Girl power

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Last year, an eight-year-old girl made headlines in Mexico for inventing a simple solar device to heat water. Her name is Xóchitl Guadalupe Cruz Lopez and she lives in Chiapas, the southern state that borders Guatemala. She’s been inventing things and entering science competitions since she was four years old. Working with ordinary recycled materials like a garden hose, plastic soda bottles and glass salvaged from a broken cooler, Ms. Cruz Lopez created an inexpensive solar-powered water heater mounted inside a wooden box, which her father helped her install on the roof of her family’s home. Because it uses a sequence of small bottles instead of one large reservoir, her device does not require a strong electrical pump to move water through the system; in fact, water can be hand-pumped through the device, making it feasible for areas of the world that don’t have electricity. And the system can be scaled up in capacity by adding more bottles. When the Nuclear Sciences Institute at Mexico’s National Autonomous University awarded Cruz Lopez their Women’s Recognition Award, she explained to interviewers that she was looking for a way people could have hot water to bathe in without harming the environment by cutting down the forests for firewood.

Neha Shahid Chaudhry is a young Pakistani inventor and entrepreneur. In 2016, when she was a 22-year-old student enrolled in the graduate program for product-design technology at the University of the West of England in Bristol, Ms. Chaudhry invented a “smart” walking stick, motivated by her observations of her great-grandfather’s difficulties walking because of his Parkinson’s disease. She created a start-up company called Walk to Beat to complete the development of her prototype device, which senses when Parkinson’s patients are “stuck” and sends a rhythmic electrical signal through the cane’s handle to help them get moving again. Things got complicated when the British Home Office refused to renew Chaudhry’s visa and threatened to deport her because of one missing date on her 66-page application. After months in immigration limbo, her visa was approved in June 2017, and she was able to remain in Britain to bring her invention to market.

The significance of these stories was amplified for me during the remarkable 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg’s visit to America last month: her pointed remarks to the U.S. Congress and the United Nation’s Climate Action Summit, and the huge groundswell of student activism she has ignited. What resonates with millions of people taking up her call to action—her determination combined with direct and uncompromising honesty—also evokes outrage among her detractors. She dismisses their childish attacks as readily as she dismisses what she perceives as the patronizing praise of our political leaders: “Don’t invite us here to just tell us how inspiring we are without actually doing anything about it because it doesn’t lead to anything.”

In 1967, Jacob Bronowski gave a series of lectures at Yale (later published in “The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination”) that explored the nature of scientific inquiry and the creative, relentless and questioning personality that makes an effective scientist. In the final lecture, Bronowski recounted a rash moment when he had told an audience of 2,000 London school children: “This is how the world goes, you are going to have to make it different, you are going to have to stop listening to your parents. If you go on obeying your parents, the world will never be a better place.” Although he joked that he’d gotten into hot water for that off-the-cuff statement, he stood by its central message, going on to point out that women can be hampered in their scientific careers because “they are not contrary enough.”

“Happily,” said Dr. Bronowski, “time will take care of all that. Time will produce belligerent, contrary, questioning, challenging women as it has produced belligerent, contrary, questioning, challenging men… And it is people like that who are the catalysts, the stimulators, the creators of change. And they are this as complete personalities.”

Happily, indeed—for our world and for all the caring, clever, fierce young women who are going to change it.

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