Sunday, July 2, 2017

Harriet Brooks - Canada's first woman of nuclear science

Harriet Brooks (July 2, 1876 – April 17, 1933) enrolled at McGill University in Montreal in the mid-1890s, just a few years after they'd started admitting women. She knew from the start she wanted to study mathematics, and graduated in 1898 with a bachelor's degree in both in mathematics and natural philosophy -- the precursor to the field of physics.

Impressed with her scientific ability, Ernest Rutherford, the "father" of nuclear physics, and future Nobel winner (with much of his work being built on her research) accepted her as his first graduate student. With him, she studied electricity and magnetism, and graduated with a Master's in Electromagnetism in 1901, making her the first woman in Canada to earn a Master's degree.

After graduation, she left Montreal for the US, where she first served as a fellow at Bryn Mawr and then at Cambridge. She returned to Rutherford's lab, though, where she made a crucial scientific discovery. Working with the element thorium, she discovered that its radioactive decay emissions weren't the expected alpha, beta, or gamma rays, but instead were another element in the form of a gas "transmuted" from the parent element.

This new element was radon, which has a lower molecular weight than the thorium from which it was emitted. In fact, it was this discovery that laid the foundation for the development of the entire field of nuclear science, and created the basis for the work Rutherford did to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1908.

In 1904 she moved again, this time to New York City where she took a position as a physics tutor at Barnard College, the women's college associated with Columbia. It was while there that she fell in love with a male physicist from Columbia, and the two planned to marry. When the Dean of Barnard found out, it was made clear that she was expect to resign on the date of her wedding. Instead, Harriet Brooks wrote a stern letter stating her opposition to such a ridiculous practice. "I think it is a duty I owe to my profession and to my sex to show that a woman has a right to the practice of her profession and cannot be condemned to abandon it merely because she marries. I cannot conceive how women’s colleges, inviting and encouraging women to enter professions can be justly founded or maintained denying such a principle."

Sadly, the policy wasn't changed, and she had to make a tough decision. She broke off the engagement, and eventually left Barnard entirely.

In 1906, she studied at the Curie Institute, where she discovered the recoil of radioactive atoms, using the radium Dr. Marie Curie had discovered. Her research showed that when a radioactive atom undergoes decay, a large alpha particle is released, and the atom is propelled in the opposite direction, proving Newton's Third Law applied to atomic particles as well.

Unexpectedly, considering her previous fight against women being forced to choose between marriage and academic research, in 1907 she married and retired from science completely. After nearly a decade of ground-breaking research where she was frequently compared to Marie Curie, she seemed content to leave future research to others. Perhaps she saw first hand the exhausting schedule of Marie Curie, busy juggling a family and a scientific career, when she was in Paris, and decided she was satisfied with her contributions in one area and was eager to explore the other.

You can read more about her work in her McGill profile, "Remembering Harriet Brooks: Canada’s first female nuclear physicist"

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