‘Frau Roentgen’s Left Hand’
— Melissa Mesku
There will be many kinds of invisible light.
Last week, on October 2, Donna Strickland became the third woman in history to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. Her 1985 published work on “amplified chirped optical pulses” led to the development of an ultra precise laser technique used in, among other things, laser eye surgery. I learned this by reading her Wikipedia page, which didn’t exist before October 2. Apparently she was not “notable” enough, and her page was rejected by editors. The cynical joke here is not wholly untrue: For a woman in science, you have more chance of winning the Nobel Prize than you do of getting a Wikipedia page.
That said, not getting credit where credit is due is one of the most common stories in science. The first Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded in 1901 to Wilhelm Röntgen for “the discovery of the remarkable rays subsequently named after him.” Röntgen rays? Never heard of them. But thanks to Wikipedia I learned that, while much of the world does call them by his name, in English we simply know them as X-rays. The “X,” used by Röntgen in the first paper on the subject, was not meant to be a name. It was simply meant to denote that the type of radiation was unknown. Ironically, this not-name came to stand in for his own.
We will never know how many “X”s are out there, how many noteworthy names in science have gone invisible. Anita Goveas, in her short piece, ‘Frau Roentgen’s Left Hand,’ shares with us one. In it, we see the first “medical” X-ray of a body part, as seen through the eyes of the woman it belongs to. It is eerie to look at—when she saw it, she said, “I have seen my death.” But what we see is not death. It is simply the spot she marked, and it lives on.