Prejudice must not hinder our achievements
IRECENTLY reread the fascinating story of the world’s most famous equation, E=mc2 , by David Bodanis. It is an exciting account of human scientific achievement. But the human story is a sad account of lost opportunities because of prejudice.
Before the term “computer” came to mean an electronic device, human computers were people whose job it was to compute. They would do tedious calculations for astronomers, actuaries and scientists who were the boys in the limelight while the computers were behind the scenes.
I use the word “boys” deliberately because the glamorous jobs were done by the men while the computers were usually women, sometimes with exceptional scientific and mathematical ability but unable to get equal opportunities. Bodanis probably exaggerates when he describes the woman computers at Harvard as “ranks of slump-shouldered spinsters in the backrooms” wasting first-rate scientific talent, but the point is worth emphasising. As Wikipedia puts it laconically, “female computers earned half of what a male counterpart would”.
Ernst Rutherford, famous for being the first to describe the structure of an atom, infamously and cruelly mocked the brilliant student Cecilia Payne in his class at Cambridge in days when even the brightest women were barred from graduate work in many of the sciences in England. Payne moved to the US.
The French seemed to do better. Émilie du Châtelet, Voltaire’s companion, did remarkable work carefully measuring the nature of energy before dying at age 40 after childbirth. And Marie Curie did work that earned her two Nobel prizes before dying of cancer from the very radioactive substances that contributed to her fame. But those were rare exceptions.
When the scintillating but darkskinned Indian astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar left India for England he found the process leading to black holes in the universe. He also found hostility and a lack of support that led him to move to America and a Nobel Prize. He had left England after being publicly ridiculed for what proved to be correct theories by Sir Arthur Eddington (who ironically had helped Cecilia Payne) in an outburst that Chandra (as he came to be known) said was in part racially motivated.
These stories will be found everywhere and not the least in SA. A few people do make it to the top despite prejudice but many people are held back at the bottom because of prejudice. E=mc2, the equation that Bodanis rightly describes as the most famous equation in the world, shows that the smallest quantity of matter can be made to burst with massive amounts of energy.
When I finished the book I got to thinking how far ahead of itself the world might be now if so many clever people had been allowed to let their energy flow. Who knows how much energy would have been released into scientific discovery but for unfair discrimination. If only, in the 1920s, we had learnt to use our computers wisely.
The equation E=mc2 reminds us that positive energy drives human scientific achievement
Patrick Bracher (@PBracher1) is a director at Norton Rose Fulbright.