How many real scientists can you name?

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.








Filed under History of Astronomy, History of science, Myths of Science

29 responses to “How many real scientists can you name?

  1. … the Cosmos team managed to provoke my ire …

    I have not been watching at all, so no ire provoking here.

    In any case, I’m inclined to think of the series as sciency entertainment, rather than as history of science.

    Your post does remind me that the first time I ever programmed a computer, the computer consisted of a bunch of clerk (presumably women), though they had mechanical calculators to assist them. That kind of computer did do a bit better with the RPM instruction (as in “read the programmer’s mind”).

  2. Reblogged this on vuurklip and commented:
    Did you know this? A blog worth following.

  3. guthrie

    Perhaps part of the problem is the uneasy junction between history of science, and media presentation of things, with a dash of trying to update old ideas and stereotypes.
    Thus the presenters/ script writers flail about looking for familiar narrative methods to present stuff to the public, and settle on one which is, as you point out, not very helpful.
    But can you honestly say that there has not been some issues with the remembering of and writing about the role of women in science in history, in the past? The point being that, like with the alchemical Newton, or with the old views on alchemy which still today Newman, Principe and Moran excoriate in their papers, the modern research is simply not well enough known about, so to everyone involved in the program, all they know is what is 30 or 40 years old information, that these women were not well known about and not put into their proper place in the history of science. So to you they’re muddling it all up because you know it all already, a bit like a child trying to explain to an adult how a car works when the adult already knows well enough.

    Which comes back to lack of depth of research and the difficulties involved in getting the facts out there when so many people are unaware of how you present them affects the facts themselves.

    • gcallah

      “But can you honestly say that there has not been some issues with the remembering of and writing about the role of women in science in history, in the past?”
      Huh? He said just the opposite, quite explicitly!

      • guthrie

        Ooops. But that still leaves the rest of what I wrote, surely that’s of interest to someone or somewhat accurate?

  4. What you’re saying is right, a lot of scientists go unknown, and it is sad that people could probably name 50 actors for each scientist they know.

    Buuuuut I don’t think you should be so dismissive about the gender issue, since even among those you listed that everyone would know…no females. If you ask anyone to imagine a scientist, I highly doubt a female image will pop into their mind.

    • Øystein

      Thony is certainly able to defend himself, so apologies in advance, but still:

      If you search his blog, you’ll know that he’s in no way blind to the gender issue. However, the point here seems to be that if you ask people for scientists, all they will answer is the perceived peaks. Which are extremely limited in number and all male. Beyond the peaks, no-one is known to the public, be they male of female. And while the featured women may have done sterling work (I happen to be among those not knowing about them), they are not perceived as peaks within their field. And thus no-one knows them. Heck, as Thony points out, the viewers are likely to never have heard of Pickering! If they don’t know him, how should they know the people he employed? Gender bias?

      • I didn’t mean to imply that he is blind to the gender issue, I haven’t read enough articles by him to know, merely that this post seems to brush it aside.

        It’s easy to say women just aren’t the peaks so no one knows them. But honestly the opportunities have been far from equal. Women’s roles have long been decided for them.

        I don’t think Rosalind Franklin’s case was isolated at all.

      • gcallah

        “But honestly the opportunities have been far from equal. ”

        Right you are. And so women’s achievements in the history of science have been minimal. And so they don’t get mentioned a lot in histories.

        What would you like historians of science to do, *make up* great woman scientists as compensation for past discrimination?

      • This post is about the fact that women being unknown in the history of science is much less of a gender issue than most people claim. However that doesn’t mean that gender issues don’t exist.

        Before the twentieth century it was next to impossible for a women to get an advanced education let alone become a scientist or mathematician. The first woman to qualify to become a professor of anything in Germany was Emmy Noether and that first in 1921 and despite her obvious brilliance she was never awarded a chair in Germany. The chances for women to make a successful career in the sciences are still much worse than those for a man.

    • gcallah

      Marie Curie?

      • Øystein is correct in his analysis. People only remember the so-called giants or greats and unfortunately, as pointed out by gcallah, Marie Curie is the only female scientist who has ever came even close to achieving that status. Actually if you ask people to name a female scientist the vast majority will answer, Marie Curie. Some feminist historian of science will even get angry about this saying Curie gets too much attention at the expense of other female scientists. I think Galileo and Newton get too much attention at the expense of other seventeenth-century scientists but that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

      • Yeah, people know her name, but I doubt they know as much about her achievements as they do the others.

        And anyway, one name is sort of like the argument TV shows use; “we’ve got one black guy, what more diversity do you want?”

      • gcallah – I’m replying to this comment of yours, because there is no reply button on the other comment.

        I’m not saying they should be ‘made up.’ But there are others mentioned in comments below that have been slighted by male colleagues for doing pretty significant things…giving them recognition over the ones that initially received the praise could be a start.

        And thonyc – I wasn’t saying you didn’t acknowledge they exist, but it was my impression from reading the article that you were minimalizing the issues. I don’t think gender plays a trivial role in it at all. I do think you’re right in saying that there are other reasons as well, but they often intersect. I just don’t agree that it’s ‘much less of a gender issue than most people claim.’

  5. “some television science popularisers Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, David Attenborough and The Poster Boy of Pop Science”

    Of course, at least Sagan was a Real Scientist as well as a popularizer.

  6. Who is the The Poster Boy of Pop Science?

  7. M Tucker

    He who shall not be named…who can it be? Well he can be found by using this sites search feature.

  8. jorge c.

    Lise Meitner, Rosalind Francklin…

    • Both of these ladies is indeed an important and influential female scientist who were mistreated to some extent by their male colleagues. However should you go out on the street and stop a random stranger, we’ll allow you to choose one with a reasonable level of education, and say to them, “Lisa Meitner should have received the Nobel prize for physics for the discovery of nuclear fission but didn’t, who did”? Do you think that the random stranger would really know the answer? Or if you were to ask the selfsame stranger, “Rosalind Franklin took the pictures of DNA using x-ray-crystalography but do you know who pioneered this scientific technique?” DO you think they would give you the correct answer? I don’t think so in both cases and that is the real message of my post.

      • jorge c.

        I did understand your message and I agree with it…. I just only added the names of two ladies unjustly forgotten. and as you said: “Lisa Meitner should have received the Nobel prize for physics for the discovery of nuclear fission but didn’t,..”

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