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Marie Who?

Two-thirds of the British public are unable to name a single famous female scientist, according to an ICM poll.

The same survey, organised by the Royal Society, revealed that 90% of 18-24 year-olds could not name a female scientific figure – either current or historical.

Almost half were able to name at least one famous male scientist, such as Albert Einstein.

The Royal Society’s Lorna Casselton described the results as “frustrating”.

I suspect the “gender gap” in these figures is essentially an artefact of the fact that there have been more famous male scientists than female ones. Yes, I do appreciate that that word “famous” is somewhat loaded due to it being at least as culturally determined as determined by genuine achievement but the fact remains that they were asking the public about fame rather than achievement. If we take that as an explanation for the “gender gap” then we are still left with, if true, two appalling facts. The first is that “famous” scientists aren’t that famous in Britain and that situation appears to be worse amongst the young.

I said “if true” that is shocking but I’m not sure I believe it is that bad (I hope not anyway) because you always have to be very suspicious of surveys conducted to an end – in this case encouraging more women into science. I mean there are lies, damned lies, statistics and statistics derived from surveys.


  1. Dave H. says:

    Marie who?

    John Humphrys: “What was the married name of the scientists Marie and Pierre who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903 for their research into radiation?”

    David Lammy: “Antoinette.”

    NB David Lammy MP was the Minister for higher education.

  2. Philip Scott Thomas says:

    David Lammy: “Antoinette.”

    That’s up there with that Brian Whatsit on Celebrity Family Fortune who was asked to name a type of bean and answered “Lez”. It’s on Youtube, I think.

    Fair enough to Nick’s main point, though. I’m not a scientists by training, but I do read a lot of science stuff written at the popular level. I’m struggling to think of any other famous women, and I don’t know that I would have remembered Marie Curie if not for Nick’s hint.

    Let’s see, there was that wifey who had something to do with discovering pulsars.

    How about Ada Lovelace? Would she count? Or the US Naval wifey who was part of the Eniac/Brainiac/whatever team who supposedly coined the term “bug”.

    Let’s face it, there aren’t that many. Science and maths are male-brain activities. As a general tendency, nothing more than that, they tend to appeal to male brains.

    The Fields Medal was awarded about a week ago. How many women have won that since it was introduced?

  3. JuliaM says:

    Accoding to Hugh Muir over in CiF, we don’t have enough famous black ones either….

  4. Lynne says:

    I suspect that these figures are an artefact of pisspoor state education that is more focused on imparting a culture of politically correct loony leftism than actually educating kids to think for themselves. Gender has sweet fuck all to do with it.

  5. NickM says:

    If we include mathematicians then of course Ada Lovelace would count! See, you know more than you thought. The more I’ve thought on this the more weird it sounds to ask people to name a “famous” anything. Very Family Fortunes in fact. I used to enjoy FF (guilty pleasure!) for just such oddities as the “Lez” bean.

    Indeed there is a lez bean. It is the staple diet of a single tribe in the foothills of the Andes and is threatened with destruction by an evil conglomerate’s construction project. I’d love to see a load of Greenies protesting over this outrage and demanding action to save the “lez beans”. Do I have enough of the imp of the perverse for that?

    I wish I did because I almost wet myself when I read about the campaign against dihydrogen monoxide (fatal if inhaled). Utter brilliance. As was the campaign to make farm animals wear clothes and the one some wags on a US campus had about, “Ending the suffrage of women”. They had loads of feminists signing petitions for that…

  6. Kevin B says:

    Judith Curry is a famous Climate scientist, but only because of her ‘female’ qualities in which she tries to stop the boys fighting and get them to come up with a compromise we can all agree on.

    Like, “Yes, we’re all going to fry, but it wont be that bad.”

  7. Lynne says:

    JuliaM. The BBC managed to unearth one that was black AND female to tell us about the recently discovered massive blue supergiant, R136a1. Now I know for a fact there are female astronomers. Perhaps the Heather Coupers of this world, along with a number of female professors and doctors of astrophysics, are just too middle class and white…

  8. NickM says:

    I’ll see your Heather Couper and I’ll raise you a Jocelyn Bell Burnell and an Annie Jump Cannon. So, Oh be a fine girl kiss me!

  9. Mrs Nick says:

    Actually there have been plenty of female scientists but they often get remembered for other achievements. Florence Nightingale was better at statistical graphics than nursing; Marie Stopes, when not writing poems to Hitler, was a paleobotanist in her youth and Lillian Moller Gilbreth is better known through crap films such as ‘Cheaper by the Dozen’ than as a consulting engineer and advisor to five US presidents.

    And Nick – I can’t believe you forgot Maria Goeppert-Mayer. For shame!

  10. Stonyground says:

    Marie Curie is the only famous woman scientist that I could name off the top of my head so I would have passed the test but only just. There was also a female chemist who invented kevlar but I don’t know her name. Male scientists are much easier to name, I could name dozens but surely Newton, Einstein, Darwin, Dawkins and Hawking are household names at least.

  11. RAB says:

    Well if you want famous AND a scientist, then there is Maggie Thatcher of course. ;-)

    The simple fact is that in the past there was an entry block on women doing most things, but especially being scientists, it being considered especially not their forte. So marie Curie would be the only one who springs to mind to me too.

    You could include Florence Nightingale of course. A mere nurse! surely not RAB? Well yes she didn’t tote the bedpans or walk about with a lamp much, that’s for sure, but she was the administrative genius who looked to stats to improve the lot of the wounded Crimean troops. She invented the Pie chart too.

    Nowadays the Guardianistas want black Mary Seacole to get the main recognition. Well she did tote the bedpans fair enough, but she wouldn’t have known a pie chart from a pickled onion.

    My favorite Family Fortunes moment (yes I admit to watching it too) was when Les asked one of the families…

    Name something abandoned in winter…

    Expecting something like a seaside fairground as an answer, what he got was this dear lady answering…

    My Aunt Polly.

    Full rolling eyed incredulity from Les.

    By way of explanation, she said, Well ‘er ‘usband left ‘er for that tarty barmaid from the Rose & Crown last January didn’t he? The dirty bastard!

  12. Bod says:

    Y’all forgetting Mary Anning the palaeoentologist and Sophia Brahe, Tycho Brahe’s sister, who seemed to have carved out quite a reputation for herself in a number of the ‘natural sciences’.

    If you’re going to permit mathematicians (and I would), there’s Sophie Germain who did a lot of work on Fermat’s Last Theorem and produced notable original work on elasticity theory.

    Lise Meitner, Jewish Austrian physicist who probably should have been awarded the Nobel Prize along with Otto Hahn in ’44.

    You might argue that Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall are scientists.

    And please, let’s not forget Rachel Carson, who may be responsible for more deaths than Dr. Mengele.

    But seriously, I really had to wrack my brain to come up with those names (except for Anning, Carson and the primate ladies), so it kinda-sorta makes the point that women have (and probably are) underrepresented.

    I’ll just wait for another article that talks about the disproportionate number of women in pilates classes.

  13. Chuckles says:

    Philip ST, the Naval wifey would be Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, I think? A load of old Cobolers and all that.

    And in the wider picture, let us not forget Mary Mallon. Production and distribution is just as important as R&D, some say.

  14. Kevin B says:

    When I were a lad this whole ‘women scientists’ thing came to a head with the Watson and Crick DNA affair. A revisionist history came out on the beeb purporting to show that a bird called Rosalind Franklin did all the work and these nasty old white men came along and stole the glory, (and the Nobel prize).

    Load of tosh of course. No-one denies that Franklin and Raymond Gosling did a lot of pioneering work that Crick and Watson used in their research, and that she was a good scientist in her own right, but the boys had the big insight into the ‘double helix’ and all that.

    The beeb et al were obviously piss poor at propaganda in those days since I had to look up Rosalind Franklin in Wiki.

  15. NickM says:

    The reason Rosie Franklin didn’t win the Nobel was because she was dead. It can’t be awarded posthumously. Her boss (Maurice Wilkins) took the third share with Watson and Crick. Meitner is a funny case. She should have shared with Hahn but that she didn’t almost certainly has nothing to do with her being female. Being Jewish didn’t help of course and that is the generally accepted reason but there is also “lab politics” and Meitner would not be the first or last scientist of any race or gender or whatever to miss out on the biggy because their boss scooped them using their bigger sway. I’ved certainly heard that in the Hahn/Meisner case. Perhaps the most obvious case was that devious, hard-nosed bastard Edison. Edison swindled Tesla out of $50,000 and Tesla had to work digging ditches (ironically and this must have smarted) for the Edison Electric Co. Tesla then teamed up with Westinghouse and won the “War of the Currents” despite Edison electrocuting an elephant on film in a desperate attempt to show A/C was unsafe. He’s also poisoned the poor creature just to be on the safe side. Oddly enough the electric chair is a by-product of Edison’s attempt to show AC was inherently dangerous.

    Edison is now a byword for innovation and Tesla’s name is much less well known amongst the general populace even though Edison was a manager more than anything and Tesla was a balls to the wall genius. Just goes to show really that it ain’t just ability and results but PR that counts in the fame game in science as much as anything else.

    I mean imagine life without AC? It would almost like being dead.

  16. Simon Jester says:

    The female scientists I thought of (before reading these comments) were Marie Curie, Maggie Thatcher, Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper, Rosalind Franklin and Miriam Rothschild.

    These days, only Maggie is *really* famous. But then, how many scientists of any stripe could be said to be really famous?

    On the Graun thread, I’m surprised no-one mentioned Hero of Alexandria. Mind you, there seems to be some disagreement as to whether he was ethnically Egyptian, or a descendant of Greek immigrants.

  17. CountingCats says:



    Alexandria was a Greek enclave on the Egyptian mainland. For instance, Cleopatra held two constitutional positions, Egyptian Pharaoh of Egypt, and Greek Queen of Alexandria.

    They were two separate polities.

  18. Philip Scott Thomas says:

    the Naval wifey would be Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, I think? A load of old Cobolers and all that.

    Yes, that’s she.

    It’s curious that Tesla, despite his genuine balls-to-the-wall genius, as Nick called it, is more associated with all sorts of crackpot ideas today. Sort of a technological corollary of Rule 34 – if it defies all known laws of physics, someone will have made a claim about Tesla having invented it.

    And while we’re listing women scientists who are more famous for doing other things, let’s not forget Hedy Lamarr and spread-spectrum frequency hopping. That phone in your pocket wouldn’t work without it.

  19. CountingCats says:

    That’s HEDLEY.


    Wrong movie.

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