I had homework to do this week. My skeptics group decided that for tonight’s meet everyone needs to bring the name of a female scientist along. A person might wonder about the skeptics angle for such a request but as I hunted for a suitable biography, I was reminded that there were points in history where men were skeptical of a woman’s ability to think (and later had their asses handed to them).
One interesting woman I ran across was Trotula of Salerno. There has been skepticism in the past about whether she actually existed, or if she was actually a man, for that matter. If not, then she was a physician in the 11th century and collaborated on several books about health and wrote a few herself about women and health issues specifically. Some anonymously penned things were also attributed to her whether or not they should have been. The end result was a collection of health manuals that guided physicians for centuries — in the wrong direction, as it turns out, since much of what she’s credited as writing was based on whatever tripe Galen came up with back in his day. Treatments were mostly herbal and came from a variety of sources of tradition, from the Mediterranean to Muslim methods.
Sophie Germain might be the better choice. She was born April 1st, 1776 and had a lust for knowledge that could not be quenched. She was 13 when the French Revolution got nasty enough for her parents to justify keeping her inside all the time so she made good use of her father’s library, where she ran across a legend about Archimedes.
“during the invasion of his city by the Romans Archimedes was so engrossed in the study of a geometric figure in the sand that he failed to respond to the questioning of a Roman soldier. As a result he was speared to death” (Perl 64). This sparked Sophie’s interest. If someone could be so engrossed in a problem as to ignore a soldier and then die for it, the subject must be interesting! Thus she began her study of mathematics.
Her family had a hell of a time trying to stop her from learning. That sort of business was left to aristocrats. It wasn’t proper for the middle class (let alone girls!) to have that kind of ambition but her stubbornness won the day and they just let her get on with it. The kid happily spent her time during the Reign of Terror figuring out differential calculus via Dad’s books on her own but she was still out of luck at the age of 18 in terms of getting a proper higher education. The Ecole Polytechnique was founded in Paris that year, 1794, and they weren’t letting women study there. She got around that somehow, managing to get lecture notes from instructors anyway and continued her studies the same way she always did. Eventually she wrote papers and letters to those learned men she admired and gained entry into the mathematics world by mentoring with them. Her contributions to science include work on number theory and theories of elasticity.
One more that piqued my interest, Annie Jump Cannon, an astronomer. She did graduate work in physics and astronomy at Wellesley in 1894 but moved to Radcliffe Women’s College because Harvard had a far better telescope. She wound up getting hired along with several other women to help the Harvard Observatory director, Edward Charles Pickering, work on what’s called the Draper catalog, after the man who funded it. Cannon is the one who came up with the clever method of organizing stars by spectral classes: O B A F G K M — or as is easier to remember: “Oh be a fine girl and kiss me.” She’s credited with classifying 230,000 stars over the course of her work on that project.
What a gal.
I don’t know about you, but after reading about all these intelligent, world-changing women, I feel a little more stupid this morning than usual…