DO IT! is the title of a book written by 1960s Yippie activist Jerry Rubin. In the 1970s when I worked in experimental theatre groups if somebody suggested doing something in a different way then the response was almost always, “Don’t talk about it, do it!” I get increasingly pissed off by people on Twitter or Facebook moaning and complaining about fairly trivial inaccuracies on Wikipedia. My inner response when I read such comments is, “Don’t talk about it, change it!” Recently Maria Popova of brainpickings posted the following on her tumblr, Explore:

The Wikipedia bio-panels for Marie Curie and Albert Einstein reveal the subtle ways in which our culture still perpetuates gender hierarchies in science. In addition to the considerably lengthier and more detailed panel for Einstein, note that Curie’s children are listed above her accolades, whereas the opposite order appears in the Einstein entry – all the more lamentable given that Curie is the recipient of two Nobel Prizes and Einstein of one.

How ironic given Einstein’s wonderful letter of assurance to a little girl who wanted to be a scientist but feared that her gender would hold her back. 

When I read this, announced in a tweet, my response was a slightly ruder version of “Don’t talk about it, change it!” Within minutes Kele Cable (@KeleCable) had, in response to my tweet, edited the Marie Curie bio-panel so that Curie’s children were now listed in the same place as Einstein’s. A couple of days I decided to take a closer look at the two bio-panels and assess Popova’s accusations.

Marie Curie c. 1920 Source Wikimedia Commons

Marie Curie c. 1920
Source Wikimedia Commons

The first difference that I discovered was that the title of Curie’s doctoral thesis was not listed as opposed to Einstein’s, which was. Five minutes on Google and two on Wikipedia and I had corrected this omission. Now I went into a detailed examination, as to why Einstein’s bio-panel was substantially longer than Curie’s. Was it implicit sexism as Popova was implying? The simple answer is no! Both bio-panels contain the same information but in various areas of their life that information was more extensive in Einstein’s life than in Curie’s. I will elucidate.

Albert Einstein during a lecture in Vienna in 1921 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Albert Einstein during a lecture in Vienna in 1921
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Under ‘Residences’ we have two for Curie and seven for Einstein. Albert moved around a bit more than Marie. Marie only had two ‘Citizenships’, Polish and French whereas Albert notched up six. Under ‘Fields’ both have two entries. Turning to ‘Institutions’ Marie managed five whereas Albert managed a grand total of twelve. Both had two alma maters. The doctoral details for both are equal although Marie has four doctoral students listed, whilst Albert has none. Under ‘Known’ for we again have a major difference, Marie is credited with radioactivity, Polonium and Radium, whereas the list for Albert has eleven different entries. Under ‘Influenced’ for Albert there are three names but none for Marie, which I feel is something that should be corrected by somebody who knows their way around nuclear chemistry, not my field. Both of them rack up seven entries under notable awards. Finally Marie had one spouse and two children, whereas Albert had two spouses and three children. In all of this I can’t for the life of me see any sexist bias.

Frankly I find Popova’s, all the more lamentable given that Curie is the recipient of two Nobel Prizes and Einstein of one, comment bizarre. Is the number of Nobel Prizes a scientist receives truly a measure of their significance? I personally think that Lise Meitner is at least as significant as Marie Curie, as a scientist, but, as is well known, she never won a Nobel Prize. Curie did indeed win two, one in physics and one in chemistry but they were both for two different aspects of the same research programme. Einstein only won one, for establishing one of the two great pillars of twentieth-century physics, the quantum theory. He also established the other great pillar, relativity theory, but famously didn’t win a Nobel for having done so. We really shouldn’t measure the significance of scientists’ roles in the evolution of their disciplines by the vagaries of the Nobel awards.



Filed under History of Chemistry, History of Physics, History of science, Ladies of Science

8 responses to “DO IT!

  1. Anna B.

    Oh, I love this post of yours! Not only because of Maria Sklodowska-Curie, who was my childhood hero, but also because of time and effort you put into: a) debunking a not entirely truthful comment; b) checking and updating the Wikipedia article. Thanks, you’ve made world a bit better 🙂

  2. Not to forget, her husband & daughter also won a Nobel. Could this possibly be the reason why their entries might be considered worthy of higher interest, rather than chauvinist malice?
    Tumblr. Gods save us from Tumblr.ène_Joliot-Curie

  3. As the person who made the initial edit re: spouses/children, I agree with a lot of what you’ve said here. When I first looked at the panels I had trouble distinguishing any meaningful differences. As with you, the spouse/children and the thesis were the only ones I noted. We can’t help that Einstein moved around a lot more than Curie did. (Let’s not forget that Einstein was a German Jew, not exactly a class of privilege at the time…)

    In response to dmoc, I initially thought similarly, but if you look at Pierre and Irène, spouses/children are listed at the bottom, like Einstein’s. In the various scientists I looked up to check, Marie Curie’s was the only infobox who had spouse/children on top. I took a brief look at the history of the article and didn’t find anything about this. I doubt that it’s an explicit case of sexism, where someone intentionally sought to define Marie Curie by her roles as wife and mother, but it’s an implicit, in that no one noticed. From my perspective, it’s not the biggest deal in the world, but it’s also one that is incredibly easy to fix.

    And totally agreed on the Nobel Prizes. They’re an arbitrary unit of measurement of success.

  4. Pingback: DO IT! — The Renaissance Mathematicus | DEPOKPRESS.COM

  5. On a lot of websites it’s almost a reflex to make snide remarks about Wikipedia, and a fair number of writers imply that linking to it is beneath ’em. Pointing out particular errors is one thing, but I protest this default contempt for a remarkable institution. Wikipedia is a work continually in progress and hardly infallible; but in my experience it is remarkably accurate and. above all, extraordinary useful. Which reminds me that it’s about time I threw the Wikipedia organization another few bucks.

  6. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 2, Vol. #37 | Whewell's Ghost

  7. Marie Curie is very inspiring as well as Einstein. I love them 🙂

  8. Pingback: DO IT! — The Renaissance Mathematicus – The World as One

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