Women’s contributions to science aren’t always obvious, because women don’t always make it into textbooks. That doesn’t mean they haven’t been busy changing the world as long as men, however. While there are thousands of engineers, mathematicians, naturalists, and astronauts who could be on this list, these are ten female scientists who changed the world.
This English Countess became the first computer programmer. She was obsessed with mathematics. When she met Charles Babbage and his Analytical Engine, she helped transform the project from an advanced calculator to one of the world’s earliest computers.
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Not many people discover a new element. Marie Curie changed the modern world forever by revealing two: radium and polonium. She was born to a Polish family that lost everything, but she shattered expectations by becoming the first female professor at the University of Paris and winning two Nobel Prizes. No women had ever won one before. Her experiments with x-rays saved – and continue to save lives.
She started high school when she was ten and college at 15. In an age when only white men were supposed to be scientists, she became a “human computer” and helped not only put a man in orbit, but also got the first men on the moon. Her unique math skills, curiosity, and ingenious geometry solutions have shaped space missions forever.
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The Internet relies on the Spanning-Tree Protocol (STP), and Radia Perlman invented it. As part of a larger team, her work helped shape network design and standardization features used by network engineers to this day. She is still inventing and improving on technology. A recent improvement on STP, TRILL, comes from her ongoing work at Dell.
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Hedy Lamarr is best known for her on-screen job as an actress during the golden age of Hollywood. Her greatest contributions to the world, however, come from her work as an inventor. Along with a Hollywood composer and friend, George Antheil, she designed spectrum-hopping spread spectrum technology to help guide torpedoes in WWII. This invention laid the foundation for Bluetooth and early Wi-Fi.
You’ve probably heard of the Manhattan Project. You may not know about Chien-Shiung Wu, the Chinese-American physicist who helped divide uranium isotopes. Later experiments – notably the Wu Experiment – proved critical rules of physics. While her male comrades won Nobel Prizes, she won the Wolf Prize in Physics.
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- National Medal of Science: Chien-Shiung Wu
Dorothy Mary Crowfoot Hodgkin
Born in Egypt to British parents in 1910, Dorothy Hodgkin won a Nobel Prize for her work in biomolecular structures. She advanced x-ray technology to see how critical medicines like penicillin and insulin functioned, clarifying medical and biological mysteries.
A Navy officer and computer scientist, Grace Hopper is responsible for major computer advances in the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, and beyond. She was one of the first to push computer independent programming, and she co-authored three papers about her work on the Harvard Mark 1 (a cutting-edge computer system) while she was serving in the Navy in wartime.
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A Colombian-American planetary geologist, this scientist’s work has changed how we see space, planets, and craters. She was born in Colombia, emigrated to the United States, and has worked with space agencies around the world as part of her career at NASA. She’s participated in the Viking, Galileo, and Juno space missions.
Born to a British clergyman in 1917, Joan Clarke studied Mathematics at Cambridge. She earned a title, but Cambridge did not give women official degrees in science until years later. Clarke worked with other codebreakers at Bletchley Park and helped defeat the Nazis by breaking their infamous Enigma Code.