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Genius sisterhood arrives in SA

Date Released: Mon, 4 April 2011 08:04 +0200

The fourth International Conference on Women in Physics takes place in Stellenbosch this week. L uminaries attending include the woman who discovered neutron stars, a former head of the Nobel committee for physics and the world's first black female astronaut.

Pretoria physics professor Diane Grayson said the event, which will include public outreach events, would look at why South Africa has relatively few female scientists, and how to remedy this.

Women in South Africa still represent less than a quarter of graduates in physics - and no woman heads a university department in the subject.

Leading South Africa's female geniuses will be Rhodes University's Professor Tebello Nyokong. She said the 200 scientists from 50 countries "could be the most brilliant group of women" the country has seen. They include:

  • Swedish scientist Cecilia Jarlskog, who discovered a key relationship between the smallest particles in nature. She is scheduled to explain how she helped decide Nobel prizes for over a decade;
  • Astronaut Dr Mae Jemison who orbited the earth aboard the space shuttle Endeavor in 1992. She hopes to convince young girls that science and dancing are similar; and
  • British science icon Jocelyn Bell-Burnell, who discovered the strangest stars in the universe, called pulsars, and who has long been in the running to win a Nobel prize.

Others are scheduled to dazzle pupils at Stellenbosch's Renish High School as well as host demonstrations and public lectures in the town, with popular titles such as "Will the world end in 2012?" and "Little Green Men?"

Nyokong is developing a way to use targeted light, instead of damaging chemotherapy, to stop cancer.

Nyokong said: "Women don't promote each other, and we absolutely don't promote ourselves the way male scientists do."

The trend for girls was improving, particularly in the biological sciences which "have been completely transformed", she said. "But there are still limitations in physical sciences which, I'm afraid to say, starts in the home where boys are asked to help their fathers fix the car while the girl is expected in the kitchen.

"We have to change this ... the only technology young people are not afraid of is cellphones."

Nyokong said her team's "photo-dynamic" therapy was "working" in pre-clinical trials but she now had to find a way to stop the sun's rays from causing nasty side effects by acting on new cancer drugs.

Organisers at the conference will attempt to raise the profile of female scientists.

When most people are asked to identify female luminaries in the field they name Marie Curie, who pioneered work on radioactivity.

This is despite the fact that Austria's Lise Meitner jointly discovered nuclear fission, which led to the creation of the atom bomb.

And many forget that Britain's Rosalind Franklin made the key discovery that revealed the structure of DNA.

Many scientists believe that, as with many other female scientists, Franklin and Meitner were unfairly overlooked for Nobel prizes and fame because of their gender.

In the field of astronomy alone a number of women - some of whom weren't even allowed to touch telescopes because of their gender - made the biggest breakthroughs.

These include a woman employed by a Harvard professor as a domestic worker.

In 1879, Boston maid Williamina Flemming became the first person to fully catalogue the stars and discovered the famous Horsehead Nebula.

Her friend, deaf spinster Annie Jump Cannon, found that all stars could be graded by a simple string of letters.

A woman was behind Edwin Hubble becoming a famous astronomer for finding other galaxies.

Henrietta Leavitt, who did menial work at Harvard's observatory, was the first person to find a way to measure the distance to distant stars.

This showed that some stars were so far away that there must be galaxies other than our own.

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