Tag Archive: women

Nov 17 2018

Book review: Inferior by Angela Saini

inferiorMy next review is of Inferior:How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini. The theme of this book is encapsulated in the subtitle. The chapters of the book cover eight broad topics around how science has treated women. Typically they outline something of the background of the established view, and then go on to discuss some more recent revisions.

It all starts with Darwin and a letter from an American suffragette, who receives a somewhat dusty response from him regarding what he sees as the proper,evolved and, undoubtedly lower status, state of women. But Darwinism does give women an opportunity: no longer is their position ordained by God but it is now subject to environment and the laws of nature so a new space for interpretation and equal rights opens up.

The next chapter covers health and longevity, it fits to a degree with the final chapter on the menopause. Women typically live a bit longer than men though are slightly more prone to illness, particularly autoimmune diseases. For various reasons women have tended to be un-represented in medical trials, this is being addressed now. Looking back, the treatment of the menopause as a medical problem to be resolved rather than a normal part of life, is problematic. I think it may have happened to a lesser extent with men with declining libidos in later years being addressed with Viagra. The difference being that Viagra is a short term “solution” whereas HRT has tended to be a long term intervention with unknown side-effects. For many aspects of this book we can look to other animal species to see how they are similar or different to humans, with the menopause pickings are sparse. Pretty much the only example is the orca, where mothers appear to nurture their male offspring throughout there lives.

Much of the recent scientific view on human sexuality are derived from some experiments on fruit flies done in the late 1940s. They showed that males were more promiscuous than females, and the conclusion drawn from this was that males benefitted from spreading their seed more widely whilst females only needed to be fertilised once. This was reinforced by experiments, which can only be described as unethical, involving sending out students to proposition members of the opposite sex. It turns out that men were more likely than women to go sleep with a stranger. But clearly women are considering more than just reproduction in such scenarios – they face a real threat of violence.

Across the world zookeepers are puzzled as to why some of their male bonobos get beaten up by females. All manner of exceptional explanations are provided for this. But fundamentally it is because bonobos have a matriarchal society in which males lacking the protection of females (in particular their mother) are vulnerable to bands of marauding females. This is the reverse of the situation in other primate specifies such as chimpanzees and orang-utans where isolated females are targeted by males.

There is an air of desperation to the efforts to demonstrate that women are different in all manner of biological ways, rather than accept that actually it is the way that society treats women that leads to their disadvantage. Or even consider it, for that matter. Intelligence, or scientific achievement, is covered in a couple of chapters, one of which is entitled “The missing five ounces of the female brain”. Fundamentally the problem here is trying to pull apart abilities such as spatial reasoning on an axis (gender) that fundamentally isn’t that important. It turns out across a wide range of human abilities it’s only the ability to throw and the ability to jump vertically where men exceed women by more than a standard deviation. Human abilities can be variable and typically the differences between genders are much smaller than the differences within one gender.

To exclude women from scientific societies, universities and degree courses until the mid-twentieth century and blame their lag of progress in scientific circles as down to some deficiency in their abilities certainly takes some chutzpah. And the fact that we’re doing this in the early years of the 21st century is an embarrassment. Like many women of her time, my mum left her scientific work when she was pregnant with me, and in at least one case was not even given an application form for an administrative post because she was a mother.

Anthropology makes an appearance with a conference entitled “Man the Hunter” from the 1970s. Here man (the male) is seen as the key player going out on the hunt to provide for the tribe. In fact, “gathering” turns out to be more important because hunting is an unpredictable business and only rarely results in the hunter bringing home the dead antelope.

Inferior is written in a style which I found reminiscent of Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes. We are given the context and something of the character of the scientists who Saini interviews. This is in contrast to a lot of scientific writing, even in popular books, which tends to erase the people. I think it is particularly important for a book like this because much of the book is about the character of people. It is striking that almost without fail those arguing for a biological necessity to the the position that women find themselves in are male and those arguing for a new viewpoint based on societal contingency are women.

The change in mindset this brought to me is how obvious the importance of the gender of the researcher is in determining what is studied but also the outcome.

Aug 11 2018

Book review: Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis by Kim Todd

merianChrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis by Kim Todd has a self-explanatory title, it is about the life of Maria Sibylla Merian a scientific illustrator who lived 1647-1717, and the life cycle of insects – their metamorphosis.

“Scientific illustrator” does not feel like the right term for Merian. She actively collected insects, at all stages in their lifecycles to study how they developed. This involved learning how how to nurture the insects. Her illustrations showed the insects through the stages of their lives alongside the plants on which they lived and fed. This is close to a study of ecology which didn’t really gain recognition as an area of study until the early 19th century. In her fifties she spent a couple of years in Surinam where she continued her study of more exotic creatures.

She was born in Frankfurt where she lived until she married and moved to Nuremburg, also in what is now Germany. Her father, Matthäus Merian was an illustrator, as was her stepfather Jacob Marrel, her husband Johann Andreas Graff, was one of Marrel’s apprentices. In 1685 Merian left her husband to go to a religious community in the Netherlands (the Labadists in Wieuwerd) with her mother and two daughters. She left Wieuwerd in 1691 to live in Amsterdam where she stayed until her death in 1717, aside a two year trip to Surinam.

Surinam had been “visited” by Europeans in the 16th century, and the Dutch had gained control of it from the English in the late 17th century. The English got New Amsterdam, now New York, as a quid pro quo. The colony was under the control of the Dutch West India Company and Labadists had been amongst those that gone out to the colony, their stories returning with them to the community at Wieuwerd. Surinam was not unknown land but it was tropical, and the colonial government were keen to get people out to the country to make a more well-rounded society. Merian went there to study insects in the same way as she had done in Europe but was, to some degree foiled by the conditions: deep jungle, rife with disease. Nevertheless her study there led to the publication of her book: Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium. I must admit I’m rather tempted by this facsimile.

Merian received a good deal of encouragement from father and stepfather in pursing art but the guild and business systems of the time made it difficult for her to work professionally as an artist. She seems to have got by by forming relationships with a range of nature enthusiasts for whom she carried out commissions, selling her illustrations individually, and trading in specimens for cabinets of curiosities.

She appears to have been remarkably independent for the period. Caroline Herschel lived somewhat later than her in England but her work in astronomy was tied to her brother, William. Similarly her exact contemporary, Elisabeth Hevelius, who had her own reputation as an astronomer was closely coupled to that of her husband.

Merian lived in a time when the study of nature was evolving. People were still seriously asking whether certain forms of life appeared spontaneously (the Royal Society’s cheese mite experiments). Linneas had not yet created his nomenclature for living things. Gentlemen were populating “cabinets of curiosities” but they were disorganised assemblages of artefacts. She was a contemporary of Jan Swammerdam, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek and Robert Hook.

The past can be difficult to understand, the meanings of words can shift quite dramatically. For example, René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur said “The crocodile is certainly a fierce insect, but I am not in the least disturbed about calling it one!”.

This is all to say that Merian could quite reasonably be described as working at the cutting edge of biology.

Merian is surprisingly well-documented, this seems to be as a result of a couple of factors. Her family were moderately high-profile and as publishers / illustrators naturally left substantial records. She published several books which were reprinted over the next hundred years or so, her illustrations appeared, sometimes unattributed, in other publications. A chunk of her papers were acquired by Peter the Great and ended up in St Petersburgh where they were re-discovered in the 1970s.

Her work seems to have attracted criticism in the early 19th century, on grounds of inaccuracy understandable, since by this time her books were over 100 years old. This criticism was possibly also driven by the changing character of naturalists, they were starting to professionalise, and no doubt also linked to her gender. Many of her male contemporaries had some funny ideas but this is often glossed over.

I enjoyed Chrysalis it covers Merian’s life in some detail whilst bringing in a good flavour of the times in which she lived and the people she interacted with.

Sep 30 2017

Book review: Pandora’s Breeches by Patricia Fara

pandoraInspired by Claire Brock’s biography of Caroline Herschel I found Pandora’s Breeches by Patricia Fara which is a broader survey of women in science during the enlightenment – from around 1500 to 1800.

Fara is interested not only in the people but also the methodology of history. Early on in the book she lays out a manifesto for a better history that doesn’t seek lonely heroes, as is often the case in history of science books. That’s to say her aim is not to simply replace the men in a normal scientific biography with women. As inspiration she cites books like Jenny Uglow’s Lunar Men which is an ensemble of biographies covering several people – I approve of this approach!

The chapter headings are pairings of woman and man, for example, “Anne Conway / Gottfried Leibniz”, at first sight this seems wrong. Surely this is a book about women in science, why tie each of them to a man? But actually it fits with the logic of the book, these women did not operate in isolation but neither did their male counterparts. Their male counterparts benefited from the more or less formal community of “scientists”, and those that had gone before them. But those male counterparts also benefitted from the practical support of their wives, daughters, sisters, other family members and friends. This book shows that practical support was not simply “she made him dinner so he didn’t have to”, it was in correspondence and the exchange of ideas, it was in the practicalities of running a laboratory at home, it was in the translation and explanation of scientific ideas and in the salon. To this group of women should also be added the invisible horde of male helpers, workmen and assistants who also go largely unmentioned.

The book starts by considering how nature has often been represented as a woman, whose intimate parts are accessed, or unveiled, or probed by scientists (usually men). In engravings from the Enlightenment period nature is often represented by a female form. This is not a framing that has disappeared, this quote by a geologist is from 1980: “Her flanks are shuddering… we don’t know of her intentions. Scientists haven’t been able to probe her deeply enough with their instruments”.

This may seem a harmless piece of flowery prose with more than a hint of sexual innuendo but it should be read in a context of a stream of scandals, at the very least in the US, where senior male scientists have acted inappropriately towards women at universities. Francis Bacon, very much the father of the modern scientific method, explicitly rejected women from his new science. A lead followed by the Royal Society who accepted men regardless of nationality and religion but could not abide women.

The book is divided thematically, the first few chapters are on aristocratic women and how they corresponded with and nurtured men who are now far more widely known. This was part of a system of scientific endeavour which was very different from that found today. There was no profession, only the sponsorship of monarchs and the wealthy. Fara discusses Elisabeth of Bohemia, and how she pushed Descartes to explain his ideas fully and Émilie du Châtelet who lived with Voltaire, conducting her own experiments and translating Newton’s Principia, although “translate” underplays greatly her work. This network was known as the Republic of Letters, and Fara highlights how women played a part in it.

The next theme is on women and science in domestics settings. Prior to the 19th century, science took place in the home which was typically managed by the women of the house. Science was an all consuming passion which inevitably brought in other members of the household. Marie Paulze Lavoisier was the wife of Antoine Lavoisier and was clearly deeply involved in his chemical experimentation, she is shown recording the results of experiments in a drawing of the time and was also responsible for highly detailed diagrams of the equipment used in their laboratory. As well as this she arranging for the publication of his work after he was executed during the French Revolution.

The women in Pandora’s Breeches were, in general, heavily engaged in the scientific endeavour. That is to say they did the things they did because they wanted to not because they had been dragged in by their men folk. This struck me particularly in the case of Elisabetha Hevelius who went out of her way to marry the much older, widowed Johannes a merchant and brewer with a substantial rooftop observatory, driven by her passion for astronomy. Priscilla Wakefield, who wrote Introduction to Botany along with 16 other textbooks, also falls into this class. She wrote, quite deliberately, for a large audience with a view to earning money from her writing.

The book finishes with Mary Shelley and Victor Frankenstein. Frankenstein is about how science fits into the wider world. Here Fara highlights that these women of 200 years and more ago did not have the same aims as feminists today, education for women was not generally promoted as a route to equality rather a way by which women could become more useful and pleasing to their families.

Throughout the book Fara highlights that these women are just those for which some written record remains, because of the prevailing culture of the time discoveries which were in truth joint efforts were written down solely to the “great man of science”.

This book is definitely worth reading, it brings to light different facets of the development of science and it is highly readable.

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.

Older posts «