Beethoven’s Genome Has Been Sequenced for the First Time, Revealing Clues About the Great Composer’s Health & Family History

Lud­wig van Beethoven died in 1827, a bit ear­ly to be sub­ject­ed to the kinds of DNA analy­sis that have become so preva­lent today. Luck­i­ly, the Ger­man-speak­ing world of the ear­ly nine­teenth cen­tu­ry still adhered to the cus­tom of sav­ing locks of hair from the deceased — par­tic­u­lar­ly lucky for an archae­ol­o­gy stu­dent named Tris­tan Begg and his col­lab­o­ra­tors in the study “Genom­ic analy­ses of hair from Lud­wig van Beethoven,” pub­lished just this month in Cur­rent Biol­o­gy. In the video from Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty just above, Begg intro­duces the research project and describes what new infor­ma­tion it reveals about the com­pos­er whose life and work have been so inten­sive­ly stud­ied for so long.

“Work­ing with an inter­na­tion­al team of sci­en­tists, I iden­ti­fied five genet­i­cal­ly match­ing, authen­tic locks of hair and used them to sequence Beethoven’s genome,” Begg says. “We dis­cov­ered sig­nif­i­cant genet­ic risk fac­tors for liv­er dis­ease and evi­dence that Beethoven con­tract­ed the Hepati­tis B virus in, at the lat­est, the months before his final ill­ness.”

And “while we could­n’t pin­point the cause of Beethoven’s deaf­ness or gas­troin­testi­nal prob­lems, we did find mod­est genet­ic risk for Sys­temic Lupus Ery­the­mato­sus,” an autoim­mune dis­ease. His­to­ry remem­bers Beethoven as a not par­tic­u­lar­ly healthy man; now we have a clear­er idea of which con­di­tions he could have suf­fered.

But this study’s most rev­e­la­to­ry dis­cov­er­ies con­cern not what has to do with Beethoven, but what does­n’t. The famous lock of hair “once believed to have been cut from the dead com­poser’s head by the fif­teen-year-old musi­cian Fer­di­nand Hiller” turns out to have come from a woman. Nor was Beethoven him­self “descend­ed from the main Flem­ish Beethoven lin­eage,” which is shown by genet­ic evi­dence that “an extra­mar­i­tal rela­tion­ship result­ed in the birth of a child in Beethoven’s direct pater­nal line at some point between 1572 and 1770.” This news came as a shock to “the five peo­ple in Bel­gium whose last name is van Beethoven and who pro­vid­ed DNA for the study,” writes the New York Times’ Gina Kola­ta. But then, Beethoven’s music still belongs to them — just as it belongs to us all.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Stream the Com­plete Works of Bach & Beethoven: 250 Free Hours of Music

Beethoven’s Unfin­ished Tenth Sym­pho­ny Gets Com­plet­ed by Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence: Hear How It Sounds

The Sto­ry of How Beethoven Helped Make It So That CDs Could Play 74 Min­utes of Music

Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence Cre­ativ­i­ty Machine Learns to Play Beethoven in the Style of The Bea­t­les’ “Pen­ny Lane”

Hear a “DNA-Based Pre­dic­tion of Nietzsche’s Voice:” First Attempt at Sim­u­lat­ing Voice of a Dead Per­son

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Behold an Astonishing Near-Nightly Spectacle in the Lightning Capital of the World

Extreme weath­er con­di­tions have become a top­ic of grave con­cern. Are floods, earth­quakes, tor­na­does and cat­a­stroph­ic storms the new nor­mal?

Just for a moment, let’s trav­el to a place where extreme weath­er has always been the norm: Lake Mara­cai­bo in north­west­ern Venezuela.

Accord­ing to NASA’s Trop­i­cal Rain­fall Mea­sur­ing Mis­sion’s light­ning image sen­sor, it is the light­ning cap­i­tal of the world.

Chalk it up to the unique geog­ra­phy and cli­mate con­di­tions near the con­flu­ence of the lake and the Cata­tum­bo Riv­er. At night, the moist warm air above the water col­lides with cool breezes rolling down from the Andes, cre­at­ing an aver­age of 297 thun­der­storms a year.

Watch­ing pho­tog­ra­ph­er Jonas Pio­ntek’s short film doc­u­ment­ing the phe­nom­e­non, above, it’s not sur­pris­ing that chief among his tips for shoot­ing light­ning at night is a point­ed warn­ing to always keep a safe dis­tance from the storm. While view­able from as far as 400 kilo­me­ters away, the area near­est the light­ning activ­i­ty can aver­age 28 strikes per minute.

More than 400 years before Pio­ntek shared his impres­sions with the world, Span­ish poet Lope de Vega tapped Cata­tum­bo light­ning in his epic 1597 poem La Drag­ontea, cred­it­ing it, erro­neous­ly, with hav­ing  thwart­ed Sir Fran­cis Drake’s plans to con­quer the city of Mara­cai­bo under cov­er of night. His poet­ic license was per­sua­sive enough that it’s still an accept­ed part of the myth.

The “eter­nal storm” did how­ev­er give Venezue­lan naval forces a gen­uine nat­ur­al assist, by illu­mi­nat­ing a squadron of Span­ish ships on Lake Mara­cai­bo, which they defeat­ed on July 24, 1823, clear­ing the way to inde­pen­dence.

Once upon a time, large num­bers of local fish­er­men took advan­tage of their prime posi­tion to fish by night, although with recent defor­esta­tion, polit­i­cal con­flict, and eco­nom­ic decline dec­i­mat­ing the vil­lages where they live in tra­di­tion­al stilt­ed hous­es, their liveli­hood is in decline.

Mean­while the Eter­nal Storm has itself been affect­ed by forces of extreme weath­er. In 2010, a drought occa­sioned by a par­tic­u­lar­ly strong El Niño, caused light­ning activ­i­ty to cease for 6 weeks, its longest dis­ap­pear­ance in 104 years.

Envi­ron­men­tal­ist Erik Quiroga, who is cam­paign­ing for the Cata­tum­bo light­ning to be des­ig­nat­ed as the world’s first UNESCO World Her­itage Weath­er Phe­nom­e­non warns, “This is a unique gift and we are at risk of los­ing it.”

See more of Jonas Piontek’s Cata­tum­bo light­ning pho­tographs here.

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

Leonardo’s Lost Sketches Suggest That He Theorized Gravity Before Galileo & Newton

It would be clichéd to describe Leonar­do da Vin­ci as a man ahead of his time. But in the case of the quin­tes­sen­tial Renais­sance poly­math, it may well be one of those clichés firm­ly root­ed in truth. In fact, that root­ing has just grown even firmer with the dis­cov­ery of a tri­an­gle that Leonar­do sketched in one of his note­books, the Codex Arun­del (cir­ca 1478–1518). That tri­an­gle, as the New York Times’ William J. Broad writes, had “an adjoin­ing pitch­er and, pour­ing from its spout, a series of cir­cles that formed the triangle’s hypotenuse.” This image sounds sim­ple, but it reveals that Leonar­do approached an under­stand­ing of the laws of grav­i­ty before Galileo, and well before New­ton.

This find­ing is the work of Morteza Gharib, a pro­fes­sor of aero­nau­tics at the Cal­i­for­nia Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy. Cap­ti­vat­ed by this sketch, he “used a com­put­er pro­gram to flip the tri­an­gle and the adja­cent areas of back­ward writ­ing,” which clar­i­fied what Leonar­do was attempt­ing to do.

His dia­gram turned out “to split the effects of grav­i­ty into two parts that revealed an aspect of nature nor­mal­ly kept hid­den.” The first part was grav­i­ty’s “nat­ur­al down­ward pull”; the sec­ond was the move­ment of the pitch­er itself along a line. That Leonar­do drew “the pitcher’s con­tents falling low­er and low­er over time” implies his under­stand­ing that “grav­i­ty was a con­stant force that result­ed in a steady accel­er­a­tion.”

Along with co-authors Chris Roh and Flavio Noca, Gharib has pub­lished a paper on “Leonar­do da Vinci’s Visu­al­iza­tion of Grav­i­ty as a Form of Accel­er­a­tion” in this mon­th’s issue of Leonar­do — an appro­pri­ate­ly named jour­nal in this case, though one ded­i­cat­ed less to the study of Leonar­do the man than to the study of the inter­sec­tion of art and sci­ence he occu­pied. As Gharib and oth­ers see it, Leonar­do “was far more than an artist and sug­gest­ed that his fame as a pio­neer­ing sci­en­tist could sky­rock­et if more tech­ni­cal­ly knowl­edge­able experts probed the Codex Arun­del and oth­er sources” — the kind of experts who can tell that, with his pitch­er and tri­an­gle, Leonar­do man­aged to deter­mine the strength of gravity’s pull to an accu­ra­cy of about 97 per­cent. Which leads us to won­der: What else about the nature of real­i­ty must he have worked out in the mar­gins of his note­books?

via Art­net

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Leonar­do da Vinci’s Vision­ary Note­books Now Online: Browse 570 Dig­i­tized Pages

Leonar­do da Vinci’s Ele­gant Design for a Per­pet­u­al Motion Machine

How Leonar­do da Vin­ci Made His Mag­nif­i­cent Draw­ings Using Only a Met­al Sty­lus, Pen & Ink, and Chalk

Down­load the Sub­lime Anato­my Draw­ings of Leonar­do da Vin­ci: Avail­able Online, or in a Great iPad App

A Com­plete Dig­i­ti­za­tion of Leonar­do Da Vinci’s Codex Atlanti­cus, the Largest Exist­ing Col­lec­tion of His Draw­ings & Writ­ings

The Old­est Known Globe to Depict the New World Was Engraved on an Ostrich Egg, Maybe by Leonar­do da Vin­ci (1504)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

The Map of Engineering: A New Animation Shows How All of the Different Fields in Engineering Fit Together

In his lat­est ani­ma­tion, physi­cist and sci­ence writer Dominic Wal­li­man maps out the entire field of engi­neer­ing and all of its sub­dis­ci­plines. Civ­il engi­neer­ing, chem­i­cal engi­neer­ing, bio engi­neer­ing, bio­med­ical engi­neer­ing, mechan­i­cal engi­neer­ing, aero­space engi­neer­ing, marine engi­neer­ing, elec­tri­cal engi­neer­ing, com­put­er engineering–they’re all cov­ered here.

In the past, we’ve fea­tured Wal­li­man’s oth­er edu­ca­tion­al ani­ma­tions that cov­er Biol­o­gy, Physics, Chem­istry, Math­e­mat­ics, Quan­tum Com­put­ing, Com­put­er Sci­ence, and more. Click the links to explore each video.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

If you would like to sup­port the mis­sion of Open Cul­ture, con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your con­tri­bu­tions will help us con­tin­ue pro­vid­ing the best free cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als to learn­ers every­where. You can con­tribute through Pay­Pal, Patre­on, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

Relat­ed Con­tent 

The Map of Com­put­er Sci­ence: New Ani­ma­tion Presents a Sur­vey of Com­put­er Sci­ence, from Alan Tur­ing to “Aug­ment­ed Real­i­ty”

The Map of Math­e­mat­ics: Ani­ma­tion Shows How All the Dif­fer­ent Fields in Math Fit Togeth­er

The Map of Physics: Ani­ma­tion Shows How All the Dif­fer­ent Fields in Physics Fit Togeth­er

The Map of Chem­istry: New Ani­ma­tion Sum­ma­rizes the Entire Field of Chem­istry in 12 Min­utes

How a Lavish 17th-Century Study of Fish Almost Prevented the Publication of Newton’s Principia, One of the Most Important Science Books Ever Written

The exalt­ed sta­tus of Isaac New­ton’s Philosophiæ Nat­u­ralis Prin­cip­ia Math­e­mat­i­ca is reflect­ed by the fact that every­body knows it as, sim­ply, the Prin­cip­ia. Very few of us, by con­trast, speak of the His­to­ria when we mean to refer to John Ray and Fran­cis Willugh­by’s De His­to­ria Pis­ci­um, which came out in 1686, the year before the Prin­cip­ia. Both books were pub­lished by the Roy­al Soci­ety, and as it hap­pens, the for­mi­da­ble cost of Willugh­by and Ray’s lav­ish work of ichthy­ol­o­gy near­ly kept New­ton’s ground­break­ing trea­tise on motion and grav­i­ta­tion from the print­ing press.

Accord­ing to the Roy­al Soci­ety’s web site, “Ray and Willughby’s His­to­ria did not prove to be the pub­lish­ing sen­sa­tion that the Fel­lows had hoped and the book near­ly bank­rupt­ed the Soci­ety. This meant that the Soci­ety was unable to meet its promise to sup­port the pub­li­ca­tion of Isaac New­ton’s mas­ter­piece.”

For­tu­nate­ly, “it was saved from obscu­ri­ty by Edmund Hal­ley, then Clerk at the Roy­al Soci­ety” — and now bet­ter known for his epony­mous comet — “who raised the funds to pub­lish the work, pro­vid­ing much of the mon­ey from his own pock­et. ”

Hal­ley’s great reward, in lieu of the salary the Roy­al Soci­ety could no longer pay, was a pile of unsold copies of De His­to­ria Pis­ci­um. That may not have been quite the insult it sounds like, giv­en that the book rep­re­sent­ed a tri­umph of pro­duc­tion and design in its day. You can see a copy in the episode of Adam Sav­age’s Test­ed at the top of the post, and you can close­ly exam­ine its imagery at your leisure in the dig­i­tal archive of the Roy­al Soci­ety. In the words of Jonathan Ash­more, Chair of the Roy­al Society’s Library Com­mit­tee, a brows­ing ses­sion should help us “appre­ci­ate why ear­ly Fel­lows of the Roy­al Soci­ety were so impressed by Willughby’s stun­ning illus­tra­tions of piscine nat­ur­al his­to­ry.”

Though Sav­age duly mar­vels at the Roy­al Soci­ety’s copy of the His­to­ria — a recon­struc­tion made up of pages long ago cut out and sold sep­a­rate­ly, as was once com­mon prac­tice with books with pic­tures  suit­able for fram­ing — it’s clear that much of the moti­va­tion for his vis­it came from the prospect of close prox­im­i­ty to New­to­ni­ana, up to and includ­ing the man’s death mask. But then, New­ton lays fair claim to being the most impor­tant sci­en­tist who ever lived, and the Prin­cip­ia to being the most impor­tant sci­ence book ever writ­ten. Almost three and a half cen­turies lat­er, physics still holds mys­ter­ies for gen­er­a­tions of New­ton’s suc­ces­sors to solve. But then, so do the depths of the ocean.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Sir Isaac Newton’s Papers & Anno­tat­ed Prin­cip­ia Go Dig­i­tal

Beau­ti­ful & Out­landish Col­or Illus­tra­tions Let Euro­peans See Exot­ic Fish for the First Time (1754)

The Bril­liant Col­ors of the Great Bar­ri­er Revealed in a His­toric Illus­trat­ed Book from 1893

How Isaac New­ton Lost $3 Mil­lion Dol­lars in the “South Sea Bub­ble” of 1720: Even Genius­es Can’t Pre­vail Against the Machi­na­tions of the Mar­kets

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

The Chemist Alice Ball Pioneered a Treatment for Leprosy in 1915–and Then Others Stole the Credit for It


It’s bit­ter­sweet when­ev­er a pio­neer­ing, long over­looked female sci­en­tist is final­ly giv­en the recog­ni­tion she deserves, espe­cial­ly so when the sci­en­tist in ques­tion is a per­son of col­or.

Chemist Alice Ball’s youth and dri­ve — just 23 in 1915, when she dis­cov­ered a gen­tle, but effec­tive method for treat­ing lep­rosy — make her an excel­lent role mod­el for stu­dents with an inter­est in STEM.

But in a move that’s only shock­ing for its famil­iar­i­ty, an oppor­tunis­tic male col­league, Arthur Dean, fina­gled a way to claim cred­it for her work.

We’ve all heard the tales of female sci­en­tists who were inte­gral team play­ers on impor­tant projects, who ulti­mate­ly saw their role vast­ly down­played upon pub­li­ca­tion or their names left off of a pres­ti­gious award.

But Dean’s claim that he was the one who had dis­cov­ered an injectable water-sol­u­ble method for treat­ing lep­rosy with oil from the seeds of the chaul­moogra fruit is all the more galling, giv­en that he did so after Alice Ball’s trag­i­cal­ly ear­ly death at the age of 24, sus­pect­ed to be the result of acci­den­tal poi­son­ing dur­ing a class­room lab demon­stra­tion.

Not every­one believed him.

Ball, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Hawaii chem­istry department’s first Black female grad­u­ate stu­dent, and, sub­se­quent­ly, its first Black female chem­istry instruc­tor, had come to the atten­tion of Har­ry T. Holl­mann, a U.S. Pub­lic Health Offi­cer who shared her con­vic­tion that chaul­moogra oil might hold the key to treat­ing lep­rosy.

After her death in 1916, Holl­mann reviewed Dean’s pub­li­ca­tions regard­ing the high­ly suc­cess­ful new lep­rosy treat­ment then referred to as the Dean Method and wrote that he could not see “any improve­ment what­so­ev­er over the orig­i­nal [method] as worked out by Miss Ball:”

After a great amount of exper­i­men­tal work, Miss Ball solved the prob­lem for me by mak­ing the eth­yl esters of the fat­ty acids found in chaul­moogra oil.

Type “the Dean Method lep­rosy” into a search engine and you’ll be reward­ed with a sat­is­fy­ing wealth of Alice Ball pro­files, all of which go into detail regard­ing her dis­cov­ery of what became known as the Ball Method, in use until the 1940s.

Kath­leen M. Wong’s arti­cle on this trail­blaz­ing sci­en­tist in the Smith­son­ian Mag­a­zine delves into why Hollmann’s pro­fes­sion­al efforts to posthu­mous­ly con­fer cred­it where cred­it was due were insuf­fi­cient to secure Ball her right­ful place in sci­ence his­to­ry.

That began to change in the 1990s when Stan Ali, a retiree research­ing Black peo­ple in Hawaii, found his inter­est piqued by a ref­er­ence to a “young Negro chemist” work­ing on lep­rosy in The Samar­i­tans of Molokai.

Ali teamed up with Paul Wer­mager, a retired Uni­ver­si­ty of Hawaii librar­i­an, and Kathryn Wad­dell Takara, a poet and pro­fes­sor in the Eth­nic Stud­ies Depart­ment. Togeth­er, they began comb­ing over old sources for any pass­ing ref­er­ence to Ball and her work. They came to believe that her absence from the sci­en­tif­ic record owed to sex­ism and racism:

Dur­ing and just after her life­time, she was believed to be part Hawai­ian, not Black. (Her birth and death cer­tifi­cates list both Ball and her par­ents as white, per­haps to “make trav­el, busi­ness and life in gen­er­al eas­i­er,” accord­ing to the Hon­olu­lu Star-Bul­letin.) In 1910, Black peo­ple made up just 0.4 per­cent of Hawaiʻi’s pop­u­la­tion.

“When [the news­pa­pers] real­ized she was not part Hawai­ian, but [Black], they felt they had made an embar­rass­ing mis­take, for­get­ting about it and hop­ing it would go away,” Ali said. “It did for 75 years.”

Their com­bined efforts spurred the state of Hawaii to declare Feb­ru­ary 28 Alice Ball Day. The Uni­ver­si­ty of Hawaii installed a com­mem­o­ra­tive plaque near a chaul­moogra tree on cam­pus. Her por­trait hangs in the university’s Hamil­ton Library, along­side a posthu­mous­ly award­ed Medal of Dis­tinc­tion.

(“Mean­while,” as Car­lyn L. Tani dry­ly observes in Hon­olu­lu Mag­a­zine, “Dean Hall on the Uni­ver­si­ty of Hawai‘i Mānoa cam­pus stands as an endur­ing mon­u­ment to Arthur L. Dean.)

Fur­ther afield, the Lon­don School of Hygiene and Trop­i­cal Med­i­cine cel­e­brat­ed its 120th anniver­sary by adding Ball’s, Marie Sklodowska-Curie’s and Flo­rence Nightingale’s names to a frieze that had pre­vi­ous­ly hon­ored 23 emi­nent men.

And now, the God­moth­er of Punk Pat­ti Smith has tak­en it upon her­self to intro­duce Ball to an even wider audi­ence, after run­ning across a ref­er­ence to her while con­duct­ing research for her just released A Book of Days.

As Smith notes in an inter­view with Numéro:

Things have real­ly changed. I think we are liv­ing in a very beau­ti­ful peri­od of time because there are so many female artists, poets, sci­en­tists, and activists. Through books espe­cial­ly, we are redis­cov­er­ing and valu­ing the women who have been unjust­ly for­got­ten in our his­to­ry. Dur­ing my research, I came across a young black sci­en­tist who lived in Hawaii in the 1920s. At that time, there was a big lep­er colony in Hawaii. She had dis­cov­ered a treat­ment using the oil from the seeds of a tree to relieve the pain and allow patients to see their friends and fam­i­ly. Her name was Alice Ball, and she died at just 24 after a ter­ri­ble chem­i­cal acci­dent dur­ing an exper­i­ment. Her research was tak­en up by a pro­fes­sor who removed her name from the study to take full cred­it. It is only recent­ly that peo­ple have dis­cov­ered that she was the one who did the work.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Joce­lyn Bell Bur­nell Changed Astron­o­my For­ev­er; Her Ph.D. Advi­sor Won the Nobel Prize for It

“The Matil­da Effect”: How Pio­neer­ing Women Sci­en­tists Have Been Denied Recog­ni­tion and Writ­ten Out of Sci­ence His­to­ry

How the Female Sci­en­tist Who Dis­cov­ered the Green­house Gas Effect Was For­got­ten by His­to­ry

Marie Curie Became the First Woman to Win a Nobel Prize, the First Per­son to Win Twice, and the Only Per­son in His­to­ry to Win in Two Dif­fer­ent Sci­ences

 

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

Meet the Physicist Who Has Created 1600+ Wikipedia Entries for Important Female & Minority Scientists

I find noth­ing more reward­ing, hon­est­ly, than see­ing peo­ple get rec­og­nized and cham­pi­oned for what they’ve done. — Dr. Jess Wade

As far as cen­turies go, the 21st one is a rel­a­tive­ly good time to be a girl with an inter­est in STEM.

Mod­ern sci­ence-lov­ing girls find them­selves born into a world where books and TV shows cel­e­brat­ing their inter­est pro­lif­er­ate. Their class­rooms are fes­tooned with posters of trail­blaz­ing female sci­en­tists. Even Bar­bie has ditched her bathing suit for a lab coat and a micro­scope.

You’d think Wikipedia would have kept pace in this cli­mate.

And it has…thanks almost entire­ly to the efforts of Dr. Jess Wade, a 33-year-old Impe­r­i­al Col­lege Research Fel­low who spends her days inves­ti­gat­ing spin selec­tive charge trans­port through chi­ral sys­tems in the Depart­ment of Mate­ri­als.

Her evenings, how­ev­er, belong to Wikipedia.

That’s when she drafts entries for under rec­og­nized female sci­en­tists and sci­en­tists of col­or.

“I had a tar­get for doing one a day, but some­times I get too excit­ed and do three,” she told The Guardian in 2018.

To date she’s added more than 1,600 names, striv­ing to make their biogra­phies as ful­ly fleshed out as any of the write ups for the white male sci­en­tists who flour­ish on the site.

This requires some foren­sic dig­ging. Dis­cov­er­ing a subject’s maid­en name is often the crit­i­cal step to find­ing her PhD the­sis and ear­ly influ­ences.

A hand­ful of Wade’s entries have been strick­en for the tru­ly mad­den­ing rea­son that their sub­jects are too obscure to war­rant inclu­sion.

Wade’s own Wikipedia entry notes the hypocrisy of this log­ic, refer­ring read­ers to a 2019 Chem­istry World arti­cle in which she’s quot­ed:

When you make a page and it is dis­put­ed for dele­tion, it is not only annoy­ing because your work is being delet­ed. It’s also incred­i­bly intru­sive and degrad­ing to have some­one dis­cuss whether someone’s notable enough to be on Wikipedia – a web­site that has pages about almost every pop song, peo­ple who are extras in films no one has ever heard of and peo­ple who were in sports teams that nev­er scored.

Below are just a few of the 1600+ female sci­en­tists she’s intro­duced to a wider audi­ence. While his­to­ry abounds with near­ly invis­i­ble names whose dis­cov­er­ies and con­tri­bu­tions have been inad­e­quate­ly rec­og­nized, or all too fre­quent­ly attrib­uted to male col­leagues, these women are all con­tem­po­rary.

Nuclear chemist Clarice Phelps was part of the team that helped dis­cov­er, ten­nes­sine, the sec­ond heav­i­est known ele­ment.

Math­e­mati­cian Gladys Mae West was one of the devel­op­ers of GPS.

Phys­i­cal chemist June Lind­sey played a key role in the dis­cov­ery of the DNA dou­ble helix.

Oceanog­ra­ph­er and cli­mate sci­en­tist Kim Cobb uses corals and cave sta­lag­mites to inform pro­jec­tions of future cli­mate change.

Vac­ci­nol­o­gist Sarah Gilbert led the team that devel­oped the Oxford/AstraZeneca vac­cine (and inspired a Bar­bie cre­at­ed in her image, though you can be assured that the Wikipedia entry Wade researched and wrote for her came first.)

Wade’s hope is that a high­er rep­re­sen­ta­tion of female sci­en­tists and sci­en­tists of col­or on a crowd­sourced, eas­i­ly-accessed plat­form like Wikipedia will deal a blow to ingrained gen­der bias, expand­ing pub­lic per­cep­tion of who can par­tic­i­pate in these sorts of careers and encour­ag­ing young girls to pur­sue these cours­es of study. As she told the New York Times:

I’ve always done a lot of work to try to get young peo­ple — par­tic­u­lar­ly girls and chil­dren from low­er socioe­co­nom­ic back­grounds and peo­ple of col­or — to think about study­ing physics at high school, because physics is still very much that kind of elit­ist, white boy sub­ject.

Our sci­ence can only ben­e­fit the whole of soci­ety if it’s done by the whole of soci­ety. And that’s not cur­rent­ly the case.

Unsur­pris­ing­ly, Wade is often asked how to fos­ter and sup­port girls with an inter­est in sci­ence, beyond upping the num­ber of role mod­els avail­able to them on Wikipedia.

The way for­ward, she told NBC, is not atten­tion-get­ting “whiz bang” one-off events and assem­blies, but rather pay­ing skilled teach­ers as well as bankers, to men­tor stu­dents on their course of study, and also help them apply for grants, fel­low­ships and oth­er oppor­tu­ni­ties. As stu­dents pre­pare to enter the work­force, clear­ly com­mu­ni­cat­ed sex­u­al harass­ment poli­cies and assis­tance with child­care and elder­care become cru­cial:

Ulti­mate­ly, we don’t only need to increase the num­ber of girls choos­ing sci­ence, we need to increase the pro­por­tion of women who stay in sci­ence.

Lis­ten to Jess Wade talk about her Wikipedia project on NPR’s sci­ence pro­gram Short Wave here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Women Sci­en­tists Launch a Data­base Fea­tur­ing the Work of 9,000 Women Work­ing in the Sci­ences

“The Matil­da Effect”: How Pio­neer­ing Women Sci­en­tists Have Been Denied Recog­ni­tion and Writ­ten Out of Sci­ence His­to­ry

The Lit­tle-Known Female Sci­en­tists Who Mapped 400,000 Stars Over a Cen­tu­ry Ago: An Intro­duc­tion to the “Har­vard Com­put­ers”

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

Christopher Hitchens’ Final Interview: Hear the Newly-Released Uncut Conversation with Richard Dawkins

Nev­er was there such an exhil­a­rat­ing time and place to be inter­est­ed in athe­ism than the inter­net of ten or fif­teen years ago. “Peo­ple com­piled end­less lists of argu­ments and coun­ter­ar­gu­ments for or against athe­ism,” remem­bers blog­ger Scott Alexan­der. One athe­ist news­group “cre­at­ed a Dewey-Dec­i­mal-sys­tem-esque index of almost a thou­sand cre­ation­ist argu­ments” and “painstak­ing­ly debunked all of them.” In turn, their cre­ation­ist arch-ene­mies “went through and debunked all of their debunk­ings.” Read­ers could enjoy a host of athe­ism-themed web comics and “the now-infa­mous r/atheism sub­red­dit, which at the time was one of Reddit’s high­est-ranked, beat­ing top­ics like ‘news,’ ‘humor,’ and — some­how — ‘sex.’ At the time, this seemed per­fect­ly nor­mal.”

This was the cul­ture in which Richard Dawkins pub­lished The God Delu­sion, in 2006, and Christo­pher Hitchens pub­lished his God Is Not Great: How Reli­gion Poi­sons Every­thing in 2007. “I’m not just doing what pub­lish­ers like and com­ing up with a provoca­tive sub­ti­tle,” Alexan­der quotes Hitchens as say­ing.  “I mean to say it infects us in our most basic integri­ty. It says we can’t be moral with­out ‘Big Broth­er,’ with­out a total­i­tar­i­an per­mis­sion, means we can’t be good to one anoth­er with­out this, we must be afraid, we must also be forced to love some­one whom we fear — the essence of sado­masochism, the essence of abjec­tion, the essence of the mas­ter-slave rela­tion­ship and that knows that death is com­ing and can’t wait to bring it on.”

Dawkins and Hitchens became known as two of the “Four Horse­men of the Non-Apoc­a­lypse,” a group of pub­lic intel­lec­tu­als that also includ­ed Sam Har­ris and Daniel Den­nett. The label stuck after all of them sat down for a two-hour con­ver­sa­tion on video in the fall 2007, dur­ing which each man laid out his cri­tique of the reli­gious world­view. Four years lat­er, Dawkins and Hitchens sat down for anoth­er record­ed con­ver­sa­tion, this time one-on-one and with a much dif­fer­ent tone. Hav­ing suf­fered from can­cer for more than a year, Hitchens seemed not to be long for this world, and indeed, he would be dead in just two months. But his con­di­tion hard­ly stopped him from speak­ing with his usu­al inci­sive­ness on top­ics of great inter­est, and espe­cial­ly his and Dawkins’ shared bête noire of fun­da­men­tal­ist reli­gion.

Dawkins, a biol­o­gist, sees in the pow­er grant­ed to reli­gion a threat to hard-won sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge about the nature of real­i­ty; Hitchens, a writer and thinker in the tra­di­tion of George Orwell, saw it as one of the many forms of total­i­tar­i­an­ism that has ever threat­ened the intel­lec­tu­al and bod­i­ly free­dom of humankind. In this, Hitchens’ final inter­view (which was print­ed in Hitchens’ Last Inter­view book and whose uncut audio record­ing came avail­able only this year), Dawkins express­es some con­cern that he’s become a “bore” with his usu­al anti-reli­gious defense of sci­ence. Non­sense, Hitchens says: an hon­est sci­en­tist risks being called a bore just as an hon­est jour­nal­ist risks being called stri­dent, but nev­er­the­less, “you’ve got to bang on.”

Relat­ed con­tent:

Does God Exist? Christo­pher Hitchens Debates Chris­t­ian Philoso­pher William Lane Craig (2009)

Is There an After­life? Christo­pher Hitchens Spec­u­lates in an Ani­mat­ed Video

Christo­pher Hitchens: No Deathbed Con­ver­sion for Me, Thanks, But it was Good of You to Ask

Mas­ter Cura­tor Paul Hold­en­gräber Inter­views Hitchens, Her­zog, Goure­vitch & Oth­er Lead­ing Thinkers

The Last Inter­view Book Series Fea­tures the Final Words of Cul­tur­al Icons: Borges to Bowie, Philip K. Dick to Fri­da Kahlo

Richard Dawkins on Why We Should Believe in Sci­ence: “It Works … Bitch­es”

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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