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Guest Blog

Commentary invited by editors of Scientific American

Women of the Periodic Table Quilt


The Cambridge Science Festival (CSF) is an annual spectacle of more than 150 science-related events and activities taking place in and around Cambridge, Mass. during the month of April. This year, CSF organizers asked local artists, scientists, and science communicators to join forces for a STEAM project portraying “central elements” of science in an artistic light. Participating as a science writer who also dabbles in artistic projects, I teamed up with computer scientist and crafter Gillian Smith. Our common interest in women’s history made it easy to select a project that would highlight and commemorate women who contributed significantly to the discovery of elements of the periodic table. Our canvas would be cotton – colorful and queen sized.

A number of women have made seminal discoveries leading to a greater understanding of the nature of atoms and their properties. Most people, however, can barely name one. In part, this is because scientists in general fail to rank highly among the world’s recognizable boldfaced names. It is also due to the fact that many important discoveries by female scientists have been underplayed or overshadowed by accomplishments of male colleagues and rivals. This has been particularly true in the male-dominated fields of chemistry and physics, which experienced bursts of exponential growth in the 20th century. During this prolific era, mysteries behind the building blocks of the universe began to be solved in rapid succession. But the simultaneous lack of acceptance for women in research settings made it difficult for female scientists to gain widespread recognition, even when their work was exceptional.

For our quilt, Gillian and I chose to highlight five women whose scientific achievements include the discovery of an element or one of its isotopes. They are:

Marie Curie: World-famous Polish physicist who discovered radium (Ra) and polonium (Po) with her husband, Pierre; made history by winning two Nobel Prizes for her work on radiation; and became the namesake of curium (Cm), element 96.

Berta Karlik: Austrian physicist and contemporary of Curie’s who discovered astatine (At), a radioactive element most commonly used for cancer therapy.

Lise Meitner: Noted Austrian physicist and close friend of Karlik’s who discovered nuclear fission; identified an isotope of protactinium (Pa); and later became the namesake of element 109, meitnerium (Mt).

Ida Noddack: German physicist and chemist who discovered rhenium (Re) alongside her husband, Walter, and was nominated three times for a Nobel Prize, but never won.

Marguerite Perey: French physicist and student of Marie Curie’s who discovered francium (Fr), a highly unstable radioactive metal.

The quilt was designed with several goals in mind: to accentuate the women in question with photographs, so viewers would know instinctively that they were actual historical figures; to connect the scientists with a geometric thread representing the weaving of both academic knowledge and sisterhood; and to bring to life the colors of the Cambridge Science Festival.

While I contributed the general concept and led research and writing for the project, Gillian was the quilter extraordinaire who made the artwork come to life. I visited Gillian’s studio during a late stage of the project to capture her process and soak in her thoughts on the joys and challenges of quilting. The images below provide a snapshot of the quilt’s production; a more complete photo album is also available with additional views.

The final quilt will be on display at Cort Furniture on Massachusetts Avenue for the duration of the 2014 Cambridge Science Festival (April 18 - April 27). For anyone in the area who would like to stop by during the CSF Central Elements Open House, Gillian and I will be at Cort alongside our quilt on the afternoon of Sunday, April 27, to describe our project and the women it celebrates.

All photographs courtesy of the author.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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