Scientists Without Beards
Cassie Ammerman, Publicity
Patricia Fara has just released her latest book, Science: A Four Thousand Year History. Sweeping through the centuries, from ancient Babylon right up to the latest cutting-edge research in genetics and particle physics, she illuminates the financial interests, imperial ambitions, and publishing enterprises that have made science the powerful global phenomenon that it is today. In this article, she discusses her feelings about some great scientific women of the past.
I’m an example of the leaky pipeline phenomenon: I have a degree in physics, but I’ve never been inside a laboratory since I left university and moved from Oxford to London. Instead, I spent fifteen years running an educational publishing company, and then switched tracks to become an academic historian of science at Cambridge.
Sometimes I feel as if I’ve betrayed all those women of the past who struggled so hard to establish opportunities for female scientists. In particular, I often think of Hertha Ayrton, the electrical engineer who in 1904 became the first woman to deliver a lecture at London’s Royal Society. Although denied a Fellowship because she was married, Ayrton remained resilient. “I do not agree with sex being brought into science at all,” she told a journalist; “The idea of ‘woman and science’ is completely irrelevant. Either a woman is a good scientist, or she is not.” Unfortunately, these words still need repeating today.
My greatest heroine is Émilie du Châtelet (1706-49), who translated Isaac Newton‘s great book on gravity from the original Latin. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant admired her work so much that he declared “a woman who…conducts learned controversies on mechanics like the Marquise de Chatelier might as well have a beard.” As well as writing other science books and articles, she also co-authored with Voltaire a major French book on Newtonian physics – but I wonder how she felt when she saw that only his name was on the title-page? For over two centuries, she has been cast in the role of Voltaire’s mistress, as though she were his possession or at best an intelligent secretary.
Du Châtelet constantly fought for the education and the publishing opportunities that she craved. Faced by overt exclusion from academic circles as well as ingrained doubts about her own capacity, Du Châtelet was caught between conflicting, unsatisfactory stereotypes – the learned eccentric, the flamboyant lover, the devoted mother. Women had virtually no educational opportunities, and were believed to be intellectually as well as physically inferior to men. Obviously brilliant as a child, Du Châtelet resented the discrimination that made it impossible for her to pursue the same career as a man. Born into a wealthy aristocratic family, she benefited from an enlightened father. Instead of sending her to a convent school, he decided that she should be taught at home, and she received the sort of education that was more typical for boys than for girls. She could apparently speak six languages when she was only twelve years old, and when she reached her late twenties she started to immerse herself in Newtonian physics and mathematics.
Trapped between the sexes, du Châtelet conformed to the expectations of the time by loving to shop, dance and entertain. But she also transgressed social norms by dedicating herself to Newtonian natural philosophy. When deadlines were close, she scarcely slept, plunging her hands into ice-cold water to keep herself awake. Despite her unconventional lifestyle, du Châtelet still performed the traditional time-filling tasks expected of a wife and mother. Some of these she imposed on herself, but in other cases it seems that she yielded to pressure from her contemporaries, as if conditioned from birth into a form of psychological captivity. But she encouraged women to foster their own happiness by studying in order “to console them for everything which makes them dependent on men.”
Like many clever women today, even in the midst of achievement du Châtelet lacked self-confidence – “God has refused me any kind of genius,” she once confided. She wrote in secrecy, trapped in a dilemma: she desperately needed constructive criticism, but risked painful mockery by revealing that a woman was daring to engage in such innovative work. Many female scholars experienced similar conflicts. Almost a hundred years later, the English mathematical physicist Mary Somerville was similarly reticent about her abilities. “I hid my papers as soon as the bell announced a visitor,” she confessed, “lest anyone should discover my secret.”
Voltaire recognised du Châtelet’s brilliance by celebrating her as “a great man whose only fault was being a woman.” I’ve tried to pay my own tribute to her by obeying her request: “Judge me for my own merits.” I’ve rewritten science’s history by describing not only what happened inside laboratories and libraries, but also what happened outside – and that means paying more attention to the activities of women like du Châtelet. Good translations are vital for spreading new ideas, and modern international science could not have developed without them. Women made different contributions from men – but different need not mean insignificant.