Tag Archive: women

Aug 13 2017

Book review: The Comet Sweeper by Claire Brock

thecometsweeperA return to women in science in this post where I review The Comet Sweeper: Caroline Herschel’s Astronomical Ambition by Claire Brock, a biography of a woman who discovered comets and nebulae and published a catalogue of astronomical objects in the later years of the 18th century. For scientists the name “Herschel” will not be unknown. Caroline Herschel’s brother William discovered Uranus, and was paid as an astronomer by King George III. Her nephew, John was also well known as a scientist. However, relatively little has been written about Caroline.

The Comet Sweeper is based substantially on the autobiographical writing of Herschel. However, she was sufficiently well-known at the time to be referenced elsewhere, and indeed later in her life was bestowed with various honours and medals for her astronomical work.

Herschel was born in Hanover in 1750, her father Isaac was a musician and very much a self-taught man – something he passed on to Caroline. Anna, her mother, gets a less than sympathetic treatment from her daughter and consequently this book. For her early years Anna treated Caroline as a servant, and stopped her education as soon as it appeared it would help her leave the Herschel household in Hanover. She was finally given a means of escape when her brother, William, invited her to Bath to work in music with him in 1771. She had no previous training in music and put herself assiduously to learning what she needed to know. William Herschel was earning up to £400 per year from music lessons and the like when he invited his sister to join him. It seems that Caroline became a significant musician in her own right, at least until her brother dragged her into astronomy.

This is something of a theme through the book, Caroline Herschel is clearly very capable and when given the opportunity can excel in whatever she turns her hand to. But the choices she has are limited. In the first instance her mother controls what she can do, then her brother – switching her from music to astronomy with little regard for her own wishes.

In astronomy Herschel started by assisting her brother in the workshop – at the time, to get the best telescope, you built them from scratch yourself. She supported him in his observations but she also carried out observations on her own. The “sweeping” of the title is the systematic scanning of the night sky with a telescope to identify static features such as stars and nebulae but more specifically to find comets. To a degree the discovery of nebulae was incidental to the main task of finding comets, nebulae were easily confused with comets so recording their locations was an essential part of finding comets. The Herschel’s work followed, but only by a few years, the publication of Charles Messier’s first catalogue of diffuse celestial objects in 1774.

As well as discovering comets and nebulae Herschel was also responsible for publishing Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars in 1798, which built on the earlier work of Flamsteed. Ultimately this became the New General Catalogue of stars. Amateur astronomers will know this work, Messier’s catalogue provides information on the 100 or so most prominent objects whose identifying numbers are prefixed with an M- beyond this are the NGC objects – from the New General Catalogue which is the descendant of Herschel and Flamsteed’s catalogue.

Herschel was honoured in her own lifetime with a gold medal from the Royal Astronomical Society, as well as honorary membership and medal from the King of Prussia, at the age of 96. She was the first woman to be published in Philosophical Transactions the journal of the Royal Society. These awards did come until quite late in her life although she was paid £50 per annum by King George III as an assistant to her brother. He was paid rather more, £200, but notably rather less than he earned as a musician.

I found the broader insight that The Comet Sweeper gave into the lives of Georgian women was interesting. Women did not have formal positions within the scientific community of the time but they contributed as wives, sisters, daughters. At the time there was little in the way of formal, paid, scientific community – it was very much a gentleman’s club but there was a place for women in it although not necessarily of equal status.

This was to change later in the 19th century when science became institutionalised, as a result women were excluded by, for example, not being able to receive degrees or even attend lectures at university. 

The Comet Sweeper is not a long book, it is readable and casts an interesting light on women in science in Georgian England and the specific contributions of Caroline Herschel.

Jun 05 2017

Book review: Women in Science by Rachel Ignotofsky

women_in_scienceWomen in Science by Rachel Ignotofsky is a whistle-stop tour of 50 women in science mainly from the mid-19th century onwards. Each woman gets a double page spread, with a few paragraphs of text on one page and a cartoon drawing of them and some catchphrases on the other. As well as this there is a centrefold of lab equipment, a timeline and some very brief descriptions of 14 further women in science at the end. You can see more on the authors website, here.

Also included are some statistics on women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), I suspect the figures relate to the US but the picture would not be dramatically different in the UK. On the plus side the proportion of women in STEM has increased from 14% in 1970 to 41% in 2011 and it has been rising steadily. The proportion of engineers who are women rose from 3% in 1970 but has been on a plateau at 13% since 1990. In computer work the proportion of women peaked in 1990 and has been dropping since then, it now stands at 27%.

Why is this important? Historically women have been treated as second class citizens. It wasn’t that they tried to do the things that men did traditionally, and failed. They were very actively prevented from studying in their chosen fields. They weren’t allowed into science labs or science lectures. And if by some chance they did manage to train themselves, there were no jobs or facilities for them to continue their work because they were women. This is the legacy we are trying to overcome.

It isn’t a matter of deep history, women alive today will have been refused access to degree courses in their chosen subjects. Cambridge University, for example, only awarded the first full degree to a woman in 1946, which is the year my mother was born. The parents of men alive today would have kept those systems in place. Women only got the vote in the UK during the lifetime of my grandparents. After I was born my mother was denied an application form for an administrative job at a local garage because the owner felt that her place was at home with her young children. Since the 1970s the spirit of the welfare system in the UK has changed to one in which it is seen as best for both parents to work. And yet historically women have been denied access to many careers. This leaves a legacy because people tend to recruit other people like themselves. The aspirations of children and young people are shaped by the roles they see people like them undertaking.

This book provides a set of role models that show that women can be successful in science. 

The 50 chosen women are from a range of sources, many of them are from the rather sparse roll-call of female Nobel Prize winners. Some of the names I recognised: Marie Curie, Jocelyn Bell-Burnell, Jane Goodall, Ada Lovelace, Katherine Johnson (through my very recent reading), Dorothy Hodgkin, Rachel Carson, Lise Meitner. Others I had never heard of, like Lillian Gilbreth who worked on psychology and industrial design. Or Patricia Bath, who founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness. 

I’ve looked through the book with my son (aged 5), he seemed to like it – although his main questions on each page were “Where was she born?” and “Where did she go?”. Then again in a book on the history of art his questions were “Where’s Jesus?” and “Why are those people naked?”. I suspect it is better suited to children a little older than him.

Currently my son is binge watching “Horrible Histories”, a programme for children about history. It is a string of vignettes from history acted as adverts, as music videos, game shows or just plain acted. It is lively and educational. It strikes me that Women in Science would provide an excellent source for a sister programme.     

I don’t think I am the intended audience for this book but it did remind me to put some more biographies of women in science on my reading list. I’m pleased to see there is a biography of Maria Sibylla Merian, 17th century illustrator and entomologist. Ada Lovelace and Mary Anning are also on my list. 

Apr 08 2017

Book Review: Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

hidden_figuresHidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly tells the story of Africa American women who worked as “computers” at NASA and its predecessor NACA during and after the Second World War.

In a first, this means I am currently reading both fiction and non-fiction by African-American women. (I’m also reading The Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler)

The Hidden Figures worked initially in the West Area Computing Group at the NACA Langley Research Centre in Hampton, Virginia, which did reseach on aircraft and then rocket design. The Computing groups carried out calculations at the behest of engineers from around the Centre, this was at a time when calculation was manual or semi-manual compared to today. Over time they were co-opted directly into research groups, some of them to ultimately become engineers. The West Computing group was mirrored by the East Area Computing Group – comprised of white women.

There is some history for women acting as “computers”, and the necessity of World War II led to the government taking on Africa American women for the job, in face of historic segregation. For African American women this was a rare opportunity, until then the only recourse for African American woman with advanced training in maths was teaching. For a very few the Computing group ultimately acted as a stepping stone to working as an engineer.

Shetterly sees these women as a vanguard to the African Americans in the modern US who have every opportunity open to them. This jars a little to me when I see constant news from the US of, for example black people being more likely to be killed by the police, or a senior African American being brought together by the President with the policeman that aggressively interviewed him on his doorstep because the house looked too nice to belong to a black man. Or African Americans being purposefully disenfranchised.

The shocking thing to me, as a Brit, was the degree to which US society was absolutely, formally segregated on racial grounds. In Virginia, where this story is set, segregation was preserved by the Democratic Party (perhaps some explanation as to why African Americans are not necessarily whole-heartedly Democrats). In Prince Edward County, Virginia they went as far as shutting down all the public schools for 5 years in order that black and white children would not be educated together – white children were given grants to study at private schools. Britain may have been racist in the past, it may still be racist today but it never enshrined it so deeply and widely into law.

In response to this Africa Americans ran a parallel community, segregation didn’t end because the segregation laws were repealed. It ended because African Americans saw the end of those laws as a door ajar which needed a serious push to pass through. Thus when Rosa Parks sat on the bus, Katherine Goble (from this book) went to university and Ruby Bridges went to school they didn’t do so entirely alone. They had the support of their community and the organisation of the NAACP to help them. They had to be twice as good as a white person to get the same job. At the same time they also saw themselves as representatives of their race, and examples to their children.

When you look at a man the age of Donald Trump, 70, it’s worth bearing in mind that his teenage years were spent during the end of segregation by law and his parents were the white generation which fought so hard to keep it.

The focus of the book is mainly the personal lives, and ambitions of the women. There is some description of the work they, and the Research Centre did, but not in any great depth. The book highlights again the transformative effect of, particularly, the Second World War on society in the US. The seeds of theses changes could be seen after the First World War. This mirrors similar changes in society in the UK.

Once “computing” became the realm of high capital machinery the importance of women as computers waned, high capital machinery being the preserve of men. We see the consequences of this even now.

The book finishes with the part Katherine Johnson, in particular, played in John Glenn’s first trip into orbit and her subsequent work on the Apollo moon landing and Apollo 13 recovery. Shetterly emphasises the legacy of this group of women that normalised the idea that Africa American women could ultimately become engineers, scientists or any other sort of professional.

Interestingly my wife and I disagreed on the prominence of the men on the cover of the book (see above). She thought they were central and thus important, I thought they were small and thus unimportant. In the text the men are bit-part players, they are husbands and sons, or drift in and out of the narrative having spoken their line.