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The tides of Venus

Inspiring to speak out - two physicists who changed the world

Boston Women’s March. Carly Hagins, CC BY-SA

2017 is to be the year advocacy. In January, millions took to the streets in the worldwide women’s marches. The new US president’s executive order which brought about a visa ban for citizens of a number of countries led to a number of airport protests. And now scientists are pushing back. Marches are being planned for 22nd April (Earth day). But, this move is not without its critics, some scientist would prefer for us all to keep our heads down in such times.

There’s no escaping that scientist are embedded into society (whether we like it or not) and I do rather feel for my climate science colleagues who are watching as we sleepwalk into future strife. This is of course is only one issue that relies heavily on scientific endeavours, and those who think science operates in a vacuum are deluding themselves.

In times such as these it can seem dangerous to put your head above the parapet, so I thought I would take a bit of a historical perspective and look for inspiration in those who have raised their voices. The two people I immediately think of, Kathleen Lonsdale and Ursula Franklin, are far from ‘rogue’ – Dame Prof Lonsdale was a fellow of the Royal Society and Prof Franklin held a prestigious chair at University of Toronto. But both did raise their voices against world and local events in their time.

‘Does the police come for one or do I just have to go to prison myself?’

In 1943 Kathleen Lonsdale, was convicted to a month in Holloway prison for her conscientious objection to work supporting World War II activities. At this time she had already undertaken perhaps her most famous research, showing through the crystal structure of Hexamethylbenzene that the benzene molecule was flat, a controversial finding at the time. Understandably, she was reluctant to go to prison, but to all accounts it turned out to be a pivotal event in her life.

Kathleen Lonsdale in 1968. Smithsonian Institution from United States

Senior colleagues petitioned for her to be allowed her scientific papers while interred, and she remarked it turned out to be a most productive time. She left prison writing to the governor with suggestions on improving the lighting and cleanliness, and followed up on her points by regularly returning (as a visitor). Her experiences led her to advocate for women prisoners in later years and it can’t be said that her researcher career suffered. In 1945, along with Marjory Stephenson, Kathleen Lonsdale was elected one of the first female fellows of the Royal Society.

Her seniority within the field of crystallography also meant that Kathleen Lonsdale became very well connected with international colleagues, and used those connections in her advocacy against atomic weapons and to break down cultural barriers. She strove to welcome Soviet and Chinese colleagues in a time where political distrust was at its highest, visiting Moscow in 1951 and the People’s Republic of China in 1955. One thing I find particularly inspiring was her determination that those scientists from developed countries had a duty to assist those in developing economies.

Ursula Franklin, who passed away last year, was a pioneer in archeometry and the first women to be appointed University Professor at University of Toronto. But it was her experiences of being interned in a Nazi labour camp as a young adult drove her passionately to pacifism. Perhaps her biggest contribution was when she used her scientific expertise to into a strong passion for pacifism.

Ursula Franklin in 2006. Martin Franklin

It was as a member of the Voices of Women group, that she coordinated the collection of baby teeth in Canada in the 1960’s. The subsequent analysis that was undertaken of these teeth, showed that they contained radioactive Strontium 90, a result of atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. This emotive piece of research was one of the key pieces of evidence that lead to the 1963 ban on atmospheric nuclear weapons testing.

Being a women researcher in the post-war period, she broke ground fighting to stay in her job after the birth of her children.

‘They had that bloody committee, and they went on deliberating. They didn’t appoint anybody, so I kept on working’

Even when retired Franklin kept on campaigning, joining a group of emeritus professors who filed a class action against the university of Toronto in 2001 citing that their female academic staff had been underpaid for years. They won.

In 2017, as we have to stand up and make our voices heard, I find the legacies of Prof Franklin and Lonsdale incredibly inspiring. Here are two physicists who use their scientific position and research to further a cause – I’d be interested in finding others who’ve inspired you.

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