Physics is about people

Perspectives for 14-16 TEACHER COMMUNITY

I grow to love equations, to understand them as relationships between variables and an insight into the fundamental workings of our world. A peek under the bonnet of the universe.

But it doesn’t escape my notice that they are mostly named after stereotypical male geniuses, a very undiverse range of physicists. Newton’s laws, Ohm’s law, Einstein’s principle of relativity. Those without a name attached are given no history or context when we’re taught about them. Just unattributed ciphers. I wonder where the constant acceleration equations come from. Who first thought of momentum.

During my thirteen years at school I was taught about just two physicists who were women: Marie Curie and Rosalind Franklin. One died a painful death caused by her radioactive experiments. The other’s research was used without her consent, and she wasn’t given credit when the men who took her work won a Nobel prize. On the rare occasion when women physicists are represented in the media it is still a source of great excitement to me. When I was 15, I stayed up late with my grandparents to watch a documentary about Jocelyn Bell Burnell, and I’ve always avidly read news stories about women physicists in New Scientist.

In my first year of teaching, fresh out of university, I was determined to do things differently. Before teaching my first Y11 class about forces, I did some digging. What I discovered transformed the way I think about physics and shaped the way I have taught physics from that day forward.

Newton… well… it turns out that it wasn’t Newton who came up with all those laws.

° ° °

There are a number of contenders for the title of ‘First Physicist’. Let’s give them each a chance to take to the stage and make their case…

Imagine, for a moment, Isaac Newton standing on a stage. He proudly holds a copy of Principia, his famous book on the laws of classical mechanics, the branch of physics relating to motion. Newton’s neat long curls and velvet coat reflect his high status in society. He is the president of the Royal Society and he’s been knighted for his services to science. Few scientists would dare to disagree with him. He addresses the audience with confidence. “Just ask google, and you will see that I am the first physicist.”

“Ahem.” Galileo Galilei, telescope under one arm and cannonballs at his feet, appears and raises an unimpressed eyebrow at Newton. “That first law of yours, it looks quite a lot like my law of impetus.”

Newton, surprised to see someone who died a year before he was born challenging him so impertinently, begins to trip over, lost for his words. “Ah, yes, well, I was an avid reader of your work, and you see, I was very much inspired by you.”

“Speaking of which…” This time it’s Galileo’s turn to be taken by surprise. Ibn Sīnā, born in 980 AD in present-day Uzbekistan, taps him on the shoulder and holds up his own book. “Have you ever read this? You westerners often forget about the work we did during the Golden Islamic Age.”

Galileo reddens. “Ibn Sīnā, old chap! What an honour to meet you! I do remember reading about your ideas in someone else’s book, now you mention it.”

“You all seem to be forgetting something.” A shadowy figure speaks from behind a curtain. “Physics isn’t just about knowledge and ideas. It’s also about how we do physics — how we find out about those ideas.” A figure steps into the stage light. “It was I, Thales of Miletus, who dared to challenge philosophers like Aristotle. He just sat about and came up with ideas — mostly wrong ones. I made the case for experiment, for testing our ideas. That was around a thousand years before you, Newton. Without my insight, physics would never have existed!”

Thales drops the mic.

A door slams open at the back. ‘Like a Girl’ by Lizzo blasts out of the speakers, banners unfurl from the ceiling. “We need diversity in physics.” “Women and non-binary physicists exist.” “Recognise women’s work.” A long parade of women march in, chanting in unison “What about us?” They take to the stage and take turns at the mic.

“We’ve been carrying out our own experiments, and we’ve helped our brothers, our colleagues and our lovers to develop their ideas and carry out their investigations. But for centuries our contributions were minimised or ignored completely. Until recently we weren’t even allowed to study physics.”

“I had to pretend to be a man!”

“I had to do my work in a windowless basement, and they wouldn’t even pay me!”

Emilie du Châtelet storms on the stage, “Oi, Newton! I’m the one who translated your famously dense and difficult-to-read book into French. I made it more readable, I added explanations and — by the way — some equations that were missing. It’s thanks to me that people can even understand your ideas!” Newton blushes and looks awkwardly away.

Lise Meitner slowly steps forward. “I researched the splitting of atomic nuclei, and was the first person to explain fission. Thanks to my work we now have nuclear power stations. I had to flee Germany in 1938 – I’m Jewish — and my colleague took credit for my work. He won a Nobel prize for my ideas.”

“That happened to me!”

“And me!”

She hands Katherine Johnson the mic. “It was thanks to me and the work of my Black women colleagues that the first person was able to orbit the Earth. We faced sexism and relentless racism while we paved the way for the Moon landings. But our story was unknown to most people… until they made that film about us just a few years ago!” Wild cheers and applause make way for a new chant:

“We won’t stay hidden anymore! We won’t stay hidden anymore! We won’t stay hidden anymore!”

The chant subsides and makes way for reverent silence as Jocelyn Bell-Burnell, wearing a scarf decorated with stars, planets and the pulsars she discovered, takes the mic. “A few years ago I won a £2.3 million prize for my research. I faced many challenges as a woman physicist, and I want to make the future brighter for those who follow me. I used my prize money to set up the Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship fund. If you come from a background that has traditionally been underrepresented in physics, and you want to become a physics researcher, apply to my fund. I want to pay for your studies.”

Independent Women by Destiny’s Child begins to play as everyone in the theatre explodes into dance and whoops for joy.

Submitted by Carole Kenrick

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