The chemistry Nobel should go to a woman

It's Nobel Prize season, and everyone has their picks for which chemists might get a phone call from Sweden. All the names I've seen are of accomplished people who've done excellent, influential work. There's a problem with all these lists, though: I haven't seen a single woman on any of them. Not a damn one.1 Also notable: a general lack of brown/black people of either gender. What gives? Chemistry is not solely the domain of white and Asian men.

Folks on Twittter have been passing around the Slate article about the 50-year drought of female laureates in physics, but I think it's worth noting that the story is hardly any better in chemistry. I counted four women among the chemistry Nobel laureates: Marie Curie (1911), Irene Joliot-Curie (1935), Dorothy Hodgkin (1964), and Ada Yonath (2009). Did I miss any? I really hope so. Four is a pitiful number.

Are women really not doing Nobel-worthy work? Or do we not recognize their work with the same prestige?

Do we only recognize the super-women? Those who aren't just better, but leagues better, like Curie and Goeppert-Mayer?

When we speak of scientists, do we remember to count the women? Or do they become faceless and forgotten? Do we even listen when they speak?

So, with a few more hours to go, can we think of a few women who should be on the Nobel shortlist?

Update: I missed C&EN's list, but it also doesn't have any women. Still bummed.


1: Admittedly, I didn't check the much longer list of previous predictions from Everyday Science. I may have overlooked somebody.

The Chemist's Dilemma

Back in January, @realscientists (I believe it was @upulie at the time) was talking about nanotechnology and mentioned the growing knowledge about hazards:

For example, it was only some time after we started working with carbon nanotubes that it became apparent that we should introduce protocols for working with them. This is something we should think about for a lot of our research

To which I replied:

It was only some time after we started working with _____ that it became apparent that we should introduce safety protocols.

In that blank, insert whatever amazing new thing (not just chemicals) that is being hailed as a breakthrough. For starters, consider cyanide, arsenic, lead, and radium, materials that were in common use for their wonderful properties, but that turned out to have toxic consequences, as showcased in the recent American Experience episode based on Deborah Blum's The Poisoner's Handbook.

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Footnotes in Chemistry

"…the British chemist John Dalton (1766-1844) provided the basic theory: all matter–whether element, compound or mixture–is composed of small particles called atoms."

– Ebbing and Gammon. General Chemistry, 8th ed. (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008), 42.

If the quoted text above were on Wikipedia, rather than in a traditionally published textbook, it would be tagged citation needed. Instead it has no reference at all: nothing inline, no footnotes, no endnotes. Nothing. And from a brief survey of chemistry textbooks (the handful sitting on my shelves), this is common.

Articles on super-resolution microscopy often start by describing the diffraction limit. It would be unthinkable not to cite Ernst Abbe's work on the subject. If I were writing for a textbook, though, it appears I could say:

"Ernst Abbe (1840-1905) discovered that the resolution of a microscope is wavelength-dependent"

and leave it at that.

It seems so unscientific to me to provide such conclusions without their accompanying evidence. The exciting questions in science, I believe, come out of why, how and how do you know? and I think a textbook should answer those questions, even if it's just a reference to details elsewhere.

So that's what I'm going to do: find the missing references to the details of major discoveries covered in general chemistry textbooks like Ebbing & Gammon.

Others, particularly Dr. Carmen Giunta at Le Moyne College and the folks behind ChemTeam, have collected some of the classic works online. Dr. William Jensen, of the University of Cincinnati, had a delightful "Ask the historian" column in the Journal of Chemical Education, as well. My hope is that my list will be more searchable and (eventually) comprehensive.