Women of science


The mathematics of physics blinds the layman to its beauty and yet it is this quality, even more than the multiple mysteries of science, which attracts students. When space physicist Susan McKenna-Lawlor, now a professor in the Department of Experimental Physics at Maynooth, first arrived at University College, Dublin as a 16-year-old, she seemed a likely candidate for an arts-related academic career. As a child she had already travelled throughout Europe with her parents, discovering at first hand the treasures of architecture she had read about. A serious student of piano and cello, she was also interested in languages and art history. However, reading through the various course leaflets alerted her to the fact that science was unknown territory.

No science subjects had been taught at the Dublin convent she had attended. She decided to "redress the balance". Initially she planned on spending a year studying general science. These plans soon changed.

Within a few months, the beauty of science had seduced her imagination. Since then she has worked with NASA in the US, as well as building instruments for missions launched by the four major space agencies - the European Space Agency, as well as the Russian and Japanese agencies and NASA. She was team leader - "we call them principal investigator" - for the first Irish scientific experiments flown on a European Space Agency mission (Giotto mission to Comet Halley) in 1985/86 and she also proposed the first Irish instrument to fly on a Russian spacecraft (the Phobos mission to Mars and its moons). McKenna-Lawlor's team designed and flew EPONA, the device named after the Celtic goddess and used for measuring energetic, electrically-charged particles in the environment of Comet Halley. The spacecraft flew through the comet 50 times faster than the bullet from a gun, or 68 kilometres a second.

EPONA's success encouraged her to raise venture capital to set up her own company, Space Technology Ireland Ltd, which builds instrumentation for space missions and provides an electronic consultancy service to a wide variety of Earth industries as well. The office is based at Maynooth.

In 1990, after almost four years in space, EPONA was taken out of hibernation to measure historic data during the first encounter between Earth and a spacecraft coming from deep space. By using an Earth gravity assist, it was possible to re-direct Giotto to a further encounter with the comet Grigg Skjellerup, which it reached in July 1992. At that time, EPONA was reactivated and obtained pioneering data. Smaller and less active than Halley, Grigg Skjellerup has a lower gas production rate and it was of special interest to compare data taken from the atmosphere of these very different comets with the same instrument.

McKenna-Lawlor is currently involved with the ESA's Rosetta satellite mission to yet another comet, Wirtanen. Lift-off is planned for 2003 and when one considers that it will take eight years to reach Wirtanen, one understands how immense is the space distance involved. Flight controllers will use the combined gravity of Mars and Earth like a slingshot to propel Rosseta into position where it can land a probe on the comet nucleus. There, a sample will be drilled from deep below the surface of the ultra-cold nucleus to be later analysed in an attempt to identify the primordial building blocks of life.

Stepping back from outer space and the future of space exploration, McKenna-Lawlor wrote Whatever Shines Should Be Observed, a study of five 19th-century women scientists - four of them Irish by birth, a fifth, Mary, Countess of Rosse, by marriage - who each made pioneering contributions in the areas of microscopy, astronomy, astrophysics and photography. Mary, Countess of Rosse (1813-85), wife of the third Earl of Rosse who built the great telescope at Birr in 1867, not only supported him in his project but later turned to photography. She designed her own darkroom in 1842 which is believed to be the oldest in existence, and through her experiments is a central figure in the development of photography.

In 1903 pioneering astrophysicist Margaret Huggins (1848-1915) and Agnes Clerke (1842-1907), author of A Popular History Of Astronomy (1885), were invited to become honorary members of the Royal Astronomical Society, representing a considerable breakthrough for women. In addition to what they achieved professionally, they contributed to a gradual breaking down of barriers raised against the participation of women in academic life. None of the five had university degrees but their achievements must have contributed to opening university places and professional opportunities to women.

Even now these women are not household names and do not appear in Boylan's Dictionary Of Irish Biography. It is interesting that women are more celebrated in the area of natural science than in pure science: many outstanding female botanical artists are acknowledged as having contributed greatly to the study and teaching of botany, for instance. Pure science is different. Indeed science continues to have a relatively low profile in Ireland, although the natural sciences have, for socio-economic reasons, traditionally, featured more in the Protestant experience.

Ireland has produced four Nobel laureates for Literature, and most would have no difficulty naming them. The name of another laureate, Ernest Walton, might come less readily to mind. Walton (1903-95) shared the 1951 Nobel Prize for Physics with John Cockcroft for their Cockcroft-Walton Accelerator, the instrument used for splitting the atom. It could be argued that had there been Nobel prizes available in their time, Irish scientists such as Robert Boyle (1627-91) or William Rowan Hamilton (1805-65) might well have been honoured.

Even the study of geology has only acquired a higher profile through the work of the late Frank Mitchell, who brought a scientific overview to his classic Reading The Irish Landscape. McKenna-Lawlor admits none of the women she writes about in the book acted as scientific role models for her. Indeed, she says she has no scientific role models. "I knew about them through my reading," she says, but was aware that to the general public they remain unknown. In using William Herschel's famous quote quicquid nited notandum "whatever shines should be observed" she is moving the emphasis from the stars and planets which he was referring to, to some of the women who studied them.

Much of the material she has drawn on for the book is held in the British Library, the Royal Society Library and the Royal Astronomical Society Library. She makes the point that all of these women had the advantage of coming not only from privileged backgrounds, but had the opportunity to see how the scientific life was lived through the activities of their professional, male friends. "Margaret Huggins, for instance, progressed from being his assistant to being acknowledged as his scientific partner." As a child Huggins, encouraged by her father, studied the spectroscope at home.

Ellen Clerke (1840-1906), a gifted linguist, studied astronomy through Arabic sources. The Earl of Rosse was a mentor not only to his wife Mary but also to his cousin Mary Ward (182769). McKenna-Lawlor reports on Huggins's tireless efforts to correct some errors made by a colleague when writing about her husband's work. Margaret Huggins emerges as a remarkable character: determined, dedicated and as drawn to the arts as she was to science. Mary Ward, who died suddenly at 42, is particularly fascinating as she was drawn to both the natural world and the night sky. Writing articles on subjects such as hummingbird moths, insect development and natterjack toads in Ireland, Ward was also a talented science artist and a copy of her original painting of the Natterjack toad is in the British Museum's natural history collection. Her publications also include The Transit Of Mercury, Observations Of Comet 2 Of 1863 and The November Shooting Stars Of 1867.

How did space become so important to McKenna-Lawlor? She appears mildly surprised by the question, but remarks that her father had shown her the constellations as a child. Still, the arts, not the stars had dominated her childhood. As a science undergraduate, her first major interest was atomic physics. Her M.Sc. thesis, Determination Of The Spin And Parity Of The Tau Meson, was also in the area. "Successful mathematical modelling of the spectra of the hydrogen atom impressed me very much," she says, remarking that the beauty and wonder of science has never left her.

Her interest in space began with a specific career step. On receiving a post graduate scholarship to the Astronomical section of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, she worked under the then director Prof Mervyn Ellison, who was a world authority on the explosions in the sun known as solar flares and author of a seminal book on this subject.

Through Ellison, she began studying solar flares and her knowledge of these phenomena proved invaluable when she went to the US to carry out research for her PhD. At that time NASA had recently acquired the capability to launch manned payloads into space. The threat posed to the astronauts by high energy radiation produced in association with solar flare events brought her expertise in the subject to the attention of NASA. Work she had already done in Ireland on the active sun was valuable. The space community needed to know if solar flares could be predicted and if particular conditions are conducive to flare activity. She became involved in several NASA missions to study the active sun. "What is particularly exciting about research of this nature is the ongoing element of surprise. One can spend many years designing, constructing and testing an instrument to ask a particular question of Mother Nature and then she answers, providing insights into mysteries into which one had not previously even guessed."

Whatever Shines Should Be Observed by Susan McKenna-Lawlor is published by Samton, price £10.