Thoughts with Richard Bleil
Not long ago, I wrote a piece about a little-known class of compounds called clathrates. These are basically trapped gaseous molecules in cavities in the lattice of crystals. Nothing holds these gases in place save the fact that they simply cannot fit between the bonds to escape.
These compounds were the subject of my senior research project as an undergraduate. The question we had was what exactly the gases were doing inside of those cavities using statistical thermodynamic modeling. Our model seemed to show that the gases spent most of their time near the walls of the cavity as opposed to the center.
The seminal work on clathrates was written by Hagan in 1962. The work is still the starting point for anybody interested in this subject, but what fascinates me is not just the subject. As it turns out, the book was written by Mary Martinette Hagan. In the ’60’s, things were changing for women, but it was still unusual to have women in research positions. But it’s more than that. The author, a single author on this very important book, was actually Sister Mary Martinette Hagan.
Yup, a nun, in the early ‘60’s, wrote this very important work. Chances are, nobody reading this has ever heard of Sister Mary Martinette Hagan, and if this isn’t true, I can pretty much guarantee that there are only a very few who have heard of her.
We’ve heard of Mother Theresa. She did fabulous work for those in need, and as this was charitable work, it’s appropriate that she gained the notoriety that she did, but one might expect a nun doing such great charitable work to be known for it. But nuns doing work in the sciences is unusual and seems out of place.
Sister Hagan is a personal hero for me. I love people who break the mold. One of my favorite chemistry majors when I was teaching was a football player, an exceptionally bright young man. After graduating, he tried to get his master’s degree in microbiology, but in a way, he failed. After two years, his adviser wouldn’t let him graduate because he had already done too much work, and after just one more year in graduate school, this student got his doctoral degree, and very quickly at that. Sister Hagan, who passed on in 1999, is a model of following her passion despite expectations.
We can learn from her example. People are, all too often, “pigeon-holed” into what they are expected to do despite their own interests. Hedy LaMarr was a movie star with stunning beauty in the ‘30’s and ‘40’s. She was everything a pinup model and actress should be. She was elegant, beautiful, and a talented actress. She also was a mathematician who developed “frequency hopping” that allowed the Allies to communicate in World War II without the Nazi’s being able to intercept their messages. This same technology is still used today in Bluetooth devices. But why would such a beautiful woman need to do work like this?
She didn’t need the money; I can tell you that. I can guarantee that her modeling and acting career put her in amazing financial shape, but she had a passion, a love for a discipline that women are not generally expected to work in. Only a love for the discipline could lead to such success.
People think that I’m intelligent, which, frankly, irritates me. I’m really not so bright, but I truly love chemistry and physics. I love understanding things and figuring out the mysteries of nature. To me, it’s not work because I enjoy it so much. Much like an artist might lose themselves in a piece so much that they don’t even realize just how much time they’ve spent on it, I lose myself in chemistry.
In graduate school, there were times that I would have an inspiration for something, one that would literally lead me to a 32-hour workday. I would start working on my idea, and with my excitement, I would just keep working as everybody went home. Around five or six in the morning I would realize that I had been at it all night, and just didn’t see the point of quitting. As such, I would just keep working until the end of the next day.
Never let anybody put you into a box. Your interests might not match up with what people expect of you, and it’s important to follow your heart even if it’s not what others expect. If you do what you love, you’ll have a much happier life. When Hedy LaMarr passed on (very close to the time of Sister Hagan), she was remembered for her work as an actress, but I’m certain that her proudest accomplishment in her heart was her work on frequency hopping.