Tag Archive: women

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.

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.

May 26 2016

Book review: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

labgirlLab Girl by Hope Jahren is an unusual book. It’s an autobiography which mixes in a fair amount of plant science. It is beautiful to read. It is strong on what being a scientist means. The closest comparison I can think of are Richard Feymann’s “Surely you are joking, Mr Feynmann” memoirs which are rather more anecdotal.

Lab Girl is chronological, starting from Jahren’s early memories of visiting the lab in her father’s school after hours but then fast forwarding to her academic career setting up laboratories in Georgia, Baltimore and finally Hawaii. It isn’t encyclopaedic in providing a detailed record of Jahren’s personal and scientific life.

A thread through the whole book is Bill, her trusty research assistant. Bill starts as a keen undergraduate who Jahren takes on when she gets her first academic position. I think in some ways Bill is something of a product of the US academic system, with support staff often funded on short term grants. In the UK such people tend to be employed on a permanent basis by the institution. My Bill was Tom when I was a PhD student, Pete and Roger when I was an assistant director of research. As a lecturer I didn’t have a Bill, and maybe that was my problem.

Several themes intertwine through the book. There is the day to day activity of a lab: labelling things, repetitive sample preparation, measuring things, fighting with equipment to get it to measure things. Wrangling undergraduates and postgraduates. There are trips out into the field. For Jahren, as a biologist, the field is very literally the field (or Irish bog, Canadian tundra etc). There is attending academic conferences. Mixed with this there is the continual struggle for tenure and funding for your research and the fight for resources with grants that don’t go quite far enough.

It’s fair to say Jahren put in an awful lot more hours than I did as a young academic but then I didn’t turn into an successful, older academic. Make of that what you will. It’s difficult to measure your success as an academic, grant applications are so hit and miss that winning them is only a measure of your luck and skill at writing grant applications, papers are relatively sparse and rarely provide much feedback. Sometimes putting in hours seems the only way of measuring your worth.

A second strand is plant biology, mingling basic background and the cutting edge research that Jahren does. I absorbed this in ambient fashion, I now think a little more like a tree. I didn’t realise that willow deliberately drop  whole branches so as to propagate themselves. This explains the success of our willow dome construction which was made by unceremoniously plonking willow sticks into the ground and weaving them together. They then gamely got on and grew. Soil is a recurring theme in the book, the teaching of the taxonomy of soil to undergraduates in particular. I had glimpses of this rich topic whilst doing a Kaggle challenge on tree cover. Finally, there is mass spectroscopy and isotope analysis.

And finally there is the personal, Jahren’s mental health, her struggles with pregnancy, marriage and a growing son. Some of this is painful and personal reading but its good to hear someone saying what we perhaps find unsayable. Lab Girl says relatively little about the difficulties she particularly faced as a woman, although Jahren has written about it elsewhere.

I observed a while back when reviewing In Defence of History that whilst historians seemed interested in literary style in technical writing, scientists rarely did. Lab Girl is an exception, which makes it well worth a read.

At the end of the book, Jahren asks us all to plant a tree. I pleased to say we’ve achieved this, although perhaps not quite the right sort of trees for American sensibilities, used to larger gardens. In the front garden we have a crab apple tree which, in the right sort of year, flowers on my birthday. There are several apple trees spread through the front garden. In both front and back gardens we have acers and now, at the bottom of the garden we have an amelanchier. I have longed for a Cedar of Lebanon in my front garden but fear I will never own a house large enough for this to be practicable.

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