Google doodle celebrates Nobel Laureate

May 12, 2014 • 12:56 pm

When I saw today’s Google Doodle, which looks like this:

Screen shot 2014-05-12 at 2.27.10 PM


I knew instantly that it had something to do with Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (1910-1994), who won the Nobel Prize in 1964. In fact, she would have been 104 today had she lived. And you should know that this Doodle was about her, too, because I’ve posted about Hodgkin before, showing the model of penicillin that she made from X-ray crystallography, a field she helped found. Here’s that model, which I showed in my previous post, and which appears in the Doodle:


It was for determining this structure, and that of vitamin B12, that Hodgkin got The Big Prize. You can read more about her at the link above. She remains the only British woman to ever get a Nobel Prize in science.

The attitude toward women scientists of her era, and her persistence in ignoring it, is expressed by a nice article in this January’s Guardian:

When, in 1964, she was awarded the Nobel Prize, did the press regard her in the same light as they would a man in the same position? Absolutely not. The Daily Telegraph announced “British woman wins Nobel Prize – £18,750 prize to mother of three”. The Daily Mail was even briefer in its headline “Oxford housewife wins Nobel”. The Observer in its write-up commented “affable-looking housewife Mrs Hodgkin” had won the prize “for a thoroughly unhousewifely skill: the structure of crystals of great chemical interest”.

. . . Hodgkin was a woman not prepared to let her gender get in the way of her work. When married, but still working under her maiden name of Crowfoot, she presented a key paper at a major meeting at the Royal Society in 1938 when eight months pregnant. Another long-term collaborator, Nobel Prize winner Max Perutz, referred to her appearance at this meeting in his speech at her memorial service: “Dorothy lectured in that state as if it were the most natural thing in the world, without any pretence of trying to be unconventional, which it certainly was at the time.”

The days have passed, I hope, when a woman who wins a Nobel Prize is described as a “housewife” or a “mother.”  But there are still too few women in science, and, as several recent studies have shown, still unconscious gender bias against them by scientists of both sexes. Yet I fear we’re still in the days when headlines might say “British woman wins Nobel Prize” when they wouldn’t say “British man wins Nobel Prize.”  The day will come, in our children’s lifetime, when all scientists will be judged not by the content of their chromosomes, but by the character of their science.


31 thoughts on “Google doodle celebrates Nobel Laureate

  1. Looking at the picture of the model…would I be correct in guessing that, if one were to shine directional lights face-on the two backdrops, the spheres in the model would cast shadows at the centers of the elevation maps?

    If so…that model is incredibly cool, and an awesome demonstration of how she figured it out….


    1. That is correct. Fit the contour maps in two orthogonal dimensions and you are set. It works fine for penecillin, but would be overwhelmed by something like an intact ribosome.

      Other methods:
      History of Visualization of Biological Macromolecules
      The Richards box is also fascinating, using a mirror to superimpose the model on the maps. Wikipedia has a brief description and photo: link

      I have personally used a “Byron’s Bender.”

      1. Cool that (according to that link) Richards published a correction admitting that his box was only a reinvention of the old stage illusion Pepper’s Ghost. He probably didn’t need the patent royalties anyway.

    2. I assume it is the electron density which one typically get out of x-ray crystallography. If so, it allowed her to guess which atoms goes where and their bonds from all that constraint.

      The electron density comes out of the reciprocal lattice in the momentum space of a crystal, so the scattering pattern (see the image of a Curiosity measurements) is retrieved by Fourier transforming it back to position (real) space.

      1. …and, of course, the real problem is that she, and all crystallographers of the period, had to do inverse transform without knowing the phases, just the magnitudes (the square roots of the diffraction spot intensities), of the Fourier components. I have a colleague who has the office next door to mine who had to collect the data and work out intensities from the extent to which the spots on x-ray films were attenuated on passing through successive layers of film … and solve structures using the same sporting methods. His PhD thesis consisted of, basically, one crystal structure determination.

        My students typically get a “small-molecule” structure in a day.
        Karle and Hauptmann won the Nobel for working out the mathematics of the computing “black box” that enables my students to do that.

        1. A couple years ago I saw a documentary about the lives of grad students. The episode focused on a student trying to get a protein structure by x-ray crystallography. It was extremely difficult just to get a good crystal, and that was just the beginning of the monumental effort. Very impressive.

    3. What Torbjorn said… 😉

      If you look carefully, you’ll see the third axis below… 3 backdrops. An excellent demonstration of the electron densities => transforms => final 3D coordinates.

  2. Bernal seems to have been involved with a number of women who would win renown as scientists. For example, Rosalind Franklin worked for him in the 1950’s.

      1. Franklin died before the prize was awarded for the work on DNA. By the rules, she therefore became ineligible.

        If she had still been alive, the committee that decides on the awardees would still have had a problem. The rules say that no more then 3 individuals can be named. Thus either Wilkins, Crick, or Watson would have had to be dropped. However, AFAIK, there is nothing in the rules about splitting the award between categories so she could have been awarded the prize in chemistry or physics while the other 3 were awarded the prize in medicine/physiology.

        1. In a better alternative universe, they could have split both prizes evenly, crystallography team and biochemistry team.

  3. “Oxford housewife wins Nobel” made me laugh because it sounds like a headline for an Onion story.

  4. Dorothy Hodgkin was – and is – a true inspiration for budding scientists, and as a person she is incredible. Not even severe arthritis would have stopped her from continuing her work on crystals and biomolecules, she was a member of the Science for Peace organisation as well as an Oxford researcher, and virtually everybody seemed to like working with her. She’s definitely someone I would want to meet if I had a time machine.

  5. Know, too, that linguistic syntax continues — still — in January 2014, to denigrate persons who are female. To wit: “When married, but still working under her maiden name of … … ”

    With any man, legally married or not so much, what is his last name / what was his surname ? What type of maiden was HE before, or since, a legal document of marriage ?

    Well, of course: He is never a maiden.

    Point ? NOR, ever before or since, is … … she.


    1. Blue, I don’t fully understand your post, but I don’t think it denigrates her to simply point out that if you want to look up her work from that period, you need to look for Crowfoot rather than Hodgkin.
      It IS unfair (and hard on biographers of married women) that the female entering a marriage was expected to abandon her own family’s name and adopt the name of her husband’s, but that is a fact of history, and acknowledging in 2014 that there is such a fact of history doesn’t appear to me to be misogynistic.

      1. I know that January 2014, is a fact of history.

        But, if people can finally imagine this World without religions ( wherein sexism is the original iniquity of almost all of them and, most certainly, of every single one of the “great” ( read that, patriarchal / androcentric ones wherein christianity’s “stranglehold” onto and “guilt – mongering” within girls and women in their maiden – ness is as mucking as that of islam’s and its men’s “honor” residing, apparently, inside the vaginas of the girls and women in his family ), then from January 2014, till now and in to any future moments, these same persons can, for another fact, not ever — never — in their languages’ statements anymore ( speech, writing, visual media and so forth ) use the particular phraseology, “maiden name.”

        How very easy has it been for millennia for male persons to state about themselves … his “surname” or his “original name” or “his last name ?”

        How easy by speakers and writers and video – makers, then, are these same phrasings to be used in all language entities for all people ? “When married but still working under her surname,” or “When married but still working under her original name, … … ”

        Why, in 2014, and going forth is .her. sexual ownership by someone else, by anyone else but by her own self, still even a point of any and all statements placed anywhere at any time ? It is entirely unnecessary and would ( ! ? how swiftly and certainly ? ! ) be noted if, flipped / reversed, there was thus stated in the Guardian, “When he married, he was a virgin and took up his wife’s last name and continued his work on … … ,”

        Historically ? Historically scientists and writers and many, many others who were women and a few men have recognized this sexualizing denigration of her independence, this violation of her autonomy that is the naming – ownership for a long, long, long, long time: Hypatia, Gloria Jean Watkins, Matilda Joslyn Gage, Willard A W Maas, Wilma Mankiller, Dorothy Rothschild Parker, Howard Zinn, Isabella Baumfree, Margaret Atwood, the dude Stony ( Winston ) with whom on 15 August 1969, out of Manhattan, I hitched a ride to Woodstock.


        1. Oh, I see: this is a fight with history and the dictionary. Good luck with that. Phrases mean what they mean, and even the noun ‘maiden’ still has a specific range of meanings. The phrase ‘maiden name’ builds on the ‘unmarried’ sense, and it takes a certain kind of mind to see it as a comment on the current hymenal intactitude of (e.g.) a celebrated scientist.

          1. It takes a certain kind of mind to state that she or he sees when .clearly. that is not the case.


  6. In addition to Franklin, there were at least 2 other women who merited the prize. Lise Meitner should have shared the prize in chemistry with Otto Hahn (or been awarded the prize in physics for her contribution) and Chien-Shiung Wu should have shared the prize in physics with Lee and Yang.

  7. “She remains the only British woman to ever get a Nobel Prize in science.”

    Yes, quite unfortunate. Rosalind Franklin died too early. Many people believe that Jocelyn Bell should have had a prize even though she’d just brush off such comments and say things were just that way back then.

  8. When Maria Goeppert Mayer won the 1963 Nobel Prize in physics, the San Diego Union headline read “San Diego Housewife Wins Nobel Prize.” As someone commented about Hodgkin’s story, this sounds like the Onion, not the Union.

  9. Are scientists the only ones that matter in the world? If not, why are you writing that in our children’s time etc?
    Would it not be better if all individuals are judged based on their work (whether scientists or not) rather than whether they are men or women?

    1. “Are scientists the only ones that matter in the world?”

      No, but higlighting her role outside of science (in the headline) has the effect of denigrating or discounting her expertise in science. It implies you should be surprised at the result, which in turn makes that person’s accomplishment sound a little more like luck and a little less like hard work.

      The same is true for other fields too. I’ll make up an example to illustrate. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a ballet dancer, but the headline “ballet dancer wins chess championship” still subtly underemphasizes that person’s capabilities as a chess player. If someone wins an international chess tournament, you should recognize them AS a world-class chess player. And if someone wins a nobel prize for crystallography, you should recognize them AS a world-class scientist.

  10. Could have been worse in the headlines:
    “Commie Housewife wins Nobel Prize” or some such [relying on Wikipedia “Because of her political activity and her husband’s association with the Communist Party, she was banned from entering the US in 1953 and subsequently not allowed to visit the country except by CIA waiver.”]

    Indeed, Nobel Prizes to one side, she seems to have led a very interesting life outside the lab.

  11. Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer, was treated with similar sexism until quite recently. It used to be (>~ 15 years ago) that any write-up on Lovelace would mention that she was the paramour (wink wink) of Charles Babbage, inventor of the first digital computer.

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