Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Reaching for the Stars

On this first day of 2008, I'm reflecting a bit, so forgive my rambling. While there seem to be more and more programs to encourage girls who are interested in the sciences in engineering, old attitudes about the aptitude (or more accurately, inaptitude) of women in technical fields seem to be a long time in dying.

Exhibit A: Desmond Morris has written a follow-up book of sorts to his 40-year old bestseller, The Naked Ape: A Zoologist's Study of the Human Animal. The new book, The Naked Man: A study of the male body, is a "celebration of the human male"*. As the Guardian reviewer Michael Hanlon puts it:

Try to name history's top ten women artists, scientists, composers, dictators, heroines or explorers. You can probably trawl your mind and come up with a few examples - especially in those categories involving humane work.

I can think of Marie Curie, Rosamund "DNA" Franklin and the astronomer Jill Tarter (who runs an alien-detection institute and discovered dwarf stars). We've had Boudicca (vanquisher of the Romans) and Margaret Thatcher (who gave the Argentines an equally bloody nose). Also, arguably, our three greatest monarchs have been queens, not kings.

But, by and large, the inescapable conclusion is that the history of humanity is the history of man, not of woman.

For every great woman there have been 100 - even 1,000 - great men in the same field.


If war and sport hunting had become the only two ways in which the male brain could respond to the emasculation brought about by the farming era, then we would truly have been in trouble. But, happily, there is another side to the male brain.

That is its creativity combined with curiosity. The ability to concentrate and cooperate towards a long-term goal, an ability forged in the primeval chase, could be put to good use.

The result was the fascinating development of human society: buildings and roads, technology and art, music and literature, the whole of science and industry.

These are all, Morris argues, great fruits of the human male brain.

He says: "The human male has had the most impact on the planet than any other life form. Women are responsible and men are more playful and it is this playfulness that is our species' greatest achievement."

It's not clear from the review whether it was the practical, incurious, and stick-in-the-mud human female who invented the "emasculating" technology of farming, which would suggest that that important development in human civilization apparently doesn't count as a significant achievement. I'll probably never find out, since I can't imagine getting through the first chapter without hurling the book across the room. (Echidne has a longer discussion of Morris' thesis)

As the review points out, Morris has missed an obvious point:

As for Morris's thesis about the superiority of the male, it is undoubtedly true that most of the great technical and artistic advances achieved by humanity have been made by men.

But this may not be because women are less creative than men. There are other reasons. Today, it is hard to understand what it must have been like in the world of even a century ago, a world where women could not vote, where they found it almost impossible to go to university, own property independently of their husbands or, even in most classes, to learn to read and write.

As a result, it is perhaps not surprising that the majority of the world's great artists, scientists and so on have been men.

Morris's thesis can only truly be tested in about 300 years' time, when a proper assessment of human history can be made based on three centuries of sexual equality.

I'd argue that Hanlon didn't go far enough, since books like The Naked Man make it clear that we're still working towards the point where men and women are considered to be intellectual equals.

What really bothers me is that information about women who were discouraged from pursuing science - or who did pursue scientific research, but seem to be little known by the general public - is readily available. It also seems clear to me that many women who have pursued scientific research had unique family circumstances that helped make them exceptions in the male world of science. For example, the November/December issue of American Scientist has a brief article about Caroline Herschel, sister of astronomer William Herschel (discoverer of Uranus).
With few career options open to women of her time, her desperate wish was to achieve sufficient education to become a governess teaching music and literature. Her father was sympathetic to the idea, but her mother dismissed it. As a result, her father's death in 1767 condemned Caroline to be little more than a teenage drudge in the family kitchen. When William invited her to join his musical world in Bath she leapt at the opportunity.
As William Herschel developed an interest in astronomy and endeavored to build his own large telescope, Caroline joined him in his studies. While William gained fame (and the position of Astronomer Royal) from his discovery of the new planet, Caroline pursued her own astronomical observations.

Caroline Herschel now faced a choice: whether to continue her career as a singer or to “serve” her brother as his scientific assistant. She chose the latter and was appointed by the court as a qualified assistant with a salary of 50 pounds per year – the first salary that a woman had ever received for scientific work.

Now Caroline began her own astronomical research, specializing in the search for comets. Between 1786 and 1797 she discovered eight of them. Whole nights through she worked with her brother observing the heavens, noting the positions of the stars as he called them to her from the other end of the giant telescope that they had built themselves. She evaluated the nocturnal notations and recalculated them, wrote treatises for Philosophical Transactions, discovered fourteen nebulae, calculated hundreds more, and began a catalogue for star clusters and nebular patches. In addition she compiled a supplemental catalogue to Flamsteeds Atlas which included 561 stars, as well as a comprehensive index to it. For this work she was paid the highest tribute by Gauss and Encke, among others.
In 1828 she received the Gold Medal from Royal Astronomical Society, the last woman to be so honored until Vera Rubin received the prize in 1996. She was made an honorary member of the society in 1835. While Herschel was recognized for her discoveries, there were likely many more women over the centuries who have had an interest in the stars, but no wealthy brother with similar interests to give them the opportunity to pursue astronomical research**.

The bright side is the growing recognition that women and men have similar ability and interest in science, math and engineering. Hopefully, more women will find the doors open to them, whether their dream is studying the stars, digging in the dirt or building machines.

Happy 2008!

* Morris has also published The Naked Woman: A Study of the Female Body, in which "each chapter, which correlates to body parts as subtle as the brow and as expected as the breasts, examines how each characteristic has been shaped by social authority." So apparently women = body parts, while men = playful hunters and innovators.

** If you are interested in this topic, and in the London area, mark your calendar for May 13th. On that day Dr. Mary Bruck of the University of Edinburgh will be giving a free public lecture at the Royal Astronomical Society on "The fascination of the heavens: women in astronomy in Britain in an age before equality"

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skookumchick said...

Welcome back, Peggy - it's good to have your blog posts again! Happy 2008!

Peggy K said...

Thanks Skookumchick!