Just this past March, the Google Doodle honored the achievements of Emmy Noether, the German-born pioneer of whom Einstein wrote upon her death: “The most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began.”
That reference to higher education is crucial, because Einstein was highlighting, too, the tremendous slope of Noether’s climb within biased academia. Even in the field of math, almost never did this brilliant woman encounter an educational setting that could be described as: “All things being equal.”
Lehmann, like Noether, was born in Europe in the 1880s, and during her educational climb at the dawn of the 20th century, women were all but barred from entering the sciences. Lehmann, however, fortunately found a fissure of exception, as she gained access to Denmark’s first co-ed school, founded by Hanna Adler, and received a master’s in mathematics by 1920. Working for the Danish Geodetic Institute five years later, she would make her way to numerous European nations and Greenland to conduct studies (getting a master’s in geodesy along the way), and was head of the institute’s seismology department by 1929.
Within seven years, Lehmann discovered that Earth has a small inner core — and determined there must be an outer liquid core — based on her study of how seismic waves passed through the planet.
For decades, Lehmann was not only a leading woman seismologist, but also her nation’s only seismologist. She founded the Danish Geophysical Society in the early ’40s; became president of the European Seismological Commission; and was the first woman to receive the Medal of the Seismological Society of America, in 1977 — when she was nearly 90.
The American Geophysical Union created the Lehmann Medal in 1997 — four years after her death, at age 104, in her Copenhagen hometown.
Of the bias she long faced as a woman scientist, Lehmann once said: “You should know how many incompetent men I had to compete with — in vain.”
Today’s “glowing orb” Google Doodle, by artist Kevin Laughlin, marks the 127th anniversary of Lehmann’s birth, visually saluting her study of the Earth’s composition — even as Google notes last week that the tech industry needs to actively encourage greater diversity, based on a close look last year at its workforce composition. (Yet another aspect of the industry that HBO’s Emmy-nominated “Silicon Valley” reflects all too tellingly.)
If we fail to honor a diversity of crucial figures, lagging in how we represent a swath of history’s movers and shakers, then, well, the fault is in our stars.
So today, all the more, we say “happy birthday” to Ms. Lehmann, who — by dedicating her life to the fault lines — became a luminous scientific star.