More than just a muse: Women writing science


There walks the man who lectures to the walls” – this was a comment made by two of Isaac Newton’s students, making reference to Newton’s infamous lecturing skills, which apparently were so terrible that none of his students ever attended his lectures and he was left talking to the walls.

Isaac Newton was not interested in good communication, and his ideas became widely known thanks to his followers, who translated, simplified and communicated them. It took many years for his ideas to be accepted.

Science needs to be communicated, and while the scientific world remained a place mainly reserved for men up until the modern days, women have nevertheless contributed to important scientific discoveries, as well as played a crucial role in communicating science, throughout history. Michael Faraday, for example, was so inspired by Jane Marcet’s 1805 book, ‘Conversations on Chemistry, Intended More Especially for the Female Sex’ that it prompted him to devote his life to science.

One of the most important women scientists and communicators and populariser of Newton was Émilie du Châtelet (1706-49), a French mathematician, physicist and author, who contradicted the belief that you cannot be both a women and a scientist. Her motto was to enjoy life and yourself, on a scientific as well as private level.

Together with her then lover Voltaire, she wrote ‘Elements of Newton’s Philosophy’ (Élements de la philosophie de Newton, 1738), which was amongst the most influential works about Newton. Although the book only names Voltaire as the author, he fully acknowledged her immense influence and contribution.

Émilie continued writing books and probably her most important piece was a two-volume translation of – and commentary on – Newton’s Principia (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy). To this day, her work is the leading French translation as well as the only complete translation of Newton’s book. In addition to translating it from Latin into French, she also provided a long commentary, which explained, challenged and discussed his ideas and provided long footnotes with updates on recent research.

Another famous communicator was Mary Sommerville (1780—1872), the ‘Queen of sciences’. She translated Pierre-Simon Laplace’s book, and wrote many of her own books in which she explained and interpreted the latest scientific ideas.

But how and why did early women scientists use writing to further their careers, and how were they limited by their sex?

In Georgian times (and earlier), home science and family projects were fairly common and a good opportunity for women to get involved with science. But with the increasing importance of qualifications in the 19th century, it became more difficult for women to enter into science. As a consequence, many women turned to science writing and popularising, which would allow them to stay involve with science. Moreover, the more scientific publishing expanded, the bigger the gap between academic and popular science writing became.

Elizabeth Brown (1830-99), for example, was introduced to astronomy by her father. It was only after his death that she actively started travelling to record her observations. She wrote many books on that matter, and had active roles in astronomical societies.

Agnes Mary Clerke (1842-1907) was home tutored, received university education through her brother, and became one of the most successful popularisers of astronomy in the 19th century.

Expectations were different for women than for men; it was favourable for women to possess a sound but fairly general and superficial knowledge. Only a few women attended university. Constance Herschel (Constance Anne (née Herschel), Lady Lubbock, 1855-1939), granddaughter of astronomer William Herschel, grew up surrounded by science and was one of the first women who went to Cambridge. Her letters point out gender inequalities in university education, but she finished her studies and continued in research until she got married and had children. Once her children were older, she started writing popular science.

Interestingly, subjects like maths and astronomy were very popular topics for women to research and write about (scientifically as well as popular writing), as these disciplines were more accessible and acceptable for a woman to pursue. Women could carry out calculations within the walls of their homes and were not dependant on a lab to get results. Before introduction of the Linnaean system, botany also was a very popular research topic amongst women1, but after Erasmus Darwin’s ‘The loves of the plants’2 it was no longer deemed acceptable.

In spite of family commitments, reservations and lack of education, women have carved out a niche that enabled them to work in the field of science. It would be interesting to see if the reason why many women leave research nowadays has the same underlying motivation that women in past times have experienced, or if it is simply because communication and education are (perceived) as a more feminine trait?

In the frontispiece to Voltaire’s interpretation of Isaac Newton’s work, Elémens de la philosophie de Newton (1738), the philosopher sits translating the inspired work of Newton. Voltaire’s manuscript is illuminated by seemingly divine light coming from Newton himself, reflected down to Voltaire by a muse, representing Voltaire’s lover Émilie du Châtelet—who actually translated Newton and collaborated with Voltaire to make sense of Newton’s work. Image source: http://hsci.cas.ou.edu/galleries/18thCentury/Voltaire/1738b/Voltaire- 1738b-000fp-image/

In the frontispiece to Voltaire’s interpretation of Isaac Newton’s work, Elémens de la
philosophie de Newton (1738), the philosopher sits translating the inspired work of Newton.
Voltaire’s manuscript is illuminated by seemingly divine light coming from Newton himself,
reflected down to Voltaire by a muse, representing Voltaire’s lover Émilie du Châtelet—who
actually translated Newton and collaborated with Voltaire to make sense of Newton’s work.
Image source: http://hsci.cas.ou.edu/galleries/18thCentury/Voltaire/1738b/Voltaire-
1738b-000fp-image/

This article was published in Physiology News 100, p 38-39

The article is based on the event ‘Women writing science’, held on 10 March 2015 at The Royal Society, where historians Dr Patricia FaraDr Emily Winterburn and Dr Claire G. Jones explored the history of women publishing in journals, writing popular science and corresponding with the Royal Society. https://royalsociety.org/events/2015/03/women-writing-science/

1 Henderina Scott (1862-1929) – Botanist and Filmmaker created pioneering slow motion animations and demonstrated time-lapse films about plant development; Edith Saunders – Botanist; Marie Stopes – Palaeobotanist.

2 Browne J (1989) Botany for gentlemen: Erasmus Darwin and ‘The Loves of the Plants’. Isis 80, no. 4: 593-621.

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