AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXXII , No. 2, Fall 2000

 

Web Site Documents Contributions of 20th Century Women to Physics

Society's awareness of the participation of women in physics
has been slight, despite their great productivity during the past century. Their discoveries are documented, but the records are buried in technical journals. The prevailing view of physics as an intrinsically masculine interest is perpetuated in textbooks and teaching. To overcome this misperception, in 1995 Nina Byers, a physicist at the University of California at Los Angeles, began to develop an interactive Web site on women who have made original and important contributions to physics in the 20th century.

Currently the site contains entries on 86 women. One entry point is an annotated photo gallery, with each photo leading to data on the woman pictured. One can also get these data from a list of all the women cited, arranged by field, including not only core fields of physics but also astrophysics, crystallography, geophysics and space physics. There are in addition hyperlinks to various supplementary materials, including essays on scientific and historical topics and full texts of documents not easily found in most libraries. Some of these documents are not to be found in print at all and have been provided because they are of major historical interest. A search engine gives the viewer access to the full texts of all the materials in the site.

When Byers began to compile a list for the site, she posted the project on the Web and provided fill-in forms for colleagues around the world to suggest names. She quickly discovered there were many more women to be included than she had imagined. Help in deciding which women to include, and what data to compile, was provided by a local Steering Committee of colleagues from various fields of physics. It quickly became clear that extensive archival and bibliographic research was needed, and student assistants were required. The American Physical Society contributed seed money which was matched by UCLA; additional money was provided by the laboratories of the National Institute of Science and Technology, and a major grant was made by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

The Steering Committee established criteria for inclusion, deciding in particular that the site would be limited to women who had made at least one important discovery prior to 1976. To include the many women who contributed since would have overwhelmed the staff. Field Editors helped select candidates and reviewed the information on them. The site has been available for several years as a work in progress, and already has received widespread recognition. It is being used especially by students and teachers. The "Contributions of 20th Century Women to Physics" site may be visited at www.physics.ucla.edu/~cwp. Sometime next year it will become part of the UCLA Library Digital Archives. It will then be cataloged and posted on their Web site. (The link will also be found on the AIP Center's links page, www.aip.org/history/exhibits.html.)

An example of uses of the site would be to complement the Center's new Web exhibit on Marie Curie (see the article on page 1). Contrary to what is usually assumed, there were outstanding female physicists working contemporaneously with Curie, including, for example, Hertha Ayrton (1854-1923), Kirstine Meyer (1861-1941), and Agnes Pockels (1862-1935). Ayrton did early work in plasma physics (on the electric arc), Pockels was a precursor in the study of surface films, and Meyer followed van der Waals' work with a study of the equation of state of liquids. References to the papers these women wrote and their other major contributions can be found in the CWP Web site. One simply puts their names in a search box on the homepage.


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