Google Doodle celebrates Japanese scientist Katsuko Saruhashi (1920-2007) on what would have been her 98th birthday—a date that falls on World Water Day.
A fitting coincidence, as Saruhashi’s work has contributed greatly to our understanding of seawater. The geochemist, according to Google, was first intrigued by water as a young child, watching raindrops fall on the window of her primary school and wondering what made it rain.
Her brilliant mind embarked on a journey of discovery that would earn her a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Tokyo in 1957—the first woman to do so. One of her pioneering research studies focused on the concentration of carbonic acid in seawater.
In 1955, she published a research paper that included what would later be known as Saruhashi’s Table, which allowed oceanographers to calculate levels of carbonic acid in seawater based on water temperature, pH level and chlorinity. This would be used for three decades before computers were able to take over the task. Her research also contributed to scientists’ understanding of global warming.
Saruhashi also took on one of the most urgent issues of her time—nuclear radiation. The U.S. began testing nuclear weapons in the waters of the Marshall Islands in 1946. One of the most well-known of the 23 tests carried out in the following 12 years was the 1954 Bikini Atoll explosion in which the U.S. tested a hydrogen bomb 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
The crew of a Japanese fishing boat called Lucky Dragon that was navigating within 80 miles of the test zone when the bomb exploded, began to be affected by radiation sickness three weeks later, prompting the Japanese government to fund research into the effects of nuclear bomb testing.
Saruhashi was part of the team working at Japan’s Meteorological Research Institute (MRI) that discovered the presence of nuclear fallout in waters as far as 620 miles away from the test zone and calculated how long it would take for the winds and currents to transport the radioactive material across the waters.
The scientist was invited to present the work in 1962 at the prestigious Scripps Institution of Oceanography in UC San Diego where, despite being told to work in a wooden hut, she was able to prove that the Japanese technique of measuring nuclear fallout was more accurate than the American one. Her research eventually contributed to the 1963 ban on nuclear weapons testing in the atmosphere, in outer space and under water.
“I was absorbed in my work. It was not because I was a woman scientist trying to catch up with male ones. When I studied seriously, the apparently complicated natural phenomenon hidden beyond the closely-veiled would be revealed one by one and the entangled structure of nature could be gradually uncovered. I would not exchange the great joy as a scientist for anything,” she once said about her work.
Saruhashi nonetheless broke the glass ceiling for women in science in her country several times, becaming the first woman to be elected as the member of the Science Council of Japan, the country’s “parliament of science” and the first woman to receive the Miyake Prize for geochemistry in 1985.
She also made sure to establish a ladder to help other female scientists reach their potential. In 1958, she established the Society of Japanese Women Scientists, to allow her female colleagues to network and discuss the challenges they faced in the workplace.
After working at the MRI for 35 years, she retired in 1980 and subsequently set up the Association for the Bright Future of Women Scientists and the Saruhashi Prize, an annual award that recognizes female scientists for distinguished research in natural sciences.
“There are many women who have the ability to become great scientists. I would like to see the day when women can contribute to science and technology on an equal footing with men,” she once said.
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