Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Leona Woods - visionary scientist

Leona Woods (August 9, 1919 – November 10, 1986) is best known as the only female physicists on the team that built the world's first nuclear reactor, which is a worthy memorial. But it was what led her to be on that team, and what she did afterward, that is truly worth celebrating.

Her intelligence was evident early in her life when she graduated from high school early and then earned her BS in chemistry at the age of 18. Her doctoral thesis on silicon oxide bands earned her the respect of fellow post-doc researchers, who hired her to be a part of Enrico Fermi's team studying nuclear physics as part of the Manhattan Project in the early years of World War II. In fact, they were working on building a nuclear reactor underneath the abandoned football stadium at the University of Chicago (the same one she had played on as a student), hoping to beat the Germans to unlocking the power of the atom.

They did, with her help. It was her idea to build and use geiger counters during experiments to analyze the results. And she was there when their reactor, known as Chicago Pile-1, went critical, setting the foundation for the work of other scientists at Los Alamos building the first atomic bomb which, in turn, helped end the war.

After the war, she continued her research in high-energy physics, astrophysics and cosmology, moving from laboratory to laboratory, teaching physics and publishing papers. Over the course of her career, she continually showed her visionary brilliance tackling a wide range of subjects using science to try and solve problems facing humanity. She wrote over 200 papers, including one on how to create an atmosphere on the moon.

Later in her career, she applied her experience teaching classes on environmental studies, engineering, engineering archaeology, mechanical aerospace and nuclear engineering. Her interests included using nuclear science to understand and protect the environment. She created a method to study tree rings using isotope ratios in order to learn more about prehistoric climate fluctuations. In fact, her research has contributed to our own understanding of human-caused changes to the climate.

Leona Woods was a forward-thinking scientist whose contributions to science are still influencing our understanding of the world around us. She is truly a Self-Rescuing Princess Society role model worth celebrating.

Check out this great interview she gave in 1986 about her time working on the Manhattan Project.

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