Girls don't do science?

Today's (22 Feb 2015) Sunday Times has a story on its front page reporting a finding from the OECD that girls in the UK perform much worse than boys in science. Why don't our girls do well in science? Girls are no less capable than boys when it comes to science (as results from other countries show). Are we - whether explicitly or implicitly - telling girls in our society that science is a masculine pursuit, out of reach for girls and not very feminine? Or are we simply failing to show them inspiring female role models in the sciences? This may well be the case. After all, who would you think of if asked to think of a famous scientist - Gallileo? Isaac Newton? Albert Einstein? Brian Cox? What about Marie-Anne LaVoisier? She was a chemist in 18th century France - though it is her husband, Antoine LaVoisier, who tends to be more remembered for their collaborative work. Madame LaVoisier worked with her husband to conduct chemistry experiments, and often it was she who set up those experiments. She also wrote up the procedures used and the results, and drew illustrations to show how the experiments were done. And it was Madame LaVoisier who got their work published. She was also able to read English and German, thereby keeping up-to-date with what was happening in chemistry in other countries. Marie Curie might well come to mind for a list of famous scientists. Like Marie-Anne LaVoisier, Marie Curie worked collaboratively with her husband. Together with her husband, Marie Curie was awarded two Nobel prizes - one for physics in 1903 for their wok on radioactivity, and one for chemistry in 1911 for the discovery of polonium and radium.

 

And more recently? There is Dorothy Hodgkin (also a chemist) who in 1945 used x-ray crystallography to discover the structure of penicllin. Alexander Fleming rightly gets the credit for discovering penicillin and its potential to treat bacterial illness, but it was Dorothy Hodgkin's work that made it possible for semi-synthetic penicillin-based antibiotics to be developed, thus making antibiotic treatment widely available. She went on to use x-ray crystallography to discover the structure of vitamin B12 and, as well as being made a Fellow of the Royal Society within just a few years of her work on penicillin, was awarded the Nobel prize for Chemistry in 1964. Rosalind Franklin may well be another brilliant scientist you've never heard of. Her work with x-ray diffraction on DNA enabled Crick and Watson to work out the now famous double-helix shape.

 

When I was growing up, one of my heroes (heroine, actually) was Dr Elizabeth Blackwell. She was the first woman in America to graduate from medical school and become an MD. If I were ever to have the opportunity to select someone to be profiled on Radio 4's Great Lives, it would be her. Medicine and physiology are areas of science in which women are more prominent than in other fields. In fact, 11 women have either won or shared the Nobel prize for Physiology or Medicine between 1947 and 2014.

 

As a priest, I believe that the Church should encourage everyone to take at least some interest in science - including children. Not all will want to grow up to have a career in science, but science is the study of the world in which we live, and of which God has asked us to be stewards and caretakers. We have to understand it if we are to care for it properly. And because Christians believe that, "In Christ, there is no male and female," there is no reason to suppose that we can't encourage girls and boys both to give science a try.


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