The physicist who built her career on clay

Giants in History: Purnima Sinha (12 October 1927 – 11 July 2015), the first Bengali woman to receive a doctorate in physics, analysed clay structures using x-ray equipment that she built from salvaged World War II-era parts.

 Her later work at Stanford University’s 'Origin of Life' project uncovered a connection between the X-ray structure of clay and the patterns in DNA. Growing up in a progressive family that rejected the strictly-defined female roles of the day enabled Sinha and her sisters to pursue their interests in science.  Sinha earned a Master’s degree in Physics from Calcutta University, where her passion for the subject caught the attention of Satyendra Nath Bose, best known for his research on quantum mechanics in the 1920s. Bose suggested that Sinha’s doctoral work should examine the structure of clay from different parts of India, using techniques such as thermal and chemical analysis and X-ray scattering. Her subsequent efforts led to a complete classification of more than fifty clay samples. Outside the laboratory, Sinha translated science books into Bengali. She was also a talented musician who played the tabla, a percussion instrument usually played by men.

Published: 07 Apr 2022


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