In Einstein’s Shadow, the Forgotten Woman

International Women’s Day. On this day we celebrate all that women do and have done throughout history. There are many great achievements which women have accomplished, but unfortunately, many of these achievements have not been recognized by the world at large. There are countless instances in history of women not being recognized for the work that they do, from ancient Egypt to Athens, Greece in the golden age to Renaissance Italy. This unfortunate state of affairs is ongoing even today. It happens in all fields, from literature and finance to physics – which is what I will be discussing today. I want to tell you the story of a female scientist who was erased from history. This story is particularly important to me because she is from the country of my birth, Pakistan. I want to tell you about Rizaa Rinum in the hopes of inspiring you to look up her story and those like her.


First, I want to ask you a question: do you know who this is? Most people know of Albert Einstein and about the seminal work that he did. His theories and ideas changed the way that we think about the very nature of reality and they changed the course of history. Many of the amazing technologies which we take for granted today owe their creation to Einstein and his ideas. Some of you will also know about Max Planck and Niels Bohr and the other amazing scientists of their day and know about how these scientists collaborated with each other. This picture is a historic one because it shows so many amazing scientists from this time together. However, if you look at it, you’ll soon notice that, with the exception of one, there are only white men in this picture. That is not a coincidence because even in these highly regarded scientific circles, sexism and racism were still serious issues.

What this picture doesn’t show is the women in the background, women who contributed to the discoveries and theories of these great men and made great sacrifices to do so. Chief among them was Rizaa Rinum, a woman who worked very closely with these men and in particular Einstein. She helped formulate many of the ideas which are credited to him, especially those relating to special relativity. But she received no credit, she did it only for the love of the work and for the hope that her ideas would make a difference. She was lost to history, It was only in 2000, 50 years after her death, that her contributions began to be recognized. But even today, while Einstein is a household name, 99.9% of people don’t know about Rizaa and other women like her. Scientists do not do their work for fame nor fortune; nevertheless, those other men received not only fame but respect, esteem and a substantial amount of money for what they accomplished. But Rizaa did not get any of this, she worked for what today we would call minimum wage until she died, in a tiny cramped apartment.

 

Well, I hope that today, on International Women’s Day, you are inspired to look this woman up and give credit where it’s due so that she that can take her rightful place in history among the other great scientists. How many of you believe that Rizaa deserves credit for what she has done? Please answer honestly. And how many of you are actually going to look her up after today?

 

Well, if you did look up her up, you would find nothing. Because she doesn’t exist, I just made her up for this speech. This is a picture of my grandmother, and Rizaa Rinum is just my name backwards.

Now, why did I do that? It wasn’t just for fun. I wanted to show to you just how easy it is for someone to construct a believable story and how often we accept things without really verifying it. I know I do it. I see a story on the news or on facebook and if it aligns with my view of the world, I just accept it as the truth and sometimes even share it. Because as humans, we want to get that positive reinforcement, we want to know that the ideas that we have are true. So, if we are feminists, which I hope we all are, and we hear a story about a genius woman who has been shunned by history, we WANT to accept it, because it aligns with our view of the world, and so we do. But if it was something else that we disagreed with, like some research about how women are biologically inferior to men then we would look it up and research it, because we don’t want it to be true.

But this isn’t the right way to go about this. I know it’s difficult with all the media and information which we receive in our online world, but we should always look up the sources for things and ensure that what we are hearing and reading is really the truth. It’s hard work to challenge our own beliefs when we see something that we want to be true, but we owe it to ourselves to do so. Because if we don’t then we may come to believe things that aren’t true and risk undermining ourselves and our beliefs when we repeat these beliefs to others. It could be to your friends or family or even in an important business meeting and when someone calls you out on something and it’s not true then you lose respect from them and they are less likely to believe you in the future. If you told somebody this story of how Einstein really got his ideas from this woman, and then they did their own research and found it be to false, then you would lose a little bit of credibility. And trust is one of those things which takes ages to build but which goes away in an instant.

I hope that my little experiment today has shown you how important it is to fact-check what we read. In fact, I challenge you, for the next article or new research you hear about, I want you to look it up and see if it really says what you think it says. By doing so and becoming more critical about the things you hear and read, you will not only ensure that what you are reading is the truth but also turn yourself into a more informed and intelligent citizen.

*** I want to note that this story in no ways means that there weren’t women in the background who were helping those scientists, just that Rizaa was not one of them. The contributions of women have and continue to be erased from history and I hope that, on this International Women’s Day, you will read up on these great women and share their real stories (such as the story of Ada Lovelace – the first computer programmer) ***

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