Happy International Women’s Day!

The annals of history are filled with the scientific contributions of countless inimitable women, such as astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt, chemist Rosalind Franklin, mathematician Ada Lovelace, inventor and actress Hedy Lamarr, geneticist Mary-Claire King, and biochemist Jennifer Doudna, just to name a few. This past October, astronauts Jessica Meir and Christina Koch completed the first all-female spacewalk, which lasted seven hours and 17 minutes, outside the International Space Station.

Christina Koch, left, and Jessica Meir were part of NASA’s 2013 class of astronaut trainees. (Image Credit: NASA/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)

Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science — and the World by Rachel Swaby recounts the stories of many more women whose work changed the course of civilization. Seismologist Inge Lehmann discovered that the earth has an inner core. Jane Wright, an African-American doctor, helped develop chemotherapy. Emmy Noether invented abstract algebra and created equations to support Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Dorothy Hodgkin elucidated the crystal structure of vitamin B12. Florence Nightingale was not only a caring nurse but also a pioneer in statistics.

Unfortunately, the contributions of women in STEM remain largely unrecognized. To date, only eight women have been awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry or physics. Donna Strickland was awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics for her work with laser pulses, making her only the third female to win the award, along with Marie Curie, who won in 1903, and Maria Goeppert-Mayer, who was awarded the prize in 1963.

Frances Arnold won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the use of directed evolution to design new enzymes, making her only the fifth female to win, along with Marie Curie (1911), Irène Joliot-Curie (1935), Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (1964), and Ada E. Yonath (2009).

Project Women in Red (WiR) is an initiative that aims to bridge the gender gap in biographical articles on Wikipedia. In October 2014, only about 15% of Wikipedia’s biographies were about women. As of March 3, 2020, that percentage has increased to around 18%, so progress remains gradual.

Thankfully, more strides are being made to properly recognize women’s contributions to STEM fields. Last year, inspired by Hidden Figures, a team of researchers scoured the acknowledgements of old genetics papers & uncovered the names of many women programmers who made important contributions but were never given authorship.

Likewise, Nathalia Holt’s Rise of the Rocket Girls charts the histories of NASA’s elite female mathematicians, Broad Band by Claire L. Evans regales the tales of the women whose computing and engineering skills helped to create the internet, and Liza Mundy’s Code Girls is about the women who broke German and Japanese codes during World War II.

Daylight Saving Time

Last night, most U.S. residents set their clocks ahead one hour for the beginning of Daylight Saving Time. However, not all states observe this time change, as residents of Arizona, Hawaii and the U.S. territories Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands remain on their normal schedules.

Benjamin Franklin has been credited with the idea of Daylight Saving Time, but Britain and Germany began using the concept in World War I to conserve energy. The United States observed Daylight Saving Time briefly during the war, but the concept was not widely accepted in the states until after World War II.

In 1966, a piece of federal legislation called the Uniform Time Act was passed, stating that clocks should be set forward on the last Sunday in April and set back on the last Sunday in October. This law was amended in 1986 to start daylight saving time on the first Sunday in April, although the new system did not go into effect until 1987. The end date remained unchanged until 2006.

Nowadays, Daylight Saving Time begins on the second Sunday in March and ends on the first Sunday in November. The time change precedes the coming of spring and the vernal equinox. But this change is not without its health effects, as the accompanying circadian disruption and sleep deprivation is linked to a higher rate of heart attacks, strokes, atrial fibrillation, and car accidents the Monday after the time shift.

International Pi Day in America

Why should anyone celebrate a mathematical constant that allows you to compute the area inside a circle? As unlikely as it may seem, the number pi has been paramount to the development of modern life. As far back as the ancient civilizations of Babylon and Egypt, people required approximations of pi to manage the flooding of the Tigris, Euphrates and Nile Rivers and also used the value to chart the positions of stars as well as build ziggurats and pyramids. The ancient Greeks were the first to study pi for its pure mathematical value. Today, pi is used in engineering, science, and medicine and is also studied for its own value in number theory.

The first time a day was dedicated to pi was on March 14, 1989 at the Exploratorium, a museum of science, art, and human perception in San Francisco. The idea was the brainchild of Larry Shaw, a physicist at the center. Now 4,000 years after people first discovered how useful pi could be, we celebrate International Pi Day. The date is derived from the first 3 digits of pi — 3.14 — using the American dating system. Public interest in pi reached a zenith when in 2009 the U.S. House of Representatives formally declared March 14 National Pi Day, in House Resolution number 224. The Bill begins:

“Whereas the Greek letter (pi) is the symbol for the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter…”

After many more “whereases,” it resolves…

“That the House of Representatives supports the designation of a Pi Day and its celebration around the world.”

Pi is often featured in popular culture, such as the title of a Kate Bush song, the movies The Matrix, and Pi, and the 2001 novel Life of Pi by Yann Martel, which was also made into a 2012 movie. Pi has even inspired the invention of a new literary form called ‘piems.’ The challenge is to write a poem where the length of each word is the same as the number in the pie sequence. For example, the first eight decimal places of pi can be recalled with the phrase: “How I need a drink, alcoholic of course” (to represent 3.1415926).

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Stay healthy and safe,

Nita Jain

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