Every now and then, the Google logo transforms into colorful, interactive doodles to celebrate the world's pioneers, holidays and more.

Who was Hedwig Kohn? Google honors German physics pioneer

In honor of what would have been pioneering German physicist Hedwig Kohn’s 132nd birthday Friday, Google’s doodle team put together a colorful laboratory-inspired illustration for the search giant’s homepage.

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Born in 1887 in Wrocaw, Poland (then Breslau, Germany), Kohn was the daughter of a prominent local merchant. According to the Jewish Women’s Archive, she was only 20 years old when she began auditing at a local university, “a year before women were officially allowed to matriculate.”

In 1913, she earned her doctorate in physics before working under renowned physicist Otto Lummer, whose work with precision radiation contributed to Planck’s radiation law. Kohn would go on to become one of only three women certified to teach physics at a German university before World War II, according to the Google doodle blog. But as a Jewish woman living in Nazi Germany, she was barred from her teaching position.

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In the 1930s, Kohn eventually fled to the United States, where she’d spend nearly two decades teaching physics at the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina and Wellesley College in Massachusetts. 

After retiring from teaching, Kohn continued her research on flame spectroscopy at Duke University, “measuring absorption features and concentrations of mostly atomic species in flames,” the JWA reported. According to the archives, Kohn’s research “experienced a renaissance in the 1960s in the framework of combustion science and plasma physics,” and led to more than 20 publications, including multiple chapters in physics textbooks. While her textbook contributions aren’t widely used anymore, Kohn is still considered a pioneer in the field of physics.

She died on March 26, 1964, in North Carolina. Kohn was 77 years old.

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