7 powerful all-women teams who changed history

For Women's History Month we have a list of seven all women teams who changed history. Some were scientists, some soldiers, some living, and some long gone. All of them shaped the world.

March is Women’s History Month in the US. To honor this, we have a collection of seven teams of women who changed history. They are from around the world, include women of all creeds and nations, and we all owe them a debt of some kind.


The Black Mambas 

The Mambas prepare for a night watch (Getty Images)

Named after the deadly snake, the Black Mambas are a group of park rangers that protect wildlife in South Africa. Trained in tracking and combat, but working unarmed, their presence has reduced snaring of animals by 75% and nearly ended rhino poaching in areas they patrol. They are treated as local heroes and have received international attention for their efforts, including a United Nations Environmental Program award.

Their contribution to the protection of endangered animals is massive. Rhino horns are worth their weight in gold on the black market and the sharp reduction in poaching is remarkable. The Mambas also serve as a striking example of what women can do in a traditionally male occupation when given training and support. They continue to inspire conservationists around the world.

The Night Witches


A Polikarpov, similar to that used by the Night Witches, at a museum in Germany. (Wikicommons)

Perhaps the most intimidating team on our list. The Night Witches were the members of the 588th bomb regiment of the Soviet Air Force during WWII. They flew night bombing missions, notable for difficulty in navigation and targeting, in obsolete biplanes made for training. They operated without parachutes, as the low altitude of the missions rendered them useless. The planes were unable to hold much weight, so many raids required each pilot to return to base to reload several times in one night.

During attack runs, they would turn off their engines and glide towards their targets. The Germans compared the eerie sound of the planes gliding and dropping their bombs to the sound of witches on broomsticks. When it was learned in the USSR that they had been dubbed the Nachthexen, the pilots adopted the name themselves.

23 of the pilots won Hero of the Soviet Union medals. Night Witch Nadezhda Popova was the only Soviet bomber pilot to win three Order of the Patriotic War medals for bravery. Each pilot flew more than 800 missions, and the entire regiment flew more than 24,000 missions. They were featured prominently in propaganda images and were honored for participation in critical battles.

NASA's Hidden Figures

Katherine Johnson receives the presidential medal of freedom from President Obama. (Getty Images) 

As depicted in the popular movie from a couple of years ago, NASA employed human computers to do the math needed to make the space program possible. Many of these women were African Americans who worked in segregated offices.

One of the women, Katherine Johnson, personally calculated the trajectories, launch windows, and back up routes for use on several Mercury missions, the trajectory for Apollo 11, and the return path for Apollo 13. Her work was vital to NASA’s efforts to win the Space Race, and she was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. 

Of course, there were others too; Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan among them. The author of the book Hidden Figures Margot Lee Shetterly remarked that there were “…. teams, and those teams had other teams.” She did say that she understood that the movie couldn’t have had 300 characters, however. In an era where mechanical computers were limited, the calculator on whatever you are using to read this is much more powerful than what NASA had; humans were needed to make and double check calculations. We have gained an enormous amount of knowledge from the NASA projects of the 1960’s, and these women made the missions possible.

 

Women’s March on Versailles


A depiction of the march (National Library of France)

On October 5th, 1789, less than three months after the fall of the Bastille, 7,000 Parisian women armed themselves with pikes and cannons and marched on the palace to demand food and the moving of the royal court to Paris. The news spread quickly, and they were joined by thousands of National Guardsmen, much to the dismay of their commander, Lafayette.

They were met by guards and soldiers intent to keep them out. A small delegation of women was allowed to meet the King and promised food. However, the crowd remained unsatisfied. After finding a single unguarded gate, the women stormed the palace and placed the heads of royal guards who got in their way on pikes.

Lafayette convinced the Royals to move to Paris to appease the crowd. This deal included the King’s acceptance of the August decrees and the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

This event is considered to be the beginning of the transfer of power from the French nobility to the people. The events of the French Revolution, bloody and glorious as it was, can be traced back to this event. The influence of their actions cannot be overstated. When asked for an assessment of the revolution two hundred years later, Chinese premier Zhou Enlai replied: “It is too early to say.” We are still reckoning with the actions of these women.

The Bletchleyettes

During the second world war, cracking the German Enigma code was a project of vital importance. The operations that succeeded in doing so were made famous in the film The Imitation Game. However, the film might leave you thinking code breaking was a boys club.

While most of the fame goes to Alan Turing, Enigma could not have been broken without a team. Three-quarters of the 10,000 staff members working on the project were women. They were hired for their skills in STEM fields, the German and Italian languages, and due to the shortage of men as the rest of them were off at war.  

The cracking of German codes was of such importance to the war effort that the project was given a new security classification to protect the work. While Turing’s unquestionable genius was vital, the codes could never have been broken without the entire team. Their work is why this article is in English and not German.  

The Women’s Social and Political Union


A group of suffragettes celebrating the release of Emmeline Pankurst, center, from prison. (Getty Images)

During the late Victorian Era, women’s suffrage organizations sprang up all over the world. One of the most prominent suffragettes, Emmeline Pankhurst, helped to organize an English group which would come to dominate much of the discussion. The group was women only, and expressed its militancy with the motto “Deeds, not words.”

The group pressured parliament to pass a suffrage act. The failure of parliament to respond, the arrest of several demonstrating members, and some unwise remarks by Prime Minister Henry Campbell-Bannerman lead to the group taking more drastic actions; including hunger strikes, arson, and the famous attempt to tie a banner to the King’s horse. Police attempts to re-arrest activists who were released to recover from hunger strikes were stopped by a group of members who had learned martial arts.

While the overall effectiveness of their militant actions is still debated, their ability to publicize the aims, motivations, and activities of the suffrage movement remains beyond question. It is also agreed that the more moderate suffragette movements were forced to organize better in response to the terroristic activity. Universal suffrage would likely have been delayed without their dramatic actions.

Lysistrata

Our final team of women is, regrettably, fictional. It is a shame that they are because world history would probably have turned out better if they were real, as they manage to end a war that ended the Golden Age of Greece.

In the play, named for the title character, the women of Athens and the other major cities of Greece realize that the Peloponnesian war is disastrous. As they lack political power and their husbands refuse to take their concerns seriously, the women declare a sex strike until peace breaks out. To further their agenda, they also storm the Acropolis and capture the Athenian treasury. The men of all city-states attempt to get the women to break the strike but are forced to make peace instead. The play is incredibly raunchy but also hilarious.

Sex strikes have been used to great effect in real life as well, most notably in Columbia and Kenya. These actions owe a great debt to the fictional women of Athens. The core concepts and themes of the play have been borrowed countless times in the 2500 years since the first production. The concept of a farce that mocks our current political troubles is a staple of film and theater, and these women are among the first in this long and hilarious tradition.  

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Why "nuclear pasta" is the strongest material in the universe

Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.

Accretion disk surrounding a neutron star. Credit: NASA
Surprising Science
  • The strongest material in the universe may be the whimsically named "nuclear pasta."
  • You can find this substance in the crust of neutron stars.
  • This amazing material is super-dense, and is 10 billion times harder to break than steel.

Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.

Unlike humans, when stars reach a certain age, they do not just wither and die, but they explode, collapsing into a mass of neurons. The resulting space entity, known as a neutron star, is incredibly dense. So much so that previous research showed that the surface of a such a star would feature amazingly strong material. The new research, which involved the largest-ever computer simulations of a neutron star's crust, proposes that "nuclear pasta," the material just under the surface, is actually stronger.

The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.

Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv

Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.

The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.

While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.

One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.

"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"

Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.

The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.

Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.


How a huge, underwater wall could save melting Antarctic glaciers

Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.

Image: NASA
Surprising Science
  • Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
  • Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
  • The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.

The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.

To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.

In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.

An "unthinkable" engineering project

"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.

One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.

The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.

Source: Wolovick et al.

An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.

But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.

Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.

"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.

"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."

A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.

"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."

Why the worst part about climate change isn't rising temperatures

The world's getting hotter, and it's getting more volatile. We need to start thinking about how climate change encourages conflict.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Climate change is usually discussed in terms of how it impacts the weather, but this fails to emphasize how climate change is a "threat multiplier."
  • As a threat multiplier, climate change makes already dangerous social and political situations even worse.
  • Not only do we have to work to minimize the impact of climate change on our environment, but we also have to deal with how it affects human issues today.

Human beings are great at responding to imminent and visible threats. Climate change, while dire, is almost entirely the opposite: it's slow, it's pervasive, it's vague, and it's invisible. Researchers and policymakers have been trying to package climate change in a way that conveys its severity. Usually, they do so by talking about its immediate effects: rising temperature, rising sea levels, and increasingly dangerous weather.

These things are bad, make no mistake about it. But the thing that makes climate change truly dire isn't that Cape Cod will be underwater next century, that polar bears will go extinct, or that we'll have to invent new categories for future hurricanes. It's the thousands of ancillary effects — the indirect pressure that climate change puts on every person on the planet.

How a drought in the Middle East contributed to extremism in Europe

(DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

Nigel Farage in front of a billboard that leverages the immigration crisis to support Brexit.

Because climate change is too big for the mind to grasp, we'll have to use a case study to talk about this. The Syrian civil war is a horrific tangle of senseless violence, but there are some primary causes we can point to. There is the longstanding conflicts between different religious sects in that country. Additionally, the Arab Spring swept Syria up in a wave of resistance against authoritarian leaders in the Middle East — unfortunately, Syrian protests were brutally squashed by Bashar Al-Assad. These, and many other factors, contributed to the start of the Syrian civil war.

One of these other factors was drought. In fact, the drought in that region — it started in 2006 — has been described as the "worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilization began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago." Because of this drought, many rural Syrians could no longer support themselves. Between 2006 and 2009, an estimated 1.5 million Syrians — many of them agricultural workers and farmers — moved into the country's major cities. With this sudden mixing of different social groups in a country where classes and religious sects were already at odds with one another, tensions rose, and the increased economic instability encouraged chaos. Again, the drought didn't cause the civil war — but it sure as hell helped it along.

The ensuing flood of refugees to Europe is already a well-known story. The immigration crisis was used as a talking point in the Brexit movement to encourage Britain to leave the EU. Authoritarian or extreme-right governments and political parties have sprung up in France, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Slovenia, and other European countries, all of which have capitalized on fears of the immigration crisis.

Why climate change is a "threat multiplier"

This is why both NATO and the Pentagon have labeled climate change as a "threat multiplier." On its own, climate change doesn't cause these issues — rather, it exacerbates underlying problems in societies around the world. Think of having a heated discussion inside a slowly heating-up car.

Climate change is often discussed in terms of its domino effect: for example, higher temperatures around the world melt the icecaps, releasing methane stored in the polar ice that contributes to the rise in temperature, which both reduces available land for agriculture due to drought and makes parts of the ocean uninhabitable for different animal species, wreaking havoc on the food chain, and ultimately making food more scarce.

Maybe we should start to consider climate change's domino effect in more human and political terms. That is, in terms of the dominoes of sociopolitical events spurred on by climate change and the missing resources it gobbles up.

What the future may hold

(NASA via Getty Images)

Increasingly severe weather events will make it more difficult for nations to avoid conflict.

Part of why this is difficult to see is because climate change does not affect all countries proportionally — at least, not in a direct sense. Germanwatch, a German NGO, releases a climate change index every year to analyze exactly how badly different countries have been affected by climate change. The top five most at-risk countries are Haiti, Zimbabwe, Fiji, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. Notice that many of these places are islands, which are at the greatest risk for major storms and rising sea levels. Some island nations are even expected to literally disappear — the leaders of these nations are actively making plans to move their citizens to other countries.

But Germanwatch's climate change index is based on weather events. It does not account for the political and social instability that will likely result. The U.S. and many parts of Europe are relatively low on the index, but that is precisely why these countries will most likely need to deal with the human cost of climate change. Refugees won't go from the frying pan into the fire: they'll go to the closest, safest place available.

Many people's instinctive response to floods of immigrants is to simply make borders more restrictive. This makes sense — a nation's first duty is to its own citizens, after all. Unfortunately, people who support stronger immigration policies tend to have right-wing authoritarian tendencies. This isn't always the case, of course, but anecdotally, we can look at the governments in Europe that have stricter immigration policies. Hungary, for example, has extremely strict policies against Muslim immigrants. It's also rapidly turning into a dictatorship. The country has cracked down on media organizations and NGOs, eroded its judicial system's independence, illegalized homelessness, and banned gender studies courses.

Climate change and its sociopolitical effects, such as refugee migration, aren't some poorer country's problem. It's everyone's problem. Whether it's our food, our homes, or our rights, climate change will exact a toll on every nation on Earth. Stopping climate change, or at least reducing its impact, is vitally important. Equally important is contending with the multifaceted threats its going to throw our way.