Tag Archives: science

Women in science history

In a theoretical feminist bingo card, there is one square for Marie Curie: The Only Female Scientist. (If you are particularly nerdy you may also have Ada Lovelace, First Computer Programmer.) Of course this does not reflect reality, and it doesn’t reflect historical reality either – but science history books are so often focussed on the Lone (invariably male) Genius labouring away in the lab that you could be forgiven for thinking that science does actually happen in a vacuum. This is, of course, a fallacy, as these four books demonstrate.

Unknown.jpegPatricia Fara, Pandora’s Breeches: Women, Science and Power in the Enlightenment(Pimlico, 2004)

Pandora in breeches is an abomination. Pandora is already a problem: the first woman, in Greek mythology, whose existence brings all sorts of problems to the (male) world. But Pandora in breeches means that Pandora is also trying to take over the male world. In this book, Patricia Fara delves into the myth of the lone male scientific genius and exposes it as just that – a myth. While refusing the suggestion that Hypatia and Katherine Johnson could have been at all comfortable sitting next to each other at a dinner party, Fara reclaims the existence of women in scientific endeavour. She does this by taking several Lone Genius men (Descartes, Linnaeus, Lavoisier, Newton…) and examining the role that women played in their scientific lives. In some cases, this is domestically: when science is being done in the home, wives and sisters and household staff get drawn into the science almost automatically. In other cases, it is through correspondence, or through a woman’s own writing that is picked up and expanded on by a man because the woman wasn’t allowed to present her ideas in a public forum. Fara has surely only scratched the surface of the ways in which women contributed to science in this period (and, as she points out, also the male labourers who constructed equipment and so on).

Unknown.jpegDava Sobel, The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars (Viking, 2016)

When the Harvard Observatory started taking pictures of the night sky, they did so with glass plates. In order to understand what was happening on those plates, the Observatory needed meticulous ‘calculators’ to look at each one and catalogue the tiny pin pricks of light. This job was usually perceived as tedious, and therefore perfect for women – who were also cheaper to hire. So for decades, women worked on the half a million or so plates made by Harvard and in doing so, made or contributed towards the significant discoveries that form the basis of astronomy today. What stars are made of, the idea of variable stars, classifications of stars – these things were enabled by these women. An intriguing aspect of Sobel’s narrative is that as well as exploring the contributions of the women employed by the Observatory, she explores the contribution of women who gave substantial funding to it – thereby enabling the place to conduct science that might otherwise have been impossible – and the place of the male astronomers’ wives, who also helped significantly in the running of the Observatory.

Unknown-2.jpegPatricia Far, A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War (Oxford University Press, 2018)

The blurb for this book may surprise many readers, since it proclaims 2018 to be a ‘double centenary: peace was declared in war-wracked Europe, and women won the vote after decades of struggle’. Presumably this edition of the book was never meant to be seen outside of the UK. Nonetheless, this is a generally absorbing account of the scientific contribution of women during the First World War. As with her book on the Enlightenment, Fara has dug into archives and found significant records of women in various scientific establishments, doing experimental work, as well as munitions factories and other such manual labour, generally replacing the men who have gone to fight. Women were active in museums, and as doctors (why have I never heard of the female British doctors in places like Salonika?), and in intelligence work. There are also mysteries, like the unnamed clerk awarded an MBE… war secrets taken to the grave, presumably. It must be said that sometimes the book is confused about exactly what it wants to do. There are chapters on science with little discussion of any women being involved, and sections about suffrage that have very little to do with science. Nonetheless overall this book does expand the idea of who contributed to the UK’s war effort in World War 1, and explores the many reasons that women had for wanting to be involved in those efforts.

Unknown.jpegMargot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures (HarperCollins, 2016)

Thanks to the film that was made at the same time as the book was published, this story of the black female mathematicians who worked for NASA (and for NASA’s predecessor) is probably the best-known of these stories. It is a crucial one, since as far as I can tell all of the women in the other three histories were white. Black women are historically even more obscured than white women. Shetterly has done an excellent job of unearthing references to the work of these West Area ‘computers’ so that their contribution to American space exploration can be appreciated. She gives their educational and social context – which was vital for me since although I know a little about segregation I know almost nothing about historically-black colleges. Shetterly traces the connections between places, people, and influences through some specific women, like Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Goble Johnson, Mary Jackson and Christine Darden; she also sets the work of these women in the larger NASA context to show just how vital their work was. Shetterly also shows how these women fit into their communities, and how they encouraged the women and girls around them simply by being who they were, and working where they did.

Too Big to Walk

Unknown.jpegBuy this book, my beloved said. You love dinosaur science, he said! It’ll be great, he said.

I do love dinosaurs. I was intrigued by the ideas that Brian Ford presented. But I did not love this book. This book is at least three books, maybe more, in one. I’m not sure Ford realised that.

The blurb says that the book “reviews the latest scientific evidence” about dinosaurs to suggest that a lot of things palaeontologists are presenting “are no more than convent fictions.” Whoo, way to go with the controversy. And I would have loved the heck out of a well-argued, well-presented, scientific book about that. In fact, I did love those 80 or 100 pages of this 450-odd page book. But that leaves another 350 or so pages.

In those pages, Ford is doing something completely different. For a start, he’s presenting a history of how humans have interacted with dinosaurs – that is, a history of palaeontology, complete with the theories about some bones belonging to giant humans of the past and so on. Fascinating! but so totally irrelevant to a scientific book about dinosaurs that, to use an in-joke, it’s not even wrong. And then there’s the section on the discovery of continental drift and tectonic plates and so on. Also fascinating. In fact, I think I’ve read a book about that already. This time, not quite so irrelevant to a book about dinosaurs – Ford’s theory is that dinosaurs lived by wading in shallow lakes, and they went extinct with Pangea breaking up and the climate changing and the lakes evaporating – but it didn’t need 50 or so pages on the topic. It definitely didn’t need the entire history lesson on the topic; just a page or two on the facts would have been quite sufficient.

Lastly, there’s also an irritated article for a science journal lurking in here: one which details the ways in which Ford has been ignored and calumniated by the scientific world (in his view). I think that calling out established science, when you have a solid theory that fits the evidence, is a necessary and reasonable thing to do. Maybe it would even fit into a book about that new and exciting but controversial theory. (I’m no palaeontologist but Ford presents a compelling case that should surely actually be considered. But I don’t think it’s presented well here – in that I think it should have been more clearly separated out from a discussion of the science.

So. The theory is really interesting, and if what he says is true – like the astounding energy required to pump blood up to the head of one of those enormous herbivores with super long necks – then I’m not going to be surprised if in a couple decades it’s the standard, or at least viable, way of talking about dinosaurs. But this book was incredibly frustrating because it just didn’t know what it wanted to be.

The Glass Universe

This review first appeared in Crux, the magazine of the Astronomical Society of Victoria.

Unknown.jpegAmazing things happened at the Harvard Observatory around the turn of the twentieth century. Draper provided funding for photography of stellar spectra, while Bruce gave $50,000 towards a new 24-inch astrophotographic telescope. Pickering found the first spectroscopic binary, and Maury found the second; Fleming classified stellar spectra and discovered novae. Cannon worked on variable stars and explored the relationship between spectral type and magnitude; Leavitt also worked on variables and proposed the period-luminosity relation. Ames and Payne were Harvard’s first graduate students in astronomy.

Anna Draper, that is. Catherine Bruce. Edward Pickering and Antonia Maury. Williamina Fleming. Annie Cannon and Henrietta Leavitt. Adelaide Ames and Cecelia Payne. As Dava Sobel makes beautifully clear in The Glass Universe, women were fundamental to the astronomical work and discoveries at Harvard Observatory in its early years. This is a book in love with astronomy and its history that wants to ensure everyone who contributed—not just the now-big names like Hubble—is recognised.

Sobel points out three groups of women who contributed to astronomy. She opens her book by demonstrating how women contributed financially to astronomical work. Anna Draper provided money and telescopes so that stellar spectra could be investigated at Harvard, and endowed the Henry Draper Medal. This was done in honour of her late husband, but also reflected her own interests: she had observed with Henry, and helped with the photography; part of their honeymoon involved shopping for a glass disk for a 28-inch telescope, which the pair then ground and polished over years to transform into a mirror. At 73, Catherine Bruce’s vague interest in the stars was encouraged by Edward Pickering and by her death in 1900 her gifts totalled $175,000 (over $4 million today). Other women endowed telescopes, awards, and scholarships.

The second group, appropriately taking up most of the book, are the individual researchers at the Observatory. Most of them started as computers: examining glass plates, calculating visible magnitudes, cataloguing spectra. Some of the women worked on this for decades. Some undertook further work as their curiosity was sparked by the spectra they investigated, or the magnitudes they calculated, or they noticed interesting relationships between period and luminosity. These women published papers, and contributed to the papers of other astronomers, especially Pickering and Harlow; some of them were awarded annual medals, although not many; some were honorary membership to societies such as the Royal Astronomical Society, while Cannon was the treasurer of the American Astronomical Society. The work these women undertook was thanks in no small part to the unusual willingness of Edward Pickering and Harlow Shapley (yes, that Shapley), directors at the Harvard Observatory between 1877 and 1952 (Solon Bailey had two years as interim director), to not only work with women but encourage their independent work and acknowledge them in publication. Their work is therefore also acknowledged and discussed, since it would be impossible to separate it from that of the computers in particular.

The third group of women consists of the wives and other family members of acknowledged astronomers. Solon Bailey’s wife, Ruth, contributed to his observatons for the Harvard station in Peru, while Pickering’s and Shapley’s wives played crucial roles at the Observatory in making the whole place work. The third director’s daughter, Anna, became a computer. They are the least well served by the book; it is presumably difficult to uncover contributions if they weren’t acknowledged at the time.

Dava Sobel has not only written a compelling history of Harvard Observatory, and not only conducted a remarkable survey of the contribution of women to astronomy, but has also written an intensely readable book. There’s some wonderful scientific discussions included, about Cepheid variables and their importance to figuring out the size of the universe and the like—but these do not dominate. If you are looking for a book about the history of astrophysics, this is not it and does not want to be it. No understanding of astrophysics is required to read it. Rather, this is a history of the people involved; it has a little about their relationships with one another, but it’s mostly about the work; it sounds like most of them put their work first anyway, so that’s appropriate. It demonstrates just how much computing power was required a century ago to understand the heavens—when that computing power could be jokingly measured in “girl hours”, and sometimes “kilo-girl hours”. The women who worked at the Harvard Observatory were a crucial part of the astronomical community.

Essays, jellyfish, and the multiverse

A while back a colleague introduced me to Arts and Letters. This is a wonderful site that collects essays from around the web, most of them free to read, and – in my case – delivers them to my blog feed for idle consumption. There are a lot that come through that I just don’t care much about, but that’s ok; it’s easy enough to swipe them away as read. But sometimes there are some absolute joys in the mix. Some essays and some reviews that I know I would never have come across otherwise.

Tim Flannery’s “They’re taking over!” about jellyfish, for example. I remember reading a while back that Japan was having serious jellyfish issues, to the point where chefs were making serious attempts at turning them into delicacies so that the population could try and eat their way through them… or something… Anyway, this essay is actually a review of Stung! On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Oceanby Lisa-ann Gershwin – a review that outlines most of Gershwin’s points, interacts with them seriously, adds other observations, and basically makes the book part of an ongoing discussion. Which is of course what it is. It’s a great essay, although it’s a terrifying topic. Having grown up in the tropics of Australia, it took me quite a while to get over my suspicion of the ocean because, as Flannery points out, the box jelly fish is the most venomous creature on earth. Only idiots (aka tourists) go swimming in the ocean in Darwin. Meanwhile, jellyfish are taking over the oceans, and there is nothing humanity can do about it. The things are basically immortal. The apocalypse comes not from zombies but from jellyfish.

Over at Aeon, Andrew Crumey explores the idea of the multiverse through both physics and literature, showing how the former has sometimes followed the latter in positing and explaining the idea of multiple, parallel, divergent universes. Someone who references Borges and Feynman, Baudelaire and Everett in the same 2,600 words was pretty much always going to be writing an interesting essay, and that is indeed the case. The idea of the multiverse is a confronting one for a Christian, but that’s fine; it’s not like I’m not used to that. I enjoyed how Crumey meandered around ancient Greek and Roman philosophy through to 19th century literature, and tied together 20th and 21st century physics. Not being as au fait with the physics as I might like (nor, honestly, the philosophy), I can’t say whether it’s entirely trustworthy in the connections it draws – and I refuse to read the comments, because I just bet they range from ‘multiverse?? You loony!’ through to other unsavoury comments (but hey, at least it wasn’t written by a woman pretending like she understood the science, right?) – but as a keen general reader, it was certainly absorbing and persuasive.