A necessary rant...?
Written by
Alma Alexander
November 2012
Written by
Alma Alexander
November 2012

So, there's this dude (I am assuming) at Deviant Art who has created a poster of "Action figures" of "Heroes of Science" - i.e. folk who have had an influence, presumably, on the world of science. He has drawn the action figures as they might appear were they actually real - they are, as far as I understand it, not real as themselves. There is just the poster, not the actual figures. You can see it here

Some stuff from the blog post below the poster as it currently appears italics are quotes; bold italics are MY EMPHASIS on stuff):

"I realise there are a *lot* of scientists that I’ve missed! I did make a few rules for who I’d include in this selection, which are:

the scientist must have been alive at some point in the 20th century. This is a practical consideration, as it really narrows the field down, and it eliminates a lot of the more outrageously-dressed characters, allowing me to work with mostly dudes in suits.

No scientists famous for major medical breakthroughs. Primarily because medical heroes is a category all of its own, and there are hundreds to choose from. I’ve included Alexander Fleming here, because he was primarily a chemist, and because his discovery of penicillin was not a discovery made in the course of trying to cure something."

(No scientists famoust for major medical breakthroughs, but you included Fleming because his discovery was made in the process of trying to "cure something"...? I, uh... okay, then.)

This is significant, because amongst all the Heores of Science there is... only one woman. The ubiquitous Marie Curie. There have of course been no women scientists before or after Madame Curie.

If I was under the delusion that I was the only one who might have noticed this, let's go back to the blog post below the poster. Here's one of the first questions in the FAQ:

Why is there only one woman?

So it's been noticed. Here's the dude's reply on the site:

This is clearly a subject of some controversy.


There are a bunch of reasons/excuses, not the least of which is that I honestly didn't think too hard about it, because I was flat-out manufacturing images of little scientists with no logical pattern to how I chose them.

Flat out manufacturing images of little scientists, so long as they were male. And why? Well - he has a reason -

1. Because Madame Curie was extremely difficult, and I'm not at all satisfied with the end result, so I wasn't confident attempting another.
2. I'll admit, once I had the man-in-a-suit template down, I was fairly eager to keep using it.

AW. It was just TOO HARD.

But more importantly, to me, there was this:

3. Because, statistically, they're in the minority. I'm not suggesting by any degree that their work is lesser, or that they shouldn't be recognised for their accomplishments, but when you punch up a list of "most recognisable scientists", "most famous scientists", etc, which is basically how I chose most of these (with the exception of a few personal favourites), there just aren't many women.

Okay. I hit Google on this. Just because. Let's see - search terms - "prominent women scientists. Here's a few hits:

There are fifty of them here. But fine, this is a fairly contemporary list and I will admit that these women are not as household names as someone like a Hawking or a Sagan or a Bohr might be. But we do not have to limit ourselves to these.

Here's a better list. Here's some names that you might even find vaguely recognizable, off this list (PS an asterisk next to the name indicsates that the lady is a an actual honest-to-goodness Nobel Laureate...):

Mary Bunting (Microbiologist. First woman member of teh US Atromic Energy commission. Known for discovery of effects of radiation on bacteria)

Eleanor Margaret Burbridge (Astronomer; first woman to direct the Royal Greenwish OBservatory in England)

*Gerty Cori (Biochemist, physician; first woman to receive the Nobel Prize for medicine/Physiology, in 1947)

*Gertrude B Elion (Biochemist; Nobel Laureate in 1988)

Dian Fossey (Primatologist, famous for her work with mountain gorillas in Rwanda, paid with her life when she crossed someone's annyance line, murder still unsolved, by the way...)

Rosalind Franklin (X-Ray Crystallographer who worked closely with Watson and Crick to understand the structure and function of DNA. They got the Nobel, she did not)

Jane Goodall (Animal Behaviourist; if ever there was a household name of a woman in science it is this one...)

*Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (Crystallographer; Nobel Laureate in Chemistry in 1964 for determining the crystal structure of biomedical compounds, including penicliin)

Grace Murray Hopper (she just invented the programming language COBOL. Move along now, nothing to see here.)

*Irene Joliot-Curie (yeah, ANOTHER damn Curie, can't keep them out of the playpen, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry for discovering how to make artificial radioactive elements)

*Maria Goeppert Mayer (Nobel Laureate for Physics in 1963; during WWII she worked on The Bomb...)

Mileva Maric (Mathematician, Einstein's wife, and rumoured to have made a substantial contribution to his research on relativity...)

*Barbara McClintock (1983 Nobel Laureate for work in genetics that was as seminal to the field as what that little monk did with his pea plants in the monastery garden...)

Margaret Mead (anthropologist, one of the first scientists to explore the islands of the Southern Pacific and shine the light of the world on the peoples of Samoa,Papua New Guinea, and Fiji.

Lise Meitner (physicist; the first woman to be awarded the Enrico Fermi award - yeah, he's one of the dudes on the original poster - for mathematically explaining the fission of the uranium atom)

Sally Ride (astronaut, first American woman in space aboard Shuttle Challenger, holder of a PhD in physics from Stanford...)

Florence Sabin (physician - determined the origin of red blood corpuscles, for instance...)

Valentina Tereshkova (Russian cosmonaut, the first woman to orbit the Earth in Space)

*Rosalyn S. Yalow (Nuclear Physicist; Nobel Laureate in 1977 for discovery of radioimmunoassay)

(I suspect that it would be easy enough to find images of these women - for some, at least, there is photographic evidence of them receiving their Nobel Prizes. But I can't do your entire homework for you. In fact, I'll even stop googling, right there. I've proved my point - there are plenty of women out there who would qualify in spades, even if you were biased enough to insist that only the "hard" sciences, such as phsyics or astronomy, need apply...)

Sez the dude behind the poster,

For the record, Mae Jemison was on my list, as was Florence Nightingale and Valentina Tereshkova. I have a LONG list. If I make a second one of these, you can count on them being there.

But then, if you include Mae Jemison (as you should - even if she wasn't as cool as being the one chosen to lead DARPA’s 100-Year Starship project - look that up, if you don't know what it is), you have to include the person who inspired her, Nichelle Nicholls, the actress who played Lieutenant Uhura in the Star Trek Original Series, and who was subsequent to that so instrumental in being a stalwart and shining beacon for girls and women (particularly those of colour) to apply to NASA for positions of astronautical ilk. You might also pile in other astronautical women, like Sunita Williams, Commander of the International Space Station. Or (if you want to go more historical) include, as a group or just pick a representative individual, one of the Mercury 13, the original women astronaut trainees at NASA. And the list goes on.

Dude... I know this is a hobby. I know you owe nobody anything. But casting myself as an eight or nine year old girl who comes across this poster in my school, the message I am taking home from this is "I do not matter. I will never be a scientist. I might as well go find a nice man to marry." The flow chart that comes out of your version of the science "heroes" (and yes, the language there is telling enough) is this: IS YOUR NAME MARIE CURIE? YES/NO IF YES - SHUT UP, YOU'RE DEAD. IF NO - NEVER MIND. YOU DON'T BELONG.

It would have been more honest if you had left Madame Curie off altogether, and just called it the "Heroes", and gone with that - and then made a second poster with the women on it, or something. It's THAT, or it's including  more women on THIS poster. We make up half of humanity, you know. Remember?

Just to point out: I only have one African-American scientist, one Indian scientist, one Hungarian mathematician.  Unfortunately for this collection, there are only so many hours I can spend drawing little people. :)

Oh. So it's THAT defence. It's saying, hey, some of my best friends are black/Jewish/or, well, FEMALE... so I couldn't possibly be biased here. Look, I included a token Asian. A token, er, Hungarian...?  The point being, it doesn't matter in the least WHAT these people are, in terms of race, religion, *or gender*. The problem is that you openly admit to have two separate lists, and of them is of secondary importance (to be got to "when and if you do a second edition of the poster", and not dealt with in THIS version because, well, Madame Curie was "too difficult"...) The problem is that I - as a woman, and as a scientist (yes, I damn well AM. By training, I own an MSc in Molecular Biology thank you very much indeed; by other criteria, I've been known to read books on string theory for pleasure) - I feel dismissed by this "defense" as put forward. As being secodary, unimportant, my achievements not to be compared to (male) heroes, someone to be considered if you run out of male names to pull out of a hat. No, really. You may not have intended it that way, but that's the way it came out. Sorry.

Here's more from the blog post:

How did you choose them?
Pretty much at random. I picked a bunch that were instantly recognisable.

Please do note - fame came first. But if I were to ask you what excactly made Schrodinger so famous - would you begin with "Well, there was this cat..." ? And could you explain to me in scientific terms the significance of that cat? Could you really actually explain to me the science behind Chandrasekhar's Limit? But you know the names and the concepts - and so do the plebs in popular culture out there - and you don't have to work as hard. It's like a poster of movie stars, really. If you don't "recognise" a face or a name immediately, they lose the right to appear on the poster...?

I picked a few that weren't. I picked a few personal favourites. I picked a few that just had really interesting appearances, as an artistic challenge.

(but weren't as difficult as Marie Curie to draw...)

It was very much a names-out-of-a-hat approach, based on a really long list of people. I've read a lot of suggestions for people I've missed in the comments, and almost every one was on the list -- I would have loved to have made more. I've been accused of having too much time on my hands, but unfortunately it's just not true. :)

If this was really just a hobby, then don't justify, and don't explain. Take your knocks and ignore them - they're no skin off your nose. But you yourself opened the can of worms with Marie Curie, and you OBVIOUSLY got called on it before I wrote this rant, and now you're trying to rationalise.

Don't rationalise. Do better.

Imagine that nine-year-old girl staring at your poster was YOUR DAUGHTER. What would you say to HER? "Sorry honey. There are any number of deserving female role models for you in science - true heroes all - but they were just too damn difficult to draw, and I didn't have time anyway..."?


I am hoping that some of the reaction you've gotten - both the "THIS IS SO COOL!" ones and the ones like mine, above - make you think again about this project. And hell, if you REALLY need me to Google up photographs of these women for you to refer to, I will volunteer to do it. But if you are out to educate the world, start right there at the beginning. You either ignore the women completely - yes, that means take out Marie - and knowingly go with your all-male all-star line up there, or you put some OTHER names into that hat of yours, your two lists become ONE list, and you do justice to the WHOLE of the human race.

Which is it going to be?

Let's be friends

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