Marta Palencia-Lefler: Mária Telkes and women in STEM

Who was Mária Telkes? What were her contributions to the world of solar energy? What can we do to give the recognition they deserve to all the women who have been silenced in history? Marta Palencia-Lefler, a journalist with a passion for communication, answers these and more questions about Mária Telkes and women in science.

Laura Rodríguez
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Below you can read the notes and transcript of the episode, with the links to the resources we cite.

About Marta Palencia-Lefler

Gabi

Welcome to Ogami Station, a podcast created by RatedPower. As every month we approach the exciting world of renewable energies through interviews with relevant figures in the sector.

Laura

Hello to everyone that’s listening! And welcome to our fifth episode of Ogami Station. Your podcast about renewable energies. We are Gabriel Cañadas and Laura Rodríguez, how is it going?

Gabi

Well, very well, very well. Nice to be here with you and our guest today. I'm sure we're going to have a very interesting conversation today. So, what do we have for today? Laura?

Laura

Well, yes, certainly interesting. Today our guest is Marta Palencia Lefler, a woman dedicated to giving voice and recognition to women whose achievements are not really in textbooks, but withoutom we would not be where we are. Welcome, Marta.

Marta

Thank you very much. Thank you, Laura. Thank you, Gabriel. A great pleasure.

Gabi

Thank you very much for accepting our invitation. We think you are the perfect person for the most humanistic episode of Ogami Station. So far. We're going to talk about MáriaTelkes, but before we get into the topic, tell us a little bit about what you do for a living? And well, what have you dedicated your life to?

Marta

Let's see, let me tell you briefly. Well, I would define myself as a radio woman because I have always been dedicated to radio since I started as a professional. I am passionate about it and then I am passionate about podcasting. It is a bit like the clear derivation of radio. What you are also in and many of us are. 

I work in the field of journalism, communication. I make recordings, I love to voice and what I love here, that's why I think you have invited me, is to give voice to women who have been silenced by history and who have done really impactful things, and that, as Laura said, do not appear in textbooks and so on. So from the Lila Podcast we invite everyone to discover it.

Laura

It really is a work that we simply need, there are hundreds, thousands of women with very important works who are robbed of the recognition or prominence. For example, Lise Meitner comes to mind, who we could consider the mother of nuclear fission, the breaking of a heavy atom into less heavy and more stable ones. 

Brief description on nuclear physics, but the thing is that Lise Meitner contributed to discoveries that got a Nobel in Chemistry, a Nobel in chemistry and yet today her name is hardly known. And in fact, when her lab partner, Otto Hahn, collected the prize back in 1947, he didn't even mention her despite their 30 years of collaboration. And well, like her, hundreds of women. For that Marta,  from Ogami we thank you for speaking up for them today.

Marta

Yes, and I thought that it was a pity and a shame, that she is not the only Lise Meitner who was left out of a Nobel Prize. What you were saying did happen, for example, in an indirect way to Rosalind Franklin, because of the DNA in all her discoveries, but the other three geneticists were ahead of her. And well, they left her a little bit aside and no, she is not the only one. Unfortunately these things do make you angry, they shouldn't be, of course.

The Sun Queen

Gabi

Well, we will have time to talk later, but let's focus on the topic that matters to us and above all, besides women, which is MáriaTelkes, our scientist of today and in fact also, that’s also how the bot that manages the queries of our website is called. And well, she is also known in the world as the Queen of the Sun.

Marta

Yes, yes, yes, yes, Solar Queen, they called her the Queen of the Sun. That's nice, isn't it?

Gabi

Yes, yes, of course. And well, without her, solar energy would certainly not be what it is now. I think we owe her a lot. Especially those of us who are in the industry. And well, Mária Telkes was a visionary, because she was able to predict all the power of solar energy that led her to be the first inventor of the first thermoelectric generator.

Even at a time when scientists had just begun to worry about the future of fossil fuel depletion and pollution. Her research focused on how to capture, store and convert solar thermal energy in a way that could replace the use of these fossil fuels, right? Now, Marta, I don't know what you can tell us, how did she get into the world of solar energy?

Marta

Well, Mária Telkes, I like very much what she was thinking about. From a very young age, you can see that she said, "The sun will be used as a source of energy sooner or later". And she always wondered why wait, why not make the most of it? And the story goes that Mária Telkes, who I would say was also a prodigious mind, ahead of her time. Well, since she was very young, it is seen that she began to be disturbed and attracted by the power of the Sun, so to speak. From that energy and from there, as soon as she could, she began to study, and well, and go into the field of solar energy. 

It is true what you said, Gabriel, that of course, it was not very much taken into account. She was born in 1900 and it was not until around the 40's that she and others began to consider, of course, that fossil fuels were going to have a duration that in the end we are still in it and that there was a clear need to look for other options. And so when she went into this field, she saw that solar energy was an option. Well, she saw that solar energy was one of those clear options. 

The thing is that since she was very young she had it very clear, which is what usually happens to me when I go into the history of each woman. Like she has her purpose, in a way, her passion is very clear. And she saw that, that there was something to study, to analyze. And so she did. As soon as she could she went to university, she got a degree in Physics and Chemistry and at the same university, she became a teacher. But we are talking about the fact that she is from Hungary, from Budapest, but as soon as she could, after a year or so after graduating, she decided to emigrate to the United States and that's when she could start to develop her work a little bit.

And that's when she got fully involved in her first device, which was not the one you were telling me about, but one of the first ones that she developed her first invention, because she was an inventor, it was a photoelectric device that recorded brain waves. She did that  in Cleveland. It was really an incredible mind. It is thanks to this work that she was named by The New York Times, around the year thirty-four, 1934, and she began to be valued as one of the ten most relevant women in the United States for her ability to develop really, well, incredible inventions in the scientific field.

Contributions and inventions

Laura

Yes, of course. You were already mentioning it a little bit, but I'm curious a little bit more about, besides being the first inventor of the generator, well, of the first thermoelectric generator. What other patent inventions can you highlight from Mária Telkes? You were already talking a little bit about it, but mostly the uses may have had.

Marta

Well, the best known or for which it is most recognized is the one you say, the first thermoelectric generator. Then came the solar heating that she developed for a solar house known as Dover House and a solar oven. In total you can imagine that she had many, many inventions and achieved more than 20 patents. But if you want, let's go a little bit further. How was Maria's evolution? Because you have heard about MIT that everybody talks about so much nowadays. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT. Well, she started working there in the 40s as a researcher in everything that had to do with solar energy conversion projects. And that's when you can see she was doing a lot of things, right? The other thing I told you about with brain waves, well, here she also did research in the field of metallurgy. She was testing, she was seeing, but everything always had to do with solar energy. After that, she was hired by the Ford Foundation of the Ford brand. 

And that's when we come to what they were talking about a solar oven, which is great because this construction that she developed has lasted until today. This solar oven, imagine that she developed it in the middle of the 20th century. And it is an ideal construction for rural communities, as she thought, that did not have, well, they were not of a high economic level, therefore they had problems when using gas, there was no electricity. So she said that for this type of community we are going to build this solar oven. And you can see that this solar oven model of Mária Telkes has lasted until today and I find it great. And really to take into account, isn't it?

Gabi

Of course, this oven you're talking about is an oven for cooking, right?

Laura

Yes, I was also in doubt.

Marta

Yes, yes, yes, yes. An ideal construction for that kind of community, right?

Laura

Yes, yes, of course we are seeing solar in the strangest objects. There will be garbage cans with solar panels as well, yes.

Marta

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

Gabi

Even parking meters.

Marta

That's right. The only thing, the handicap, let's say, was Maria's time, because if we look at it, she lived through all the world wars and when she was already developing all this, we have to look specifically at the Second World War, that made it impossible, let's say, the development of many, of many of her projects. I mean, she was at the end of the Second World War, she was an engineer in development in these areas, not in solar energy collection, and they saw that many projects were paralyzed. It happens today, doesn't it? Or people or researchers who are in this field see how they are not supported as they should and we are not living anything so serious. Imagine at the time that was a handicap, wasn't it?

Dover Sun House

Laura

And the truth is that it was. In fact, I was going to ask you about something that you mentioned and that makes me very curious. And it was the solar house that you mentioned. I don't know if you can tell us a little bit more about this project.

Marta

Yes, the solar house, the Dover House is a house that is located in Massachusetts and she was in charge of designing the heating system. And I also love this project because it is carried out by women. Specifically three women, an architect, Eleanor Raimond, the sculptor Amelia Peabody, who was also the one who financed it, right? And Mária Telkes, who was the one who made a little bit of a difference by designing, let's say, the first heating system that heated a house, exclusively with solar energy. If you want, I'll tell you a little bit about that house, so that you and your listeners can get an idea of what it looked like. 

Well, it was a normal house. That is, the windows were hidden behind glass and metal panels, which are what served to trap the heat from the sun and then the walls, because they were the ones that housed inside tons of Glover's salt, which is the crux of the matter. It's a heat storage chemical that when it melts with the heat of the sun it captures the energy and releases it when it recrystallizes with the cold. I didn't tell you this very well, but you get my point. 

Gabi

Yes it would be similar to the current solar thermal we have. In the end the sun with mirrors heat a central engine where there is salt stored and then there is a release of energy.

Marta

Aha! But of course, this woman is already in the 50's, 1950's or earlier, right? What happened is what I was saying, after the Second World War, that was already over, so it was not easy to support them and to be able to develop this project as they would have liked, and well, and above all to extend it, which I guess is the idea of making it extensible to many other places.

Gabi

Of course.

Laura

Even so, they did it. They had to finance it in part, didn't they? But bravo. And hey, is it still standing? Do you know if this house is still standing? Just curious.

Marta

The truth is that I don't really know where it is. I think it might still be there, you know.

Laura

We'll have to look for it.

Marta

Of course, yes, we will have to look for more and make sure. But of course, the ideal would have been to extend it, what I was telling you, to be able to do that, well, in many other places, and that's what was left at a standstill, wasn't it? They are not betting, they are not betting, and you know it well, not even today as they should for these renewable energies.

Gabi

Little by little we are getting there.

Marta

Yes, little by little, a much stronger commitment should be made, shouldn't it?

Gabi

Of course, but well. You did say that MáriaTelkes was very focused on technical energy. Did you say something about metallurgy? I don't know if that's also related to solar or not, but well, within her 93 years, in which she was fully dedicated to science, I don't know if you could mention any other science in which she excelled or any other quality that she had besides solar thermal.

Career

Marta

Well, let's see, what I was telling you is that she already had, I mean, her inventive capacity...I don't have, actually, everything, everything written down. But she had an enormous inventive capacity. That's why she patented what I was telling you, like, better said, she had 20 patents. I am also looking at everything I have written about her. She worked in companies, obviously, as an engineer always in the development of these fields, she was in an American company, Westinghouse Electric. Her maximum dedication was always in that area. I like to highlight you, I'm looking for it, because it was something that has to do with the unfortunate explosion of the World War, but with one of her inventions. Yes. This is what I wanted to tell you about. It's a portable water evaporator that Mária Telkes invented and that saved the lives of many, well, marines and pilots during that Second World War. 

And it is that seeing the potential of this woman, the government of the United States was already in charge of claiming her inventiveness and proposed to her, then that this portable solar system she would finish designing it well for them. And so she did. In other words, he created this portable water evaporator that was built on a large scale to complement another demand at that time. And that was the water in the Virgin Islands of the Caribbean, because the fresh water sources were drying up. So what they wanted to propose was that there should be a system, and she invented this portable water evaporator, which, well, she proposed it and what it did was to save the lives of many of the combatants, so to speak. That is to say, this invention was not just there, but it was patented as a foldable purifier and became, you can look it up, it is part of the military emergency kits, let's say.

Gabi

At the moment too, isn't it?

Marta

Yes, yes, yes, yes, of course. And that was another invention of another woman that, of course, I keep repeating it a lot. But the truth is that when I look at the Lila Podcasts I realize that the inventive capacity of women is the same as that of men. What happens is that it has not been talked about. I don't know why, but it really has been silenced. So what I like to emphasize is that, for example, Mária Telkes was really a pro, talking like that, she was a prodigious mind. And once again, in this case the U.S. government, as well as it happened to Hedy Lamarr, also saw the potential and in this case, Hedy Lamarr was left with everything that she somehow designed, that's another issue. But yes, this... It's interesting this invention that she developed.

Role of women in science

Laura

Of course it is. In fact we are here today precisely to tell the world about it. So in fact, I also wanted to ask you looking at how the U.S. government was able to support Mária Telkes- That support is, in the end, what it takes to move it forward. And my next question was what was the role of women in science at that time? And obviously, looking at the case you were telling us about, governments have a lot to do with it, but you can tell us in broad strokes.

Marta

Of course, it's a very difficult question, you know, Laura. I wouldn't know which role. I would say that as women we have played an almost invisible role, especially throughout history, which is obviously starting to change now. Yes, and that is what it has to be. Not for nothing, but because there are two genders in history and we can all be doing very well. But if we look at the contemporaries of Mária Telkes, who were born in the 20th century, we have very important women. Curiously, many of them developed other professional tasks, in addition to the technological or scientific field, and they had it complicated. 

Especially in the scientific field they had it very complicated. If we go back a little before the 20th century, that is, for example, to name a mathematician like Mileva Maric, she played a very important role together with her partner Albert Einstein, which you may already know more about, right? And it is increasingly corroborated by scientists that they were together as co-authors in the Theory of Relativity. However, she is not, not even, she is not named nowadays, right? Mileva Maric Einstein.

But if we place ourselves in the 20th century, I’d like to highlight Grace Hopper, who besides being a military woman, she had a very powerful scientific field, especially in the field of computer science. I also mentioned a moment ago Hedy Lamarr, also born in the 20th century, a fantastic actress, but also with a prodigious mind, that is to say, an inventive capacity and really thanks to her it has been said and I think you can read about it in different places. She is the precursor of wireless connections, right? Thanks to her, it has been possible to develop things as basic for us as wifi, bluetooth, and many other things. 

And there, Hedy Lamarr, they played a bad trick on her because she sold a little bit, she didn't sell, that is, she didn't know she was going to sell it, she gave that contribution of hers, the doodles she made to develop that idea of wireless connections, she gave it to the U.S. Navy. And she didn't know that after a few years (this is still going on now, you have to be aware), after a while, you can't claim absolutely nothing, your authorship and so on. She was never told any of that, but rather she was told well, very well, thank you for this. But now keep bringing your acting talent and go sing in front of the troops or act. And after that she could claim absolutely nothing. Of course, these are cases. So, you say: role of women in science? Quite invisible and hard. 

Rosalind Franklin, for example. You may also have heard of her. Pioneer in DNA studies. She was somehow left out of the Nobel Prize that her other colleagues later got. In other words, they kind of excluded her.

Another very important woman of the twentieth century, who also in World War II contributed with something very important with the so-called Enigma Project, was Joan Clarke, who was also an incredible mind. She was a cryptanalyst, she was a mathematician. You're probably familiar with Alan Turing, mathematician. Well, he was a colleague of hers and then a lot more has been written about him. They've made movies. Joan Clarke was one of the women who was among many working as a numismatic cryptanalyst and they developed a project that prevented the death of many people in World War II, in this case in favor, again, of the United States.

And finally, if I may, I would also like to highlight Evelyn Berezin. She is a very powerful woman also from the 20th century, engineer, computer scientist, physicist and a pioneer also in the field of computing. In other words, Evelyn Berezin developed very important things, such as the first program  for the data secretary, which allowed us to communicate in such an easy way as it is for us. With Open and all that, the Office. And then she also developed an online ticketing system for the airlines and she was the first one who designed that program, that software. From that point on, it started to be used. So, it's Evelyn Berezin, and yet right? These names do not just ring a bell. I mean, I think it is worthwhile to vindicate this potential, therefore the role of women is missing, it needs to be made much more visible.

Gabi

That is precisely why we are here. And just to continue with what you were saying, with what you were talking about, how do you think the role of women in the scientific and research sector is today? How do you think it has evolved? Has there been a change or not? And if there has been that change within this sector, how do you think we could transfer it to other sectors?

Marta

Well, let's see, look, for example, I was talking about Evelyn Berezin, who also passed away very recently and that is the same example that I can give you for this question or answer. Mm-Hmm. Yes, things are changing, we are all taking the place we deserve, both men and women. But just as there are more women dedicated to the scientific and technological field, there are very few women who have responsibility. In other words, their names are almost hidden. I, of course, can not avoid, while I answer you, to think more. Stephanie Kwolek, a chemist who invented the Kevlar fiber, which is a high-strength fiber more powerful than steel and which is used in bulletproof vests, for example, has not been mentioned in the 20th century. And these are worn. 

Of course, how did she get it? Not easy, huh? Think that even the fact of patenting something, yes, in the 20th century they let us, they let us. But before that, not for having a name like a woman, that nonsense because you have a name like a woman and you are a woman. That is to say, then later scientists, as you have mentioned Lise Meitner, she was born in the 19th century before, but she also had a very hard time. She was removed, as we were saying before, from the Nobel Prize and she was a pioneer in nuclear physics and to bring it closer to the people, which uses does nuclear energy have? Well, let's talk about the atomic bomb. She always wanted the use of that energy to be peaceful, which was not taken into account at all, and then she was vindicated, but not in a way that she intended. It is good that she said I do not like the way they vindicate me. I am not the mother of that atomic bomb or that atomic energy, no, because I wanted other uses that could have been given and were not given then. 

I can quote June Almeida, now that we are going through such a difficult time with the coronavirus. Well, did you know that June Almeida was a scientist, that in 1964 she discovered, identified and also gave the name together with other colleagues of what would be that virus that they saw and she gave it the name of coronavirus. It was the first name. And that is the same one that is somehow affecting us in other variants: June Almeida. So how did they all have it? And I am talking about very recently. Well, they had it difficult and I still believe that women in science have it very complicated. But it is not the only field. That is also the case. Unfortunately, if we go to a more liberal field, the artistic field, it still happens.

Gabi

What does surprise me is that many of the women you mention and many of the inventions at the end are related to the war. So it's kind of surprising. Maybe in the wars it gave them more visibility because they could help them and in other sectors they could not be given more visibility.

Marta

Well, I would say it the other way around a little bit. The conclusion that you draw is not that, it's a bit like the case of Lise Meitner. I mean, kevlar is used for a lot of other things that have nothing to do with the military field.. But of course, where is there more, where do they get more out of it, more performance, where does a brutal economy move there? In the military field. If we think about where millions and millions are destined for research, they are destined to the military field for the development of many things that unfortunately have to do with war, the military field. Of course, so it is not in itself that they were going with that idea...

Gabi

That's what I'm saying, that in the end the military industry is the one that helps them a little bit to make those inventions come out, even though they were thinking about it for other purposes.

Marta

Yes, exactly, yes.

Gabi

But I imagine that with many men it would be the same.

Laura

That's what I was going to tell you.

Marta

Exactly, it's the same. Even if they didn't want to be there, well, there is a lot of money involved.

How to give visibility to silenced women

Laura

Well, if you think so, I do have one last question in our podcast today and that is: how can we recognize the value of all those women who were once hidden? As we're seeing this is changing now, right? But how can we go beyond that, what actions are being taken now? How can your podcast give more visibility to talk about them and well, well, that's it, to recognize the value of all these women.

Laura

Well, we can change the role of women by talking about them, vindicating them, placing them in history books, in textbooks. Because you know a funny thing in our podcast channel Lila, we have both the podcastlila.com website and the YouTube channel which is Podcast Lila; we find, well, many comments from very young people I would say, but very young, maybe from high school or before high school, that wonder why they are not there. Teachers do not tell us about these women, I did not know them. The truth is that when I read this or hear them, it makes me very angry because this is one of the issues that has to change. That is to say, the history books have to be reconfigured, more than that, they have to be expanded. It is a little bit what we say from Podcast Lila: we rewrite history. And that does not mean that we are going to leave men aside, no, no, no, no, it is not that vision, it is between all of us to expand it, that is, to expand that there are magnificent men, but there are also magnificent women who have had a very difficult time to study, to develop their careers as engineers, as scientists, they have had a very difficult time and yet they have succeeded. 

So all of them have to be, they have to be included, I would say, in the textbooks. We have to talk much more about them and in fact that is one of our aims, our next aims: to talk to you, to be in the present moment and to place the present moment in relation to the past. And well, and to see that all that, all those women who achieved their purposes, well, they make it much better for us now to continue, to know that we are going to achieve it if they could. And if we talk about ancient times, women of enormous talent were able, they had everything against them, but they were able to achieve magnificent things. How can we not be able to achieve them now? 

And then it is also good to open the mind of society by talking about it, especially talking about it, naming them. I mean, when I see people talking about the 20th century or I just read a book about the 20th century, there isn’t a single  woman. But what is it, because of ignorance? Well, if that is the case, then there are places like ours, very humble at the moment, very small, but which intends to become big in order to reach and make it known.

Laura

Of course, there are many areas where these women should already be talked about. We are not only talking about communication, journalism, textbooks, even in Hollywood. I think it is another work of communication and teaching. There are many films whose power can be the work of a woman and how she has been able to change the world because, really, they are there.

Marta

It is true. It's also that when we women are allowed to say, we bring that point of view. Well, also, well, ours, and that also helps or amplifies and makes everything better. I think that among all of us, you know what I mean, it is always the idea of amplifying, uniting and amplifying. Not to subtract, not to think that, of course, if Laura goes up, then she will prevent me from going up. No, Laura's talent will mean that yours will also go up. 

And up to now it has always been read in a biased way. That's the idea, to break that idea. In other words, two is better, two genres is better than just one. And now it's time to speak out, a lot of damage has been done to women, it's true. There are things that should not have been. Well, let's change them and make them different. Then wonderful women like Mária Telkes, like many others, can continue to come to light. Well, for example, Ellen Swallow has not been mentioned, who is another of our protagonists, but she was a pioneer, since you like the environmental field, she was a pioneer in the protection of the environment. She created what is called home economics and she was a chemist, she was a woman, she was a chemist, she was an ecologist and really her mind was also brilliant. She was born in the 19th century, but also wonderful, Ellen Swallow.

Gabi

I'm sure we could be talking all day about women. Well, thank you very much. Here ends the fifth episode of the first season of Ogami Station. Thank you very much, Marta. Not only for accepting our invitation, but also for your work for women. It is a pleasure, of course, to have you as a guest.

Marta

Well, it has been a great pleasure. I really enjoyed being with you. A little bit far away but well, thanks to technology, at the same time close. Thanks to that we have been closer. To continue with projects like yours too. And let's see if, between all of us, this kind of projects become bigger, that's what is interesting and worthwhile.

Laura

Yes, we will work for it.

Marta

I send a big hug of thanks to Laura and Gabriel. Truly.

Laura

Likewise, likewise.

Marta

And when do you want to continue? Talking about women in any field, as you can see there are enough women here to stop a train.

Laura

We will develop more content for sure, because we have learned a lot today with all the examples you have given us, it has made us more curious to continue learning. In addition, we hope that it will also be the case of our listeners and have achieved our ultimate goal, which is to bring the world of renewable energy to our listeners and also women, as happens in Mária Telkes.

Gabi

Don't forget you can leave us your questions from iVoox comments and reviews on Apple Podcast and suggest topics you want us to talk about in upcoming episodes. Also, Marta has her own podcast, so don't forget to check out the Lila podcast. At Ogami Station we count on your help. Subscribe to our podcast from your favorite platform and if you liked it, please rate us positively so we can reach more people. Remember that you can see the episode notes and all the links we have commented on ratedpower.com/podcast. Thank you very much and we'll be hearing from you soon!

Laura

We'll be hearing from you soon, Gabi!





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