Category Archives: Ladies of Science

History (of Science) Books by Women

Last weekend saw several major newspapers publishing their books of the year list. Unfortunately these displayed, in several aspects, a serious lack of balance. Science and history of science books came up more than somewhat short and in some categories the male dominance was glaring. The latter problem provoked the following tweet by historian and history book author Lucy Worsley:

8 of 9 of the ‘history books of the year’ in today’s Times, and 19 out of 21 of ditto in today’s Telegraph, are by men. I’m not impressed. Lucy Worsley

In reaction to this tweet a hash tag sprang into life, #HistoryBooksbyWomen, under which some just listed the names of female history book authors and others tweeted names and book titles. My discipline the history of science is blessed with many excellent female historians, authors of many first class books. This being the case I thought that I might cruise along my bookshelves and present here a lightly annotated list of some of those books by women that have enriched and informed my career as a historian of science.

I start with my #histsci soul sisterTM, Rebekah ‘Becky’ Higgitt, whose volume in the way the nineteenth century saw Isaac Newton, Recreating Isaac, I reviewed here.

Becky is also co-author of the beautiful Finding Longitude, which I reviewed here. (Her co-author Richard Dunn is a man but we won’t hold it against him).

Staying with Newton we have Sarah Dry telling us what happened to his manuscripts in The Newton Papers and Lesley Murdin Under Newton’s Shadow: Astronomical Practices in the Seventeenth Century.

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In the world of navigation, cartography and geodesy we have Christine Garwood Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea, Joyce E. Chaplin Round About the Earth: Circumnavigation from Magellan to Orbit, Silvia Sumira Globes: 400 Years of Exploration Navigation and Power and Rachel Hewitt Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey.

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Representing the Middle Ages we have two biographies Nancy Marie Brown The Abacus and the Cross: The Story of the Pope Who Brought the Light of Science to the Dark Ages and Louise Cochrane Adelard of Bath: The First English Scientist. For fans of automata there is E. R. Truitt’s delightful Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature, and Art.

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In the early modern period and the emergence of modern science we have Pamela O. Long Artisan/Practitioners and the Rise of the New Science, Pamela H. Smith The Body of the Artisan, Paula Findlen Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy, Deborah E. Harkness The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution, Eileen Reeves Galileo’s Glassworks, Lisa Jardine Ingenious Pursuits: Building the Scientific Revolution, her Going Dutch: How England Plundered Holland’s Glory, her On a Grander Scale: The Outstanding Life and Tumultuous Times of Sir Christopher Wren, and her The Curious Life of Robert Hooke: The Man Who Measured London, Ulinka Rublack The Astronomer & the Witch: Johannes Kepler’s Fight for His Mother, Sachiko Kusukawa Picturing the Book of Nature: Image, Text, and Argument in Sixteenth-Century Human Anatomy and Medical Botany and Susan Dackerman ed. Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in the Early Modern Period Featuring essays by Susan Dackerman, Lorraine Daston, Katherine Park, Susanne Karr Schmidt and Claudia Swann.

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Turning to the eighteenth century we have Patricia Fara A Entertainment for Angels: Electricity in the Enlightenment, Susannah Gibson Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? How eighteenth-century science disrupted the natural order and Jenny Uglow The Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made the Future.

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No Renaissance Mathematicus book list would be complete without some esoteric history. We start with Monica Azzolini The Duke and the Stars: Astrology and Politics in Renaissance Milan that I reviewed here, Louise Hill Cuth English almanacs, astrology & popular medicine: 1550–1700, Tamsyn Barton Ancient Astrology, Pamela H. Smith The Business of Alchemy: Science and Culture in the Holy Roman Empire, Frances A. Yates The Rosicrucian Enlightenment and her Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition as well as Ingrid D. Rowland Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic. Somewhere between the stools Lorraine Daston & Katherine Park Wonders and the Order of Nature.

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Mathematics are represented by Kim Plofker Mathematics in India and Serafina Cuomo Ancient mathematics. Astronomy and cosmology by M. R. Wright Cosmology in Antiquity, Kitty Ferguson Measuring the Universe and Jessica Ratcliff The Transit of Venus Enterprise in Victorian Britain.

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We close with a potpourri of titles that don’t quite fit into any of the categories above. We start with two excellent books by Laura J. Snyder, her four-way biography of nineteenth-century Cambridge polymaths The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World and her double seventeenth-century art and science biography Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing. Two further biographies are Brenda Maddox Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA and Dorothy Stein Ada: A Life and a Legacy. Patricia Fara gives us a general survey of science history in Science A Four Thousand Year History and a look at the role some women played in that history in Pandora’s Breeches: Women, Science & Power in the Enlightenment. Deborah Jaffé also looks at the role of women in science and technology in Ingenious Women: From Tincture of Saffron to Flying Machines. Last but by no means least we have Ingrid D. Rowland’s translation of Vitruvius: Ten Books of Architecture.

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This list is of course fairly random and somewhat arbitrary and is in no way comprehensive or exhaustive. All of the books that I have included are in my opinion good and quite a lot of them are excellent. They demonstrate that there is width, depth and variety in the writings produced by women in the history of science taken in its widest sense. Should any misogynistic male of the species turn up in the comments and claim that the above list is only so impressive, and I find it very impressive, because I, in some way, privilege or favour female historians then I must point out that I have many more history of science books by male authors than by female ones on my bookshelves.

If you wish to add your own favourite history of science books authored by women in the comments you are more than welcome.

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Filed under Book Reviews, History of science, Ladies of Science

A Herschel comes seldom alone.

On the excellent website Lady Science Anna Reser and Leila McNeill recently posted an article entitled Well, Actually Mythbusting History Doesn’t Work, which I shall not be addressing. However it contained the interesting statement, When the likes of Caroline Herschel and Ada Lovelace are brought up, a common response is a historical version of “what about the men?!” The men in this case being William Herschel and Charles Babbage. Ignoring Lovelace and Babbage I would like to address the case of the siblings Caroline and William Herschel.

Of course Caroline Herschel is a very important figure in the history of astronomy and deserves to be recognised on her own extensive merits but is it possible to discuss her life and work without mentioning her elder brother? The answer to this question is a clear yes and no. If one were to present a brief bullet point outline of her life then yes, as follows.

Caroline Herschel Source: Wikimedia Commons

Caroline Herschel
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Caroline Herschel German/ British Astronomer

  • Born Hanover 16 March 1750
  • Lived in England 1772–1822
  • Died Hanover 9 January 1848
  • Discoverer of eight comets
  • Recipient of a pension from George III 1787
  • Recipient of the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society 1828
  • One of the first Woman members of the Royal Astronomical Society, elected 1835
  • Awarded Gold Medal for Science by the King of Prussia 1846

However if one goes beyond the highly impressive outline and starts to examine her biography in depth then it is impossible not to mention her brother William who played a decisive role at almost every stage of her live.

Stunted and disfigured by a bout of typhus in her childhood, Caroline was not considered a suitable candidate for marriage. Her illiterate mother did not hold much of education for women so it seemed that Caroline was destined for a life of domestic drudgery. However William her elder brother, having established himself as a professional musician in the city of Bath, fetched her from Hanover to come and live with him as his housekeeper in 1772. In Bath she shared the attic flat with their younger brother Alexander, of whom more later, whilst William lived on the first floor, which was also his music studio where amongst other things he delivered music lessons. The ground floor was occupied by a married couple, who worked as William servants, also paying rent for their accommodation. Caroline took over the running of this household.

William Herschel 1785 portrait by Lemuel Francis Abbott Source: Wikimedia Commons

William Herschel 1785 portrait by Lemuel Francis Abbott
Source: Wikimedia Commons

William took over Caroline’s education teaching her to sing as well as instructing her in arithmetic and English. Soon she began to appear as a soloist in William public recitals and made such a positive impression that am impresario offered her the opportunity of going on tour as a singer, an offer that she declined preferring to stay in Bath with her brother.

When William developed his passion for astronomy Caroline became his assistant, rather grudgingly at first but later with enthusiasm, recording and tabulating her brother telescopic observations. When William began to manufacture his own telescopes Caroline was once again at hand, as assistant. When I visited the Herschel Museum in Bath I learnt that one of Caroline’s tasks was to sieve the horse manure that they used to embed the cast telescope mirrors to grind and polish them. I highly recommend visiting this museum, where you can view the Herschel’s telescope workshop in the cellar. Caroline also took over the task of calculating and compiling the catalogue of William’s observation. It should be very clear that the siblings worked as a team, each playing an important role in their astronomical endeavours.

Later after the discovery of Uranus, when William became the King’s astronomer and they moved to Datchet near Windsor, he encouraged Caroline to become an astronomer in her own right teaching her how to sweep the skies looking for comets and constructing a small reflecting telescope for this purpose. Caroline would go on to have a very successful career as a comet hunter, as already noted above.

I hope that in this very brief sketch that I have made it clear that William played a key role at each juncture in Caroline’s life and that without him she never would have become an astronomer, so any full description of her undoubted achievements must include her bother and his influence. However there is a reverse side to this story, as should be very clear from my brief account, any description of William Herschel’s achievements, as an astronomer, must include an explanation of Caroline’s very central role in those discoveries.

Any account of William’s and Caroline’s dependency on each other in their astronomical careers should also include the role played by their younger brother Alexander. Like William and their father, Alexander was a highly proficient professional musician, who had moved into William’s house in Bath, as Caroline was still living in Hanover. Alexander apparently played a role in the decision to bring Caroline to Bath. As well as being a talented musician Alexander was a highly skilled craftsman and when William decided to start building his own Newtonian telescopes, it was Alexander who provided the necessary metal components including the telescope tubes for the small objective scopes used to view the image in a Newtonian. The Herschel telescope production was very much a family business. The Herschel telescopes enjoyed a very good reputation and manufacturing and selling them became a profitable sideline for the siblings. The two sides of the Herschel’s astronomical activities fertilised each other. The quality of the telescopes underlined the accuracy of the observations and the accuracy of the observations was positive advertising for the telescopes.

Replica of a Herschel Newtonian Reflector. Herschel Museum Bath Source: Wikimedia Commons

Replica of a Herschel Newtonian Reflector. Herschel Museum Bath
Source: Wikimedia Commons

It should be now clear that when considering the Herschel’s astronomical activities we really have to view all three siblings as a unit, as well as viewing them as individuals but our collection of Herschels does not end here. As should be well known William’s son John would go on to be a highly significant and influential polymath in the nineteenth century, amongst other things setting forth the family’s astronomical tradition. John was very close to his aunt Caroline and it was she and not his father who first introduced the young Herschel sprog to the joys and fascinations of astronomical observation.

ohn Frederick William Herschel by Alfred Edward Chalon 1829 Source: Wikimedia Commons

ohn Frederick William Herschel by Alfred Edward Chalon 1829
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Although the Herschels form a relatively closed family unit in their astronomical activities, they also employed a joiner to make the tubes and stands for their reflectors, they also provide a very good example of they fact that observational astronomy, and in fact much scientific activity, is team work and not the product of individuals.

 

 

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

DO IT!

DO IT! is the title of a book written by 1960s Yippie activist Jerry Rubin. In the 1970s when I worked in experimental theatre groups if somebody suggested doing something in a different way then the response was almost always, “Don’t talk about it, do it!” I get increasingly pissed off by people on Twitter or Facebook moaning and complaining about fairly trivial inaccuracies on Wikipedia. My inner response when I read such comments is, “Don’t talk about it, change it!” Recently Maria Popova of brainpickings posted the following on her tumblr, Explore:

The Wikipedia bio-panels for Marie Curie and Albert Einstein reveal the subtle ways in which our culture still perpetuates gender hierarchies in science. In addition to the considerably lengthier and more detailed panel for Einstein, note that Curie’s children are listed above her accolades, whereas the opposite order appears in the Einstein entry – all the more lamentable given that Curie is the recipient of two Nobel Prizes and Einstein of one.

How ironic given Einstein’s wonderful letter of assurance to a little girl who wanted to be a scientist but feared that her gender would hold her back. 

When I read this, announced in a tweet, my response was a slightly ruder version of “Don’t talk about it, change it!” Within minutes Kele Cable (@KeleCable) had, in response to my tweet, edited the Marie Curie bio-panel so that Curie’s children were now listed in the same place as Einstein’s. A couple of days I decided to take a closer look at the two bio-panels and assess Popova’s accusations.

Marie Curie c. 1920 Source Wikimedia Commons

Marie Curie c. 1920
Source Wikimedia Commons

The first difference that I discovered was that the title of Curie’s doctoral thesis was not listed as opposed to Einstein’s, which was. Five minutes on Google and two on Wikipedia and I had corrected this omission. Now I went into a detailed examination, as to why Einstein’s bio-panel was substantially longer than Curie’s. Was it implicit sexism as Popova was implying? The simple answer is no! Both bio-panels contain the same information but in various areas of their life that information was more extensive in Einstein’s life than in Curie’s. I will elucidate.

Albert Einstein during a lecture in Vienna in 1921 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Albert Einstein during a lecture in Vienna in 1921
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Under ‘Residences’ we have two for Curie and seven for Einstein. Albert moved around a bit more than Marie. Marie only had two ‘Citizenships’, Polish and French whereas Albert notched up six. Under ‘Fields’ both have two entries. Turning to ‘Institutions’ Marie managed five whereas Albert managed a grand total of twelve. Both had two alma maters. The doctoral details for both are equal although Marie has four doctoral students listed, whilst Albert has none. Under ‘Known’ for we again have a major difference, Marie is credited with radioactivity, Polonium and Radium, whereas the list for Albert has eleven different entries. Under ‘Influenced’ for Albert there are three names but none for Marie, which I feel is something that should be corrected by somebody who knows their way around nuclear chemistry, not my field. Both of them rack up seven entries under notable awards. Finally Marie had one spouse and two children, whereas Albert had two spouses and three children. In all of this I can’t for the life of me see any sexist bias.

Frankly I find Popova’s, all the more lamentable given that Curie is the recipient of two Nobel Prizes and Einstein of one, comment bizarre. Is the number of Nobel Prizes a scientist receives truly a measure of their significance? I personally think that Lise Meitner is at least as significant as Marie Curie, as a scientist, but, as is well known, she never won a Nobel Prize. Curie did indeed win two, one in physics and one in chemistry but they were both for two different aspects of the same research programme. Einstein only won one, for establishing one of the two great pillars of twentieth-century physics, the quantum theory. He also established the other great pillar, relativity theory, but famously didn’t win a Nobel for having done so. We really shouldn’t measure the significance of scientists’ roles in the evolution of their disciplines by the vagaries of the Nobel awards.

 

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Filed under History of Chemistry, History of Physics, History of science, Ladies of Science

A bewitching lady astronomer

Today in a day for celebrating the role that women have played and continue to play in the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics. In the past on similar occasions I have blogged about female astronomers and I have decided today to write a short post about Aglaonice, who is possibly the oldest known lady astronomer.

Aglaonice

Aglaonice

Aglaonice is a semi-legendary, semi-mythical figure about whom our information is all second hand. She is associated with the witches from Thessaly, who claimed to be able to draw down the moon from its course in the heavens after depriving it of its illumination. The earliest mention of this feat in in Aristophanes The Clouds, first produced in 432 BCE.

Plutarch writing at the end of the first century CE tells us that Aglaonice knew about lunar eclipses and when they occurred. He writes, “ Always at the time of an eclipse of the Moon she pretended to bewitch it and draw it down.” In another passage he writes, “Aglaonice the daughter of Hegetor being thoroughly conversant with the periods of the Full Moon when it is subject to eclipse, and knowing beforehand when the Moon was due to be overtaken by the Earth’s shadow, imposed upon audiences of women and made them all believe that she drew down the Moon”. In late antiquity the poet Apollonius of Rhodes informs his readers that she lost a close relative after one of her performances as a punishment imposed by an outraged Moon goddess.

What is interesting in these accounts is that the moon is usually still visible during a lunar eclipse, only very occasionally does it disappear completely, so if we are to give any credence to these accounts Aglaonice must have carried out her charade during one such eclipse.

Total Lunar Eclipse 27 September 2015 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Total Lunar Eclipse
27 September 2015
Source: Wikimedia Commons

We have no idea when she is supposed to have lived but she obviously predates Plutarch writing about 100 CE and cannot be earlier than about the middle of the third century BCE, which is when the Babylonians first perfected the art of predicting lunar eclipses.

Whatever the case maybe, if Aglaonice existed at all, she must have been a truly bewitching lady astronomer.

 

 

 

 

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A double bicentennial – George contra Ada – Reality contra Perception

The end of this year sees a double English bicentennial in the history of computing. On 2 November we celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of mathematician and logician Georg Boole then on 10 December the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of ‘science writer’ Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace. It is an interesting exercise to take a brief look at how these two bicentennials are being perceived in the public sphere.

As I have pointed out in several earlier posts Ada was a member of the minor aristocracy, who, although she never knew her father, had a wealthy well connected mother. She had access to the highest social and intellectual circles of early Victorian London. Despite being mentored and tutored by the best that London had to offer she failed totally in mastering more than elementary mathematics. So, as I have also pointed out more than once, to call her a mathematician is a very poor quality joke. Her only ‘scientific’ contribution was to translate a memoire on Babbage’s Analytical Engine from French into English to which are appended a series of new notes. There is very substantial internal and external evidence that these notes in fact stem from Babbage and not Ada and that she only gave them linguistic form. What we have here is basically a journalistic interview and not a piece of original work. It is a historical fact that she did not write the first computer programme, as is still repeated ad nauseam every time her name is mentioned.

However the acolytes of the Cult of the Holy Saint Ada are banging the advertising drum for her bicentennial on a level comparable to that accorded to Einstein for the centenary of the General Theory of Relativity. On social media ‘Finding Ada’ are obviously planning massive celebrations, which they have already indicated although the exact nature of them has yet to be revealed. More worrying is the publication of the graphic novel The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer (note who gets first billing!) by animator and cartoonist Sydney Padua. The Analytical Engine as of course not the first computer that honour goes to Babbage’s Difference Engine. More important Padua’s novel is not even remotely ‘mostly’ true but largely fictional. This wouldn’t matter that much if said book had not received major media attention. Attention that compounded the error by conveniently forgetting the mostly. The biggest lie in the work of fiction is the claim that Ada was somehow directly involved in the conception and construction of the Analytical engine. In reality she had absolutely nothing to do with either its conception or its construction.

This deliberate misconception has been compounded by a, in social media widely disseminated, attempt to get support for a Lovelace, Babbage Analytical Engine Lego Set. The promoter of this enterprise has written in his blurb:

Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) is widely credited as the first computer scientist and Charles Babbage (1791-1871) is best remembered for originating the concept of a programmable computer. Together they collaborated on Babbage’s early mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine.

Widely credited by whom? If anybody is the first computer scientist in this set up then it’s Babbage. Others such as Leibniz speculated on what we now call computer science long before Ada was born so I think that is another piece of hype that we can commit to the trashcan. Much more important is the fact that they did not collaborate on the Analytical Engine that was solely Babbage’s baby. This factually false hype is compounded in the following tweet from 21 July, which linked to the Lego promotion:

Historical lego [sic] of Ada Lovelace’s conception of the first programmable computer

To give some perspective to the whole issue it is instructive to ask about what in German is called the ‘Wirkungsgeschichte’, best translated as historical impact, of Babbage’s efforts to promote and build his computers, including the, in the mean time, notorious Menabrea memoire, irrespective as to who actually formulated the added notes. The impact of all of Babbage’s computer endeavours on the history of the computer is almost nothing. I say almost because, due to Turing, the notes did play a minor role in the early phases of the post World War II artificial intelligence debate. However one could get the impression from the efforts of the Ada Lovelace fan club, strongly supported by the media that this was a highly significant contribution to the history of computing that deserves to be massively celebrated on the Lovelace bicentennial.

Let us now turn our attention to subject of our other bicentennial celebration, George Boole. Born into a working class family in Lincoln, Boole had little formal education. However his father was a self-educated man with a thirst for knowledge, who instilled the same characteristics in his son. With some assistance he taught himself Latin and Greek and later French, German and Italian in order to be able to read the advanced continental mathematics. His father went bankrupt when he was 16 and he became breadwinner for the family, taking a post as schoolmaster in a small private school. When he was 19 he set up his own small school. Using the library of the local Mechanics Institute he taught himself mathematics. In the 1840s he began to publish original mathematical research in the Cambridge Mathematical Journal with the support of Duncan Gregory, a great great grandson of Newton’s contemporary James Gregory. Boole went on to become one of the leading British mathematicians of the nineteenth century and despite his total lack of formal qualifications he was appointed Professor of Mathematics at the newly founded Queen’s College of Cork in 1849.

Although a fascinating figure in the history of mathematics it is Boole the logician, who interests us here. In 1847 Boole published the first version of his logical algebra in the form of a largish pamphlet, Mathematical Analysis of Logic. This was followed in 1854 by an expanded version of his ideas in his An Investigation of the Laws of Thought, on which are founded the Mathematical Theories of Logic and Probability. These publications contain the core of Boolean algebra, the final Boolean algebra was actually produced by Stanley Jevons, only the second non-standard algebra ever to be developed. The first non-standard algebra was Hamilton’s quaternions. For non-mathematical readers standard algebra is the stuff we all learned (and loved!) at school. Boolean algebra was Boole’s greatest contribution to the histories of mathematics, logic and science.

When it first appeared Boole’s logic was large ignored as an irrelevance but as the nineteenth century progressed it was taken up and developed by others, most notably by the German mathematician Ernst Schröder, and provided the tool for much early work in mathematical logic. Around 1930 it was superseded in this area by the mathematical logic of Whitehead’s and Russell’s Principia Mathematica. Boole’s algebraic logic seemed destined for the novelty scrap heap of history until a brilliant young American mathematician wrote his master’s thesis.

Claude Shannon (1916–2001) was a postgrad student of electrical engineering of Vannevar Bush at MIT working on Bush’s electro-mechanical computer the differential analyzer. Having learnt Boolean algebra as an undergraduate Shannon realised that it could be used for the systematic and logical design of electrical switching circuits. In 1937 he published a paper drawn from his master’s thesis, A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits. Shannon switching algebra, applied Boolean algebra, would go on to supply the basis of the hardware design of all modern computers. When people began to write programs for the computers designed with Shannon’s switching algebra it was only natural that they would use Boole’s two-valued (1/0, true/false, on/off) algebra to write those programs. Almost all modern computers are both in their hardware and there software applied Boolean algebra. One can argue, as I have actually done somewhat tongue in cheek in a lecture, that George Boole is the ‘father’ of the modern computer. (Somewhat tongue in cheek, as I don’t actually like the term ‘father of’). The modern computer has of course many fathers and mothers.

In George Boole, as opposed to Babbage and Lovelace, we have a man whose work made a massive real contribution to history of the computer and although both the Universities of Cork and Lincoln are planning major celebration for his bicentennial they have been, up till now largely ignored by the media with the exception of the Irish newspapers who are happy to claim Boole, an Englishman, as one of their own.

The press seems to have decided that a ‘disadvantaged’ (she never was, as opposed to Boole) female ‘scientist’, who just happens to be Byron’s daughter is more newsworthy in the history of the computer than a male mathematician, even if she contributed almost nothing and he contributed very much.

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Filed under History of Computing, History of Mathematics, Ladies of Science, Myths of Science

Unsung? I hardly think so

Recently, New Scientist had an article about Emmy Noether because 2015 is the one hundredth anniversary of Noether’s Theorem. I’m not going to link to it because it’s behind a pay wall. A couple of days later they had an open access follow up article entitled, Unsung heroines: Six women denied scientific glory. This is the latest is a fairly long line of such articles in the Internet, as part of the widespread campaign to increase the profile of women in the history of science. Now in general I approve of these attempts and from time to time make a contribution myself here at the Renaissance Mathematicus, however I think the whole concept is based on a misconception and also the quality of the potted biographies that these post contain are often highly inaccurate or even downright false. I will deal with the particular biography that inspired the title of this post later but first I want to address a more general issue.

Such posts as the New Scientist one are based on the premise that the women they feature have slipped through the net of public awareness because they are women, although this might be a contributory factor, I think the main reason is a very different one that not only affects female scientists but the vast majority of scientists in general. I call this the Einstein-Curie syndrome. The popular history of science is presented as a very short list of exulted geniuses who, usually single-handedly, change the course of (scientific) history. If you ask an averagely intelligent, averagely educated person, who is not a scientist or historian of science, to name a scientist chances are near to certain they will say either Galileo, Newton, Einstein or Stephen Hawking or maybe Darwin and I seriously think even Darwin is a maybe. Alternatively they might name one of the high profile television science presenters, depending on age, Carl Sagan, David Attenborough, Neil deGrasse Tyson or Brian Cox. Almost nobody else gets a look in. If you were to specify that they should name a female scientist almost all will respond Marie Curie. In fact the last result has led various women writers to protest that we have much too much Marie Curie as role model for women in STEM. It is not that women in the history of science get ignored, it’s that almost all scientist in the history of science get ignored in favour of the litany of great names.

If we take a brief closer look at this phenomenon with respect to the revolution in physics in the first half of the twentieth century then good old Albert cast a vast shadow over all his contemporaries. He is not just the most well know scientist, he is one of the iconic figures of the twentieth century. Most non-scientists will probably not know where to place the name Max Planck, although here in Germany they might have heard of it because the official German State research institutes are named after him. Schrödinger might fare a little better because of his cat but beyond awareness of the term ‘Schrödinger’s cat’ you would probably draw a blank. The same is true of Heisenberg and his ‘uncertainty principle’, of which the questioned Mr or Mrs Normal will almost certainly have a false conception. Throw in Louis de Broglie, who after all was a Nobel laureate, and you will just provoke a blank stare. People are not ignorant of women in the history of science; people are ignorant of the history of science.

I now want to turn to that which provoked this post and its title, the article in question starts with a potted biography of the great Austrian physicist Lise Meitner, to call Lise Meitner unsung is a straight up abuse of language, which I will come back to later. I first want to deal with some serious inaccuracies in the article and in particular the all too oft repeated Nobel Prize story and why the version that usually gets peddled is highly misleading.

Lise Meitner in 1906 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Lise Meitner in 1906
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The potted biography starts reasonably OK:

As with Noether, Meitner’s career was blighted by discrimination, and not just because of her sex. Meitner studied physics at the University of Vienna, then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, before moving to Berlin, Germany, to further her education. She attended a series of lectures by Max Planck – the first woman to be allowed to do so – and became his assistant.

It neglects to mention that Meitner got a PhD in physics in Vienna in 1906 as only the second woman to do so. She went to Berlin in 1907, after one year post-doc in Vienna. In Berlin she was only allowed to study as a guest as women were first allowed into the Prussian universities in 1909. She served as Planck’s assistant from 1912 till 1915. In the next paragraph the biography goes for pathos rather than fact: She later began to work with chemist Otto Hahn, but was refused access to his laboratory and was forced to work in a broom cupboard. When Hahn’s research group moved to a different institute, Meitner was offered an unpaid job as his “guest”. The situation for young academics at German universities in the late nineteenth century or early twentieth century was not very rosy no matter what their sex. On the whole you either had rich parents, a rich sponsor or you were the proverbial destitute student. Meitner had wealthy parent, who were prepared to pay for her efforts to become a physicist. Both Meitner and Hahn worked as unpaid guest in the former carpentry shop (not a broom cupboard) of the Chemistry Institute of the Berlin University. In 1912 they got their own research section at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry although initially Meitner remained an unpaid guest.

Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn in their laboratory. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn in their laboratory.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1913 she became a paid member of staff. From 1914 to 1916 she served as a nurse in the First World War. In 1916 she and Hahn returned to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute and resumed their research work. In 1918 Meitner was appointed head of her own department at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. As you can see a slightly different story to the one offered in New Scientist and it doesn’t end here. In 1922 Meitner habilitated on the University of Berlin thus qualifying to be appointed professor and in 1926 she was appointed the first ever female professor of physics at a German university. When the Nazis came to power in 1933 Meitner, a Jew, lost her position at the university but retained her position at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute until 1938 when she was finally forced to flee the country, greatly assisted by Hahn. She made her way to Sweden where she obtained a position at the Nobel Institute. Meitner was an established physicist who had held important academic teaching and research posts in the thirty years before she fled Germany. She and Hahn had made many important discoveries and had produced a significant list of publications. She was a leading nuclear physicist with an international reputation, not quite the picture that the New Scientist biographer imparts. After she had left Germany she and Hahn continued to work together by post. We have now reached that ominous Nobel Prize story:

In 1938, because of her Jewish heritage, Meitner was forced to leave Nazi Germany. She eventually fled to Sweden, with Hahn’s help. Hahn remained in Germany, but he and Meitner continued to correspond and in 1939 they discovered a process they called nuclear fission. In possibly the most egregious example of a scientist being overlooked for an award, it was Hahn who received the 1944 Nobel prize for the discovery. She was mentioned three times in the presentation speech, however, and Hahn named her nine times in his Nobel lecture.

A clear-cut case of prejudice against women in science, or? Actually if you look at the full facts it isn’t anyway near as clear-cut as it seems, in fact the whole situation was completely different. In 1938 Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann carried out a series of experiments in Berlin that led to nuclear fission, at that time completely unknown, Hahn realised that fission must have occurred but could not clearly explain the results of his experiment.

Nuclear Fission Experimental Apparatus 1938: Reconstruction Deutsches Museum München Source: Wikimedia Commons

Nuclear Fission Experimental Apparatus 1938: Reconstruction Deutsches Museum München
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Hahn corresponded with Meitner who together with her nephew Otto Frisch worked out the theory that explained nuclear fission. Hahn published the results of his experiments in a joint paper with Strassmann in 1938. Meitner and Frisch published the theory of nuclear fission in 1939. In 1944 Otto Hahn alone was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his experiment, which demonstrated the existence of nuclear fission. Meitner had no part in these experiments and so should not have been included in the prize as awarded. Strassmann, however, contributed both to the experiments and the subsequent publication so it is more than justified to ask why he was not included in the award of the prize. It is not unusual in the history of the Nobel Prize for the prize to be jointly awarded to the theory behind a discovery and the discovery itself, so it would also be justified to ask why the Nobel committee did not chose to do so on this occasion. However if they had done so then not only Meitner but also Frisch should have been considered for the prize. If on this assumption we add together all of those who had a right to the prize we come to a total of four, Hahn & Strassmann, and Meitner & Frisch, which of course breaks the Nobel Prize rule of maximal three laureates pro prize. Who gets left out? It would of course also be legitimate to ask why Meitner and Frisch were not awarded the Nobel Prize for physics for the theory of nuclear fission; they had certainly earned it. This is a question that neither I nor anybody else can answer and the Nobel Prize committee does not comment on those who do not receive an award, no matter how justified such an award might be. Whatever, although Meitner can be considered to have been done an injustice in not being awarded a Nobel, she didn’t have a claim on the prize awarded to Hahn in 1944 as is so often claimed by her feminist supporters. We now come to the title of this post.

The New Scientist article claims that Lise Meitner is an unsung heroine who was denied scientific glory. This statement is pure and absolute rubbish. Lise Meitner received five honorary doctorates, was elected to twelve major academic societies, she was elected Woman of the Year in America in 1946.

Lise Meitner 1946 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Lise Meitner 1946
Source: Wikimedia Commons

She received the Max Planck medal of the German Physical Society, the Otto Hahn Prize of the German Chemical Society, the peace class of the Pour le mérite (the highest German State award for scientists), the Enrico Fermi Award of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, awarded personally by President Lyndon B. Johnson and there is a statue of her in the garden of the Humboldt University in Berlin. On top of this she received numerous awards and honours in her native Austria. Somehow that doesn’t quite fit the description unsung. Just to make the point even more obvious an institute at the University of Berlin, a crater on the moon, and another crater on venus, as well as an asteroid all bear the name Meitner in her honour.

Can it be that people put too much emphasis on Nobel prizes, for which Meitner was nominated numerous times but never won? The disproportionality of this way of thinking is shown by Meitner last and greatest honour. Element 109 is named Meitnerium in her honour. There are 118 know elements of which 91 are considered to occur naturally and the other twenty-seven are products of the laboratory. Only ten thirteen of the elements are named after people so this honour is in every way greater than a mere Nobel Prize. Strangely the New Scientist article mentions this honour in a very off hand way in its final sentence, as if it was of little significance. Otto Hahn does not have an element named after him.

Added 5 May 2015:

Over on his blog John Ptak has a post about a wonderful American comic book that mentions Lise Meitner and her role in the history of the atomic bomb. With John’s permission I have added the the comic panel in question below.

Source: Ptak Science Books

Source: Ptak Science Books

If you don’t already visit Mr Ptak’s delightful Internet book emporium you should, it’s a cornucopia of scientific and technological delight.

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Filed under History of Physics, History of science, Ladies of Science, Myths of Science

Emmy the student and Emmy the communist!

Emmy Noether’s birthday on 23 March saw her honoured with a Google Doodle, which of course led to various people posting brief biographies of Erlangen’s most famous science personality or drawing attention to existing posts in the Internet.

Emmy Google Doodle

Almost all of these posts contain two significant errors concerning Emmy’s career that I would like to correct here. For those interested I have written earlier posts on Emmy’s family home in Erlangen and the problems she went through trying to get her habilitation, the German qualification required to be able to teach at university.

The first oft repeated error concerns Emmy’s education and I quote a typical example below:

Today she is celebrated for her contributions to abstract algebra and theoretical physics, but in 20th-century Bavaria, Noether had to fight for every bit of education and academic achievement. Women were not allowed to enrol at the University of Erlangen, so Noether had to petition each professor to attend classes.

As a teenager Emmy displayed neither an interest nor a special aptitude for mathematics but rather more for music and dance. She attended the Städtische Höhere Töchterschule (the town secondary girls’ school), now the Marie-Therese-Gymnasium, and in 1900 graduated as a teacher for English and French at the girls’ school in Ansbach. In 1903 she took her Abitur exam externally at the Königlichen Realgymnasium in Nürnberg. The Abitur is the diploma from German secondary school qualifying for university admission or matriculation. Previous to this she had been auditing some mathematics courses in Göttingen as a guest student with the personal permission of the professors whose courses she visited, hence the claim above. However she had become ill and had returned home to Erlangen. In 1903 the laws were changed in Bavaria allowing women to register at university for the first time. Emmy registered as a regular student at the University of Erlangen in 1903 and graduated with a PhD in mathematics in 1907, under the supervision of Paul Gordon, in invariant theory. She was only the second woman in Germany to obtain a PhD in mathematics. In 1908 she became a member of the Circolo Matematico di Palermo and in 1909 a member of the Deutschen Mathematiker-Vereinigung. In 1909 Hilbert and Klein invited her to come to the University of Göttingen, as a post-doc researcher. It was here in 1915 that Hilbert suggested that she should habilitate with the well know consequences.

Emmy remained in Göttingen until the Nazis came to power in 1933. She held guest professorships in Moscow in 1928/29 and in Frankfort am Main in 1930. She was awarded the Ackermann-Teubner Memorial Prize for her complete scientific work in 1932 and held the plenary lecture at the International Mathematical Congress in Zurich also in 1932. In 1933 when the Nazis came to power she was expelled from her teaching position in Göttingen and it is here that the second oft repeated error turns up.

On coming to power the Nazis introduced the so-called Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums, (The Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service). This was a law introduced by the Nazis to remove all undesirables from state employment, this of course meant the Jews but also, socialists, communists and anybody else deemed undesirable by the Nazi Party. Like many of her colleges in the mathematics department at Göttingen Emmy was removed from her teaching position under this law. In fact the culling in the mathematics department was so extreme that it led to a famous, possibly apocryphal, exchange between Bernhard Rust (and not Hermann Göring, see comments) and David Hilbert.

Rust: “I hear you have some problems in the mathematics department at Göttingen Herr Professor”.

Hilbert: “No, there are no problems; there is no mathematics department in Göttingen”.

The Wikipedia article on the history of the University Göttingen gives the story as follows (in German)

Ein Jahr später erkundigte sich der Reichserziehungsminister Bernhard Rust anlässlich eines Banketts bei dem neben ihm platzierten Mathematiker David Hilbert ob das mathematische Institut in Göttingen durch die Entfernung der jüdischen, demokratischen und sozialistischen Mathematiker gelitten habe. Hilbert soll in seiner ostpreußischen Mundart (laut Abraham Fraenkel, Lebenskreise, 1967, S. 159) erwidert haben: „Jelitten? Dat hat nich jelitten, Herr Minister. Dat jibt es doch janich mehr.“

The source here is given as Abraham Fraenkel in his autobiography Lebenkreise published in 1967.

This translates as follows:

One year later [that is after the expulsions in 1933] the Imperial Education Minister Bernhard Rust, who was seated next to the mathematician David Hilbert at a banquet, inquired, whether the Mathematics Institute at Göttingen had suffered through the removal of the Jewish, democratic and socialist mathematicians. Hilbert is said to have replied in his East Prussian dialect” Suffered? It hasn’t suffered, Herr Minister. It doesn’t exist anymore”

It is usually claimed that Emmy lost her position because she was Jewish, a reasonable assumption but not true. Emmy lost her position, like many other in Göttingen, because the Nazis thought she was a communist. Like many European universities in the 1920s and 30s Göttingen was a hot bed of radical intellectual socialism. Emmy had been a member of a radical socialist party in the early twenties but changed later to the more moderate SPD, who were also banned by the Nazis. However it was her guest professorship in Moscow that proved her undoing. Because she reported positively on her year in Russia the Nazis considered her to be a communist and this was the reason for her expulsion from the university in 1933.

Initially Emmy, after her expulsion, actually applied for a position at the University of Moscow but the attempts by the Russian topologist Pavel Alexandrov to get her a position got bogged down in the Russian bureaucracy and so when, through the good offices of Hermann Weyl, she received the offer of a guest professorship in America at Bryn Mawr College she accepted. In America she taught at Bryn Mawr and the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton but tragically died of cancer of the uterus in 1935.

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Filed under History of Mathematics, Ladies of Science