As we celebrate the International Year of Chemistry we realise that anyone can discover a great scientific theory. Would you believe us that a woman without a college education, discovered such a theory while washing dishes in the kitchen sink? She was Agnes Pockels!
Ever blown bubbles from a soap solution? The shape of the bubble is because of a phenomenon called surface tension, which happens where water meets air. The soap in the bubble reduces the surface tension, allowing the water bubble to last for sometime without breaking.
It is very important at the kitchen sink. If you use too little soap, the water will not remove the oil sticking to the dirt. If you use too much, you’ll have to keep buying soap! The right balance was discovered by a German woman – Agnes Pockels.
Letter to Rayleigh
In 1891, the famous British physicist Lord Rayleigh received a letter in German. When he had it translated, he found that it mentioned some astonishing experiments. The writer, Agnes Pockels, had devised a simple device, consisting of a tin trough, with a movable strip of tin on top. She would fill the trough with water contaminated with many kinds of things. By moving the partition back and forth, she could measure the differences in surface tension between water containing different things.
She had told Rayleigh to keep the results for himself. But he was so impressed that he forwarded it to the scientific journal Nature. The journal published the letter in Pockel’s name. She became famous all over the world. Later, she could publish many more papers in different scientific journals in her own name. In those times, it was a rare honour for a woman.
Life & Times
Agnes Pockels was born in Venice on 14th February, 1862. Her family moved to Brunswick in 1871. After she finished school, she stayed at home to take care of her parents. In those days girls were not allowed to study further in college. But Agnes had really wanted to study Physics.
Her younger brother, Friedrich was admitted to the University of Gottingen to study physics. Knowing his sister’s interest, he would often send her news of what was going on in the world of physics. At the same time, she was doing her experiments in the kitchen sink. It was through her brother that she came to know of Lord Rayleigh, who was doing experiments in surface tension.
Agnes Pockels remained a housewife throughout her life, doing experiments in the kitchen. But recognition finally came when she got the Laura Leonard Award in 1931 at the age of 70. The next year she got an honorary PhD from the Technical University of Brunswick. She died in 1935.