Because I don’t have access to the Cosmos reboot here in Germany and also because I had no desire to spend my whole time writing blog posts correcting Neil deGrasse Tyson’s and his script writer’s lousy history of science I had given up on following the more recent episodes. However some of the comments on last night’s broadcast, made by people on my Twitter stream, led me to view the seventy-three second trailer for the episode. Even here, in this all too brief video, the Cosmos team managed to provoke my ire and inspire the thoughts in this post.
The trailer implies that Pickering’s use of women computers in astronomy was something new or out of the ordinary, whereas this tradition goes back to at least the seventeenth-century, where Johannes Hevelius used his second wife Elizabeth for exactly this work. In the eighteenth-century William Herschel employed his sister Caroline in the same role and she like Elizabeth Hevelius, before her, went on to become an astronomer in her own right. Caroline’s absence in the Cosmos episode revolving around William justifiably annoyed a lot of people. Also in the eighteenth-century, on a larger scale, comparable with Pickering’s employment of women, Nevil Maskelyne employed female computers to carry out the calculations for his aid to navigation, the Nautical Almanac. My #histsci soul sister Rebekah ‘Becky’ Higgitt blogged about this almost three years ago; incidentally mentioning ‘Pickering’s Harem’. The use of women, as human computers, to do tedious mathematical calculations, particularly in astronomy, had become common practice in the nineteenth-century, with Pickering merely continuing an established tradition as he set up his star-cataloguing unit at Harvard at the beginning of the twentieth-century. This is however not the main point of this post.
Neil deGrasse Tyson goes on in his trailer to single out the work of two of Pickering’s computers, without naming them in the trailer, their achievements would, I’m informed, become a substantial part of the broadcast. To attract the punters we then get a close up of NdGT saying, “for some reason you’ve probably never heard of either of them; I wonder why?” This of course is a lead up to the standard refrain of male scientists getting all the credit and the female scientist being ignored. Now whilst there is more than a sliver of truth in this claim, it’s is not the main reason you’ve never heard of either of them, in fact if you are an average well educated member of the human race you had probably never heard of Pickering either before watching this episode of Cosmos.
People who have been reading this blog over a longer period will know that I post potted biographies of scientist and mathematicians at fairly regular intervals. These are not people whose names are writ large in the history of science but obscure scholars who have been forgotten and become largely unknown but who made an important or significant contribution to the evolution of science. People like Newton’s friend and faithful lieutenant, John Arbuthnot, or today’s birthday boy, Franz Carl Achard (Who? Go on read the post and find out!). I am aware that the majority of people who read this blog are themselves historians of science, scientists, historians or people who for some reason have a genuine interest in the history of science, that means I’m largely preaching to the converted; the readers come here because they want to learn more about the history of science and already have various levels of previously acquired knowledge. Some of them even know more than I do! The situation is, however, very different out in the real world.
If you stopped an average reasonably well educated person on some high street in a European, American or Australian city and asked them to list the names of scientists that they know, you would probably get a stumbled list of about half a dozen names, if you are lucky. This list would almost certainly be a mix of some of the following: Newton, Galileo, Darwin, Einstein and Stephen Hawking combined with the names of some television science popularisers Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, David Attenborough and The Poster Boy of Pop Science. If you tried to prompt them, for example, with a John Dalton or a James Watson, two major figures in the history of science, you would almost certainly draw blank stares. It is a truth that the people who avidly discus the latest episode of Cosmos or who bemoan the suppression of women in the history of science on the Internet’s social media are reluctant to acknowledge but the vast majority of people have very little knowledge of the history of science and of the people who created that science. You will probably never have heard of Annie Jump Cannon, Henrietta Swan Leavitt or Cecilia Payne-Gasposchkin, the female astronomers featured in last night’s edition of Cosmos, not because of any sexism that they suffered, and suffer they did, but because you’ve probably never heard of about 99.9% of the scientists, male or female, who ever existed.