence is modest, but not necessarily insignificant, in some of the sciences that require observational skills and patience, but it is very tiny and close to zero in disciplines such as mathematics, theoretical physics and philosophy. Generally speaking, the more logic is needed in a particular field, the fewer women you are likely to find there.
At the highest level of accomplishment, the differences between men and women are so large that they have to be partly caused by differences in extreme ability, not merely restrictions or social discrimination. After a great revolution where women now numerically dominate many universities, at least in the social sciences (not the hard sciences), Marie Curie still reigns supreme among women scientists, and she was never close to the level of Newton or Einstein.
More than two hundred years passed between the birth of Newton and that of Einstein. We cannot predict where the next super-genius à la these men will be born. It could be another European, especially a northern European like Newton, or it could be an Ashkenazi Jew like Einstein. Based on historical experience, those would be the two most likely groups. Asians have not produced many individuals of that stature before, but that might change in the future. Theoretically speaking, the next Newton could come from East Asia, or, less likely but not unthinkable, from India or some other Asian nation. What we can say is that the next Newton or Einstein is overwhelmingly likely to be a man. Individuals with such an exceptionally high level of intelligence are rare among men, but they are practically non-existent among women.
Read the rest at Vlad Tepes.
Previously: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.