106th SIF National Congress 2020 – Women Scientists

Each of the seven Sections of the 106th Congress was represented by a woman scientist. This choice was part of those actions in favor of gender equality that are defined as "mentoring" and serve to create reference figures, so important especially for young people who are going to make choices for their future. We proposed examples of women who distinguished themselves in science, and especially in physics, and can therefore be a stimulus for the new generations to undertake such studies and careers.

The Equal Opportunity Committee has therefore selected, among the many possible cases, a woman scientist to represent each section of the Congress, based on some guiding criteria. In the choice among those who made a significant contribution in the research fields of the corresponding section, a preference was given to Italians, who are present in the majority. Moreover, a preference was given to those who had had greater difficulty in asserting themselves precisely because of their gender, that is, for the mere fact of being a woman. The Sections had therefore these scientists as icons, and for them the EOC has also edited short biographies as evidence of what has been said.


Lise Meitner

Lise Meitner

Vienna 7 November 1878 - Cambridge 27 October 1968

She was the first to formulate the exact theory of the nuclear fission process. She dedicated her entire life to scientific activity, facing numerous difficulties due to being a female scientist. Coming from a Jewish family of the Viennese high bourgeoisie, she studied up to middle school, girls being not allowed to enroll in high schools. However, her passion, great ability and the results she obtained in the study convinced her father to let her continue her studies privately. She then went on quickly and began studying physics, mathematics and philosophy at the University of Vienna. She was a pupil of Ludwig Boltzmann and at a very young age she devoted herself to the problems of radioactivity. She graduated and was the first woman to take her PHD at the University of Vienna in 1906. From 1907 she studied in Berlin where she began her collaboration, which would last a lifetime, with Otto Hahn, a young chemist from Berlin. Lise worked in Hahn's laboratory as an "unpaid guest". Since at that time in Prussia women were not admitted to the university, Lise had to enter through the back door and could not access the classrooms and laboratories of the students because she was a woman. Despite this situation, Lise and Otto carried out important research leading to the discovery of several radionuclides. Only in 1918 did Meitner see her activity as a scholar and brilliant scientist recognized, with the assignment of a section of the nuclear physics laboratory and finally a salary. In 1926 she then became a professor of nuclear physics at the University of Berlin, although teaching was withdrawn in 1933 due to her Jewish origins.

At that time Lise devoted herself to studies on the results of experiments on unknown and misunderstood nuclear reactions, and she was the first to understand the nuclear fission process, giving an exact theoretical interpretation, and to calculate correctly the physical quantities involved. For these studies Otto Hahn would receive the Nobel Prize in 1945. No recognition was ever officially given to Lise, although later many scientists, even her contemporaries, recognized the "motherhood" of the discovery. The Nuclear Physics Division of the European Physical Society since 2000 awards every two years the prestigious Lise Meitner Prize to scholars who excel in the field of theoretical or experimental nuclear physics.
Photo Lise Meitner: Photograph by Lotte Meitner-Graf (1898-1973). © The Lotte Meitner-Graf Archive


Rita Brunetti

Rita Brunetti

Milan, June 23, 1890 - Pavia, June 28, 1942

She was the first woman to be admitted to study physics at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, in 1909. Four years later she graduated from the University of Pisa, with a thesis on the spectrum of the oscillatory discharge in various gases. Her academic career began during the war, with the role of assistant to Antonio Garbasso at the Istituto Superiore of Florence in 1914, and she was promoted to aiuto (helper) in 1922. She was the first woman in united Italy to win a competition for a physics chair: in 1926 she was appointed professor of experimental physics at the University of Ferrara. Under her direction, a renovation of the Ferrara Institute of Physics and of the annexed Meteorological Observatory began. Rita Brunetti also undertook a similar action for modernizing the equipment at the Institute of Cagliari when she moved there in 1928. She concluded her career at the University of Pavia, where she held the physics chair from 1936.

Her research activity ranged in various fields. During the years of World War One, she carried out spectroscopic research in the visible region and in the X-ray region. In particular, she investigated the Stark-Lo Surdo effect, thus discovering some new lines of helium. She developed an original spectroscopic analysis technique, which in 1917 earned her the “Quintino Sella” award by the Accademia dei Lincei. She distinguished herself for being among the first physicists in Italy to use quantum theory as an explanatory theoretical principle and to understand the connection between atomic structure and quantization of energy. His article The atomic nucleus (1921) is relevant, if we consider the widespread experimentalist approach of the 19th century and early 20th century Italian researchers. Between 1924 and 1926, she searched for element 61 of the Periodic Table, acquiring considerable experience in the study of rare earths, which led her to identify - for the first time in a solid compound - the Stark-Lo Surdo effect (1929 ). In Cagliari, she worked in collaboration with her assistant Zaira Ollano, who became a dear friend to her and also followed her to Pavia.

She dealt with the experimental verification of Curie's law and was among the first to investigate the Raman effect. In more recent years she devoted herself to the application of physics to medicine and biology and to the study of cosmic rays. She was corresponding member of the Accademia di Scienze Fisiche dell’Istituto of Bologna and of the Istituto Lombardo. She was also a member of the National Research Council (CNR) and of the Italian Physics Society (SIF). In addition to over eighty scientific works, she also edited publications of an educational and popular nature.
Photo Rita Brunetti: Courtesy of the Museo Galileo, Florence


Vera Cooper Rubin

Vera Cooper Rubin

Philadelphia, July 23, 1928 - Princeton, December 25, 2016

Growing up in Washington D.C., from the age of ten she showed a great interest in astronomy and built a rudimentary telescope to observe the stars from her room. Although, in high school, her physics professor advised her not to pursue a scientific career, Vera decided to enroll in the astronomy course at Vassar College, then reserved to women only, and graduated in 1948. In the same year she married Robert Rubin, a young chemistry student at Cornell, from whom she took her surname. She attempted to enroll in the PhD program in astrophysics at Princeton but was excluded as it was reserved only to men. She then decided to study at Cornell, where she had such scientists as R. Feynman and H. Bethe among her teachers, and. she obtained a master in 1951. She then got a PhD from Georgetown University in 1954, under the supervision of G. Gamow. After a series of fixed-term contracts, Vera became a staff member of the Carnegie Institution of Washington in 1965.

During the master course, Vera studied the proper motion of 109 galaxies revealing some deviations from the known Hubble expansion law and suggesting that galaxies aggregate in gravitationally bound clusters. This idea, submitted to the American Astronomical Society in an article, was hastily discarded. Vera resumed and refined this idea during her PhD course but it took another twenty years before the scientific community definitively accepted her discovery that galaxies are organized in clusters and superclusters and not uniformly distributed.

Discouraged by the resistance she encountered on this line of research, Vera decided to study the dynamics of the Milky Way and nearby galaxies, considering it a less controversial field. Here, however, she made her most important discovery, namely the fact that in spiral galaxies the stars farther from the center rotate faster than predicted by Newton's law. To explain the phenomenon Vera hypothesized that most of the mass of the galaxy is formed by a new type of matter, now called dark matter, which interacts only gravitationally with ordinary matter. At the same time, Vera also discovered galaxies rotating in a direction opposite to predictions and created the first models of galactic evolution based on mergers of smaller galaxies.

Her battles against gender discrimination in the world of American astronomy are universally recognized and have opened the doors of the field to dozens of younger female astronomers.

Vera has received numerous awards for her career, from her election as a member of the National Academy of Science in 1981 to the award of the National Medal of Science in 1993 by President Clinton.
Foto Vera Rubin: AMER INST PHYSICS


Giuseppina Aliverti

Giuseppina Aliverti

Somma Lombardo (Varese), December 4, 1894 - Naples, June 10, 1982 She was one of the first women in Italy to dedicate herself to research in terrestrial physics. She studied at the University of Turin, graduating with honors in physics in 1919. She soon became an assistant (1920) and then aiuto (helper) (1922) to the chair of experimental physics at that university, a role she held for sixteen years. It was in this period that she specialized in terrestrial physics, holding courses in geodesy and geophysics as a mandate.

In 1937 she ranked first in the competition for a position as a geophysicist and was entrusted with the direction of the Pavia Geophysical Observatory. In Pavia she taught terrestrial physics until 1949. She concluded her academic career at the Naval Institute of Naples, as holder of the chair of meteorology and oceanography since 1949. She held the position of Dean of the Faculty of nautical sciences from 1960 until her retirement in 1970.

At first her research concerned the concentrations of electrolytic deposits, the properties of the geoid and topics in glaciology, then she moved towards experimental investigations on the electricity and the natural radioactivity of the atmosphere. In particular, she showed that near the ground the air always contains radon and sometimes even thorium, while the radioactivity of the air over the sea is scarce. The above research earned her the ten-year prize of the Italian Society for the Progress of Sciences, awarded for geophysical studies in 1937.

She was interested in the radioactivity of water, and also in the so-called condensation nuclei, solid or liquid particles that are suspended in the atmosphere. She studied the air-sea interaction, responsible for almost all oceanic and atmospheric dynamic processes, and continued to cultivate her ancient interests in atmospheric electricity and glaciology until late in life.

Prolific author of over 150 scientific articles and of several university manuals, she was awarded various honors. She held several institutional positions, also in international contexts, and was a member of the Accademia Pontaniana of Naples (1958), corresponding member of the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei (1964) and of the Istituto Lombardo (1969).

Colleagues and students remember her remarkable scientific personality, her life totally dedicated, with originality and initiative, to studies and research, and her generosity and loyalty in human relationships.


Daria Bocciarelli

Daria Bocciarelli

Parma, March 6, 1910 - Rome, December 27, 2006

She was among the pioneers of cosmic ray research and medical physics in Italy.

She graduated in physics in Florence in 1931 with a thesis on the radioactivity of potassium, under the supervision of Bruno Rossi.

In the thirties she was assistant in the Physics Cabinet of the University of Florence, where she collaborated with Bruno Rossi and Giuseppe Occhialini, training her skills in the field of cosmic rays at the Arcetri laboratory.

In 1937 she became assistant to the chair of experimental physics in Perugia, but in 1938 she accepted a position in the Physics Laboratories of the Istituto Superiore di Sanità (Institute of Health) in Rome. Here she joined the group of researchers of the Roman Institute of Physics, during the difficult years following the departure of Enrico Fermi to the USA. She collaborated with Edoardo Amaldi, Franco Rasetti and Giulio Cesare Trabacchi in the construction of the first Italian particle accelerator: a 1000 keV neutron generator, built in 1939 at the Institute of Health, for the research and production of artificial radioactive substances for medical use. In the dramatic period of the war, she belonged to the small number of researchers that continued to deal with nuclear physics and cosmic rays in Rome.

In the same years, and then after the war, Daria Bocciarelli worked on the construction and operation of the new facilities at the Istituto Superiore di Sanità, dedicated to electron microscopy, ultracentrifugation and X-rays.

In 1958 she became deputy head of the Physics Laboratories of the Istituto Superiore di Sanità, then headed by Mario Ageno, and took over the direction of the Electron Microscopy Department, a position she held for the rest of her career. In 1959 she was elected President of the Italian Society of Electron Microscopy. She retired in 1975, after having briefly held the position of Head of the Physics Laboratories at the Institute of Health. In 1987 the Accademia dei XL awarded her the “Domenico Marotta” prize, for her notable work in the field of medical physics.
Photo Daria Bocciarelli: Photo from the historical photographic archive of the Istituto Superiore di Sanità, reproduction authorized


Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr

Vienna November 9, 1914 - Altomonte Springs (Florida) January 19, 2000

The figure of Hedy Lamarr breaks the popular model of a scientist: generally a man, somewhat eccentric, messy and brilliant, often with physical aspects that are not exactly those of an Adonis, totally and exclusively concentrated in his discipline and very far from the footlights. Hedy Lamarr, whose real name was Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, was an actress, scientist and inventor and has been called the most beautiful woman in cinema.

Born into a wealthy Jewish family, Hedwig Kiesler had begun engineering studies which she gave up, although she was considered a student of extraordinary intelligence, due to her great passion for cinema. As an actress she became famous in 1933, with the film Ecstasy, by a Czechoslovakian director, focused on the awakening of female sexuality: for the first time a leading actress appeared on the screen completely naked.

With the onset of racial persecution, Hedy tried to flee Austria several times to get away from her husband, a wealthy Austrian arms manufacturer thanks to whom she became familiar with secret weapons and ammunition. In 1937 he managed to move to America and to Hollywood.

Deeply anti-Nazi and wishing to contribute to the fight against Hitler, Hedy, starting from the information gathered by her husband about a method for remote-guiding bombs, devoted herself to the possibility of eliminating the possible interception of radio-controlled torpedoes. Together with the avant-garde pianist, George Antheil, she devised a method of blasting the broadcast signal from one channel to another at regular intervals, with a frequency of succession that was to be secret and known only by the broadcaster and receiver of the signal. To adopt a synchronized and agreed sequence in changing channels, Antheil suggested adopting a system similar to that of the perforated paper rolls used in mechanical pianolas, dividing all the available frequency band into 88 "channels", as many as the piano keys. . The idea, called "Secret communication system no. 229287”, was patented in 1942. The US Navy, not very inclined to accept a war device invented by an Austrian film star and a composer, decided not to adopt it, considering it too cumbersome.

In 1962, about three years after the patent expired, the project was carried out by the Americans under the name of CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) and installed as a communication system on board all the ships engaged in the blockade of Cuba.

In 1985 the qualification of military secret was removed from the CDMA system based on the Kiesler/Antheil patent, just at a time when cellular telephony that needed a technological standard was in full development. The key concept of dividing a wide band of frequencies into multiple channels (spread spectrum) today finds application not only in encryption or military purposes, but also in mobile telephony and wireless computer systems.

With the military secrecy removed from the patent, the awards multiplied. In 1997, the actress and musician were awarded the Pioneer award, a prize awarded to inventors who revolutionized the world of electronics and communication. In 2000 they also got the special prize from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. In 2014 Hedy Lamarr was inducted, together with Antheil, in the US National Inventors Hall of Fame for the patent (US Patent No. 2,292,387).

In honor of Hedy Lamarr, on November 9 (her birthday), the Day of the Inventor (Tag der Erfinder) is celebrated in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
Photo Hedy Lamarr: by MGM (1944)


Laura Maria Caterina Bassi

Laura Maria Caterina Bassi

Bologna, October 29, 1711 - Bologna, February 20, 1778

She was the first woman to hold a chair of physics in Italy and in the world, at a time when the study of science was the exclusive prerogative of men. Still very young she made herself known for her intelligence and culture, so much so that, at the age of twenty-one, she was nominated honorary member of the Accademia delle Scienze dell’Istituto of Bologna. Immediately afterwards, on May 12, 1732, she graduated in natural philosophy at the University of Bologna.

In the following October, the Bolognese Senate appointed her as a university lecturer in philosophy, but as a woman she could only give public lectures with the permission of the academic authorities. In 1741 a timetable was even set for her lessons, but they were never held because the required approval was not granted. As one of his contemporaries described it, it was not considered proper for a woman to show every day, to everybody, the hidden things of nature.

This did not prevent Laura Bassi's fame from spreading in Italy and abroad, and the natural philosopher could present the fruit of her studies in several public conferences at the Archiginnasio (Bologna University) and at the Academy of Sciences. These events enjoyed great popularity among the Bolognese citizens. In 1745 Pope Benedict XIV interceded to have Laura admitted in the class of Benedictine academics, the first and only woman to get such an honor, in recognition of her scientific activity.

In 1749, not being able to teach publicly yet, she established at her home a private school of experimental physics, which went on for almost thirty years. Finally, in 1776 the Academic Senate awarded Laura Bassi the chair of experimental physics at the University of Bologna. The role of assistant was held by her husband Giuseppe Veratti, whom she had married in 1738. The two had shared a passion for research, as well as a happy family life crowned by the birth of eight children. Unfortunately, Laura enjoyed just two years of the extraordinary academic position she had so long desired. She died in 1978, and her professorship was inherited by her husband.

In Laura Bassi's laboratory, important experiments were carried out, in particular in physiology (on the sensitivity and irritability of animated bodies), but also on electricity. She was in scientific correspondence with many of the most famous scientists and intellectuals of her time, including Voltaire, Giambattista Beccaria, Abbot Nollet, Felice Fontana and the young Alessandro Volta, as well as with the biologist Lazzaro Spallanzani, her cousin and pupil. Her dissertations testify to the breadth of her scientific interests, which ranged from rational mechanics to hydrometry, from electrology to pneumatic physics. She was fluent in French and Latin, and she was also the author of poems.
Photo Laura Bassi: Art and History Collections of the Cassa di Risparmio Foundation in Bologna