Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Ada Lovelace Day 2010: Stefania Maracineanu

Today is "Ada Lovelace Day", the international day of blogging to celebrate the achievements of women in technology and science.   My post recognizes the Romanian physicist, Stefania Maracineanu, a woman whose research impacted the field of radioactivity.  She .... almost received the Nobel Prize in chemistry for discovering the artificial radioactivity.  She is inspiring because she represents the struggles that women scientists had to face in the early 1900s in order to have an impact and be recognized in their field of research.

Stefania was born in Bucharest, on 18 June 1882. Very little is known about her early life, except that she had an unhappy childhood about which she did not want to talk. She obtained an advanced degree in physical and chemical sciences at age 28, after which she begun teaching at the Royal Boarding School in Bucharest, a public school for girls from the social elite. In 1922 Maracineanu received support from the Romanian Science Minister to pursue graduate research in France with Marie Curie.

Studying in Paris at Curie's Institute must have been a dream come true, and Maracineanu started her first project focusing on determining the precise half-life of Polonium. One of the first observations she made was that Polonium's half-life depends on the metal onto which the Polonium layer has been deposited. Her explanation of the phenomenon was that the alpha-rays of the Polonium must have transformed some of the atoms of the metal into radioactive isotopes. At the time, this was a very important observation and it is unclear why Maracineanu did not pursue the topic in more detail. Further experiments and documentation would have turned this observation into the first documented example of artificial radioactivity.

After receiving her doctorate degree in 1924, and as a result of the research conducted at the Curie's Institute, Stefania stayed for six more years in Paris to study the effect of the solar radiation on the radioactivity of substances. In 1930 she returned to Romania and studied the link between radioactivity and rainfall, and later the relationship between earthquakes and rainfall.

In 1935, the Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded to Frederik Joliot and Irene Joliot-Curie for the discovery of artificial radioactivity. Stefania Maracineanu expressed her dismay at the fact that Irene Joliot-Curie used much of her observations and work dealing with artificial radioactivity without giving proper credit. Maracineanu publicly claimed that she first discovered artificial radioactivity during her research years in Paris.

Stefania Maracineanu is often considered an "ignored Romanian scientist". Was this because of the challenges that women faced in the scientific community in the early 1900s ? Because she did not have a proper network of scientists with which to discuss ideas, and as a result lost focus and pursued research topics on the fringe of science? Was she marginalized in favor of bigger names and interests? Were her scientific methods and observations not careful or focused enough? We may never find an answer to these questions, or the answer may be a combination of all of the above, and then some...

Other references:
Bulletin of the National Research Council, v.10, 1925-1926, The National Academy of Sciences, Washington DC

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