O come all ye unsung heroes of science

19 Dec 2023

Image: © Elena/Stock.adobe.com

Three astronomers, two oceanographers and a botanist in a pear tree. Join us as we explore the triumphs of scientists past and present.

As the great experiment that was 2023 comes to end, we want to inspire your innovative spirit with remembrances of science past.

Throughout the year, we asked researchers who appeared in our Science Uncovered series to name their unsung heroes of science. Here are some of the enlightening answers we received.

The silent work of women

Many researchers named pioneering women scientists whose work went unrecognised in their time but who have been rediscovered in recent years.

This includes Katherine Johnson, a mathematician who made vital contributions to NASA’s early space programmes, who was singled out by computer scientist Khadija Iddrisu. “[Her] journey has had a significant impact on me, which is why my favourite quote is from her: ‘Like what you do, and then you will do your best’,” Iddrisu said.

Chemist Colm Delaney lauded crystallographer Kathleen Lonsdale as “one of, if not, the, greatest Irish scientist … She made incredible discoveries in our understanding of the shape of molecules and the way in which bonds occur. Just as importantly, she was an incredible person.”

AI researcher Amir Atapour-Abarghouei praised the work of mathematician Ada Lovelace. “Her recognition of the potential for machines to not only compute but also conceive, reflects the aspirations of all AI researchers, such as myself, who strive to create truly intelligent machines.”

Geologist and hydrographer Eoin Mac Craith admires the “huge and long-term efforts” of geologist and oceanographer Marie Tharp, who discovered the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. “The ridge had a huge significance for the theory of plate tectonics,” Mac Craith explained, but Tharp’s role was “largely unrecognised at the time”.

And bioengineer Cristina Abascal Ruiz is inspired by Rosalind Franklin, a major contributor to the discovery of DNA structure. “The fact that her name was erased from history for a long time is a symbol of how the scientific contributions of women have been completely unknown due to patriarchal culture.”

Some researchers chose less well-known figures whose work, they say, deserves a renaissance.

Williamina Fleming

Astronomer Simon Jeffery picked Williamina Fleming (1857-1911), who he described as having made an “enormous contribution to astronomy despite the hurdles she had to overcome”.

Born in Dundee, Fleming became a pupil-teacher at just 14 years old. She married and emigrated to the US in 1878. When she was pregnant, her husband left her. Fortuitously, she got a job as a maid for Edward Pickering, the director of Harvard College Observatory.

As Jeffery explains, while at work “her skills became sufficiently apparent” and she was hired to work at the observatory. She learned how to analyse stellar spectra and became one of Pickering’s “all-female group of human computers, carrying out mathematical calculations and editing publications”.

She made a majority contribution to the 1890 Henry Draper catalogue, the basis on which all stars are still classified today.

“What makes Fleming a hero for me are her countless studies of ‘Stars Having Peculiar Spectra’,” which Jeffery said resonates so much with his own work. “She discovered the first white dwarf star, tens of gaseous nebulae, hundreds of variable stars and 10 novae.”

Fleming features in Dava Sobel’s book The Glass Universe, about the women who worked at Harvard College Observatory.

Agnes Arber

Plant scientist Sónia Negrão noted “the importance of the groundbreaking research” of botanist Agnes Arber (1879-1960).

Arber “did pioneering work in monocots (cereals), describing their morphology and development,” Negrão explained.

Arber attended the universities of London and Cambridge. In 1946, she was the first woman botanist to be named a fellow of the Royal Society. Her studies on plants which range from comparative anatomies to the history of botany and the philosophy of biological observation are still read to this day. She is probably most well known for her early work, Herbals: Their Origin and Evolution (1912), which traces the development of the study of plants over a 200-year period.

Though scientific research was becoming more institutionalised at this time, Arber struggled to find a research place at a university, as women were only beginning to work in these arenas. She gave up after several attempts to find space in a lab but continued her work at home.

“Unfortunately, and because she was a woman, she was denied several honours and recognition, and even ended up having to set up a small laboratory in a back room of her house to conduct her research,” Negrão said.

Kathryn Packer wrote an article about Arber’s life and work,  ‘A Laboratory of One’s Own: The Life and Works of Agnes Arber, FRS (1879-1960)’, which is published by the Royal Society.

Susan Leigh Star

Psychologist Sarah Robinson said her research is influenced by the work of sociologist Susan Leigh Star (1954-2010). “She leaves behind a legacy of the importance of studying ‘boring things’ and that classifications have consequences,” Robinson said.

Star’s interdisciplinary work explored many interconnected themes, including information infrastructure and technology, issues of classification and standardisation, and sociologies of science, medicine and work.

She is noted, along with her colleague James R Griesemer, for developing the influential concept of ‘boundary objects’: “A boundary object is any object that is part of multiple social worlds and facilitates communication between them; it has a different identity in each social world that it inhabits,” Star and Griesemer wrote.

In her work, Robinson draws on Star’s “ideas of infrastructure as just not a thing or a substrate, but rather as something relational, which includes as well as excludes, and cannot be ‘stripped of use’”.

“This is more important than ever as AI merges with social media and artificial general intelligence to form infrastructure for some, and not for others. This makes visible how power can be centralised and materially embedded, and the spaces in between where this can be challenged,” Robinson said.

Star died unexpectedly in 2010. In an obituary for Star, Ellen Balka wrote that her “magic was her ability to bring complex ideas to life for wide and diverse audiences through the art of storytelling and stunning prose”.

“Much of her work was concerned with giving voice to those silenced, living on the margins.”

Back to the future

Some of our featured scientists chose inspiring figures who are still making waves, including the Marine Institute’s Vera Quinlan, who named oceanographer Sylvia Earle as her hero for dedicating her life “to exploring and advocating for the oceans”, which has included major efforts to create marine protected areas. “She is a pioneering oceanographer, marine biologist and explorer,” Quinlan said, “who has made significant contributions to our understanding of marine ecosystems and the importance of ocean conservation.”

Closer to home, both engineer Ray Duffy and archaeologist Chris Read described teachers as having a major impact on science by inspiring the next generation of scientists. “We owe a debt to the teachers,” Duffy said, because school is “often the starting point from which people go into the field of research”. Read said that teachers at third level are “generous with their energy and, more importantly, their ideas when nurturing young researchers”.

In a similar vein, Áine Varley highlighted the often forgotten research assistants who she described as “the life and blood of any lab”.

Aerospace researcher Cécile Deprez wants us to remember all women, people of colour and LGBTQIA+ people whose names and scientific achievements have been erased by history, and made special mention of “all the people who actively advocate and fight to make STEM fields welcoming, safe and accessible to all”.

Finally, engineer Rocco Lupoi selected his grandad Nonno Giuseppe as his hero. Lupoi researches innovative manufacturing tech with the aim of developing efficient and sustainable solutions for the benefit of future generations.

“I recall hot summer afternoons in Italy with my Nonno down in the basement working on fixing or making things,” Lupoi said.

“I would just be down with him to carefully watch what he was doing. I really enjoyed those times, and I think the basics of what I am today started from there.”

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Rebecca Graham is production editor at Silicon Republic