Photo of the week No.43: Buzz Aldrin on the Moon by Neil Armstrong, 1969

On Monday this week I referenced an article in Atlantic Monthly which asked, ‘What Was the Most Influential Photograph in History?’

I was unimpressed by the choices of the professional photographers in the article. Perhaps I’m overly critical in that their choices could have had some influence, though I don’t know how much. Maybe, it’s the wrong question, for I don’t think a single photo, on its own, can have that much influence.

Anyway, I said I’d make my choice of a supposed influential photo. It’s taken me the rest of the week to think about it, and perhaps I was influenced by one of the photos in the article. I hope I wasn’t.

It’s a photo, taken during the 1969 Apollo 11 mission by mission commander Neil Armstrong of fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin walking on the Moon by the lunar lander. There are many such photos of the Apollo 11 mission. This is the one I prefer. It has it all, Astronaut on the moon, astronaut footprints, reflection in the visor, and the leg of the lunar lander.

A truly staggering achievement.

Women scientists who should’ve won a Nobel Prize #3: Lise Meitner

In my list of women who should’ve won a Nobel Prize, I’ve written about Rosalind Franklin, and her not sharing the Nobel Prize for discovery of the structure of DNA. I’ve also written about Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, an astrophysicist credited with one of the most significant scientific achievements of the 20th Century in discovering pulsars, yet omitted from the Nobel Prize associated with that discovery.

Attitudes to recognising women’s contribution to scientific discoveries have been seriously hampered by male chauvinism, particularly in the early part of the 20th century. How much better is the situation now, only time will tell, and, of course, determination that things should change in women’s favour.

Another particularly egregious example of a woman who should’ve won a Nobel Prize is that of Austrian born Lise Meitner (1878 -1968), an important part of the team that discovered the workings of nuclear fission.

Stewart Dunlop’s article in, Lise Meitner – The Forgotten Woman Who Should Have Won a Nobel Prize,  gives a detailed account of her role in the experiments with Otto Hahn to uncover the workings on nuclear fission.

Though nominated 10 times for the Nobel Prize she never won one. Dunlop begins his article, stating,

…. her role in the experimental and the theoretical discovery of the fission was never properly awarded. ……  Many believe Meitner was robbed of a Nobel Prize, as the award was given to her colleague Otto Hahn, one of the other scientists, physicist and chemists working on the project.

She is buried in St. James Parish Church, in the village of Bramley, Hampshire close to her younger brother Walter. On her tombstone it states: “Lise Meitner: a physicist who never lost her humanity.”

To read more about Lise Meitner, here are some useful sources:


Women scientists who should’ve won a Nobel Prize #2: Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Yesterday I wrote about Rosalind Franklin, and how her untimely early death was a factor in her not sharing the Nobel Prize for discovery of the structure of DNA. There are other outstanding female scientists who should’ve been awarded a Nobel Prize.

Here’s another one. It’s Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who, in 1967, discovered the radio pulsars. Described in a BBC Scotland articleon her becoming the first female president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, as

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell is an astrophysicist credited with one of the most significant scientific achievements of the 20th Century.

She was a doctoral student at Cambridge University when she discovered the first pulsars. The rapidly spinning neutron stars are formed in supernova explosions. The cosmic sources of radio signals are so regular that some people had thought they might come from extra-terrestrials.

The discovery won a Nobel Prize in 1974 – not for Dame Jocelyn, but for two male superiors.

Notice how, even in 2014, many years after the Nobel Prize for Physics, her ommission from the prize remains an issue.

Reading about her contribution to the discovery of pulsars, it’s hard to understand her ommission from the prize. Undoubtedly misogyny, again, must be a factor. When one reads the article in The New Yorker of December 30th 2017, The Astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell Looks Back on Her Cosmic Legacy, is to understand just how important to astrophysics is the discovery of pulsars.

The text in Bell Burnell’s Wikipedia entry neatly sums up her determination to resolve a scientific anomaly.

That Bell did not receive recognition in the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics has been a point of controversy ever since. She helped build the four-acre radio telescope over two years and initially noticed the anomaly, sometimes reviewing as much as 96 feet of paper data per night. Bell later claimed that she had to be persistent in reporting the anomaly in the face of scepticism from Hewish, who was initially insistent that it was due to interference and man-made. She spoke of meetings held by Hewish and Ryle to which she was not invited.

So often in science it’s the characteristic of determination, also called grit, that helps uncover the truth. An observation – both Franklin and Bell Burnell exhibited humility and lacked any sense of disappointment in not winning the Nobel Prize. Two titans of science.

Women scientists who should’ve won a Nobel Prize #1: Rosalind Franklin

An odd start to the week you may think. There are outstanding female scientists who should’ve been awarded a Nobel Prize. I’m going to list some of the more famous ones.

Rosalind Franklin, whose scientific contribution was crucial to the discovery of the structure of DNA,  yet disgracefully wasn’t included in the names of those scientists awarded a Nobel Prize for the work.

So, let’s learn about Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958). The opening of her entry in reads,

British chemist Rosalind Franklin is best known for her role in the discovery of the structure of DNA, and for her pioneering use of X-ray diffraction.

While her Wikipedia entry begins,

Rosalind Elsie Franklin was an English chemist and X-ray crystallographer who made contributions to the understanding of the molecular structures of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), RNA (ribonucleic acid), viruses, coal, and graphite. Although her works on coal and viruses were appreciated in her lifetime, her contributions to the discovery of the structure of DNA were largely recognised posthumously.

I’ve read a number of arguments as to why Franklin’s crucial work wasn’t include in the Nobel Prize. The simple reasons are that Franklin had died some years before the award, and the Nobel Prize is not given to dead scientists. Also, the Nobel Prize limits the award to no more than three people for a particular subject.

I do think that, on reading many accounts of Franklin’s role in the discovery of DNA, her contribution was unfairly minimised. Most probably as the result of personality clashes with her fellow researchers. Though it shouldn’t be forgotten that misogyny and antisemitism were significant factors.

There is the uncomfortable fact that the X-ray diffraction image [click on image to learn more about it], of the double helix structure of the DNA molecule, taken 1952 by Raymond Gosling, commonly referred to as “Photo 51”, during work by Rosalind Franklin on the structure of DNA, was released to Crick and Watson without her knowledge. Whether subsequently she took no action about the breach of protocol, should not excuse the lack of attribution to her work by the Nobel Prize winners.

Some sources, should you want to learn more about the issue:

Periodic table of the elements by the country who discovered them

We should all know of the periodic table of elements. The stories of the discovery of each element are fascinating, and can provide hours of fun reading about them.

Some of the discoveries are in many ways about collective research, and in other ways about scientific obsession. To me, it’s pleasing that Dmitri Mendeleev’s contribution, who developed the periodic table we use today, is recognised in having an element named after him. Surely a pinnacle of name recognition.

There’s a version of the periodic table that includes the date and country of discovery of each element. See below, and look on admiringly at the contribution of Britons. See HERE to find out more about each element’s discoverer.

Possibly the second greatest physicist of the 20th century you’ve likely never heard of

Albert Einstein is rightly acknowledged as the 20th century’s greatest scientist. It’s more difficult to suggest who’s in the group of theoretical physicists sitting just below Einstein in terms of greatness.

That list would reasonably include Niels Bohr, Madame Curie, Erwin Schrödinger, Werner Heisenberg, Enrico Fermi, and Paul Dirac. You probably should have heard of Bohr, Curie, Heisenberg, Schrodinger, and Fermi, but of Paul Dirac I imagine you might not have recognised the name. [Click on image to expand].

Paul Dirac [1902-1984] was an English theoretical physicist, who, among his contributions to quantum mechanics, proved the existence of anti-matter based purely on mathematical calculation. Tim Radford writes in his Guardian article about Graham Farmelo’s biography of Dirac in, Paul Dirac: The man who conjured laws of nature from pure thought.

Dirac was among the world’s leading physicists at the October 1927 Fifth Solvay International Conference on Electrons and Photons, where the world’s most notable physicists met to discuss the newly formulated quantum theory. See photo and the names of the delegates below.

Even physicists find quantum mechanics difficult to understand

When writing about quantum mechanics some while ago HERE, and HERE, I said,

… on my bedside table, in addition to a dictionary and my current reading, is Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics Explained by Its Most Brilliant Teacher by physicist Richard Feynman. Here’s a description of the book, which includes a chapter on quantum mechanics and the Uncertainty Principle:

It contains the six easiest chapters from Richard P. Feynman’s landmark work, Lectures on Physics—specifically designed for the general, non-scientist reader. Feynman gave these lectures just once, to a group of university undergraduates in 1961 and 1962.

The part of the book I never got past was on quantum mechanics – the science of the very small. The chapter discussed Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, that’s where I stopped understanding. My lesson learned was I’m short of brain power.

quantum-mechanicsSo, how wonderful to read a review in the New York Review of Books about The Trouble with Quantum Mechanics by Steven Weinberg in which he writes – as a physicist – that he and others like him find quantum mechanics difficult to comprehend.

I’m not trying to be erudite here, just want to point out even in the world of scientists, there’s a brain power hierarchy. The Newton’s, Einstein’s and Feynman’s sit at the top of that hierarchy. Note: Image not related to the article by Steven Weinberg.