Update: H Word posts on books, hoaxes, lives and laptops

Posts over on The H Word, from the last little while. Comments on all of these are now closed, but please feel free to continue any of the conversations in the comments here – particularly on reading about science, discussed in the last post listed here.  On that theme, see also Georgina Voss’s post asking for suggestions of fictional works that help explore the politics of science and technology.


Twenty years on from Longitude… rewriting the “villainous” Nevil Maskelyne

A new book on a Georgian Astronomer Royal reveals that there was a great deal more to Nevil Maskelyne than being clockmaker John Harrison’s bête noire.

The Great Moon Hoax and the Christian Philosopher

180 years ago newspaper readers were thrilled by a story about plants, animals and flying men on the Moon. Why were people convinced, was it a hoax, and why was it written? Was it a satire that went wrong?

Anna Atkins: Google’s tribute to a pioneer of botany and photography

One of the few women to gain presence in 19th-century science, her book, containing cyanotypes of botanical specimens, was the first to contain photographic images.

Destroyed Snowden laptop: the curatorial view

The Snowden MacBook, destroyed in the basement of the Guardian, is on display at the V&A. I asked some experts for their opinion of this unusual and provocative display of technology.

An alternative 13 best books about science?

What books do you think people should read to understand science – not just its content, but also its history and place in society?

Why women fade into the background on Wikipedia

Cross-posted from The H Word.

Wikipedia front page, 19 October 2012

On Friday afternoon, the Royal Society hosts a group edit-a-thon aimed at improving Wikipedia articles about women in science. It is timed to link with Ada Lovelace Day earlier this week, an event that seeks to share stories about inspirational women in science.

Admitting that Wikipedia is a first port of call for most people looking for basic, and sometimes not so basic, biographical information, the event is an attempt to improve the quality of entries and raise the profile of women in science and engineering, both past and present. Not simply relying on other online resources, participants will be able to make use of the Royal Society’s unique collections, as well as its library staff and representatives of Wikipedia UK.

The society’s library is enjoying its 350th anniversary this year, although it is only for the past 67 years that women have been admitted as fellows. Despite increasing efforts to ensure a level playing field, female fellows are still a tiny minority, being only 5% of the total. Awareness of this disparity undoubtedly makes the Royal Society keen to focus on celebrating successful women in science and on inspiring the next generation.

The event itself raises some interesting themes and ideas. The most obvious is the fact that the contribution of women to science, and elsewhere, can be made more visible. Our view of what counts in thehistory of science is very much influenced by older assumptions and past prejudices. Prizes, publications, professional positions and fellowships are key markers, and automatically lead to commemoration of achievements in obituaries, which are the first drafts of future biographies. Women were, of course, generally barred from such recognition until all too recently.

Other markers, therefore, need to be sought and added into our accounts, and Wikipedia is the kind of cumulative and fluid environment in which this can be done.

When looking for the women, and for those other markers of eminence, researchers find themselves beginning to think about what counts as an important contribution to science in a slightly different way. There is, necessarily, less emphasis on the traditional roll call of theoretical advances (of the Copernicus-Kepler-Newton-Einstein variety) and an appreciation of the essential contribution that collectors, experimentalists, technicians, writers, translators, teachers and calculators have made.

This, by rights, should lead to the widening of the net of scientific biography to include a whole load of underappreciated men as well. Some, such as top instrument makers, were seen as being hugely skilful, knowledgeable and important in their day but are often poorly represented on Wikipedia. Others were not given the opportunities to be recognised or remembered, with lower class or non-European men being, like women, essentially disenfranchised.

This may appear to work against the spirit of the day, but is equally important in terms of appreciating the way science has really operated in history and how it generates knowledge, meaning, agreement and conflict across diverse societies today. For British women, however, it is possible that the most important aspect of the event will not be the making available of a little extra information about women scientists, but the focus on women as Wikipedia editors.

The dominance of men in the Wikipedia online community is well-documented and something that the company is attempting to address through its Gender Gap project. While coming in somewhat ahead of the proportion of female fellows of the Royal Society, in 2009 female Wikipedians were only around 13% of the active community.

Research suggests that this matters for a number of reasons, principally that male and female editors tend to focus on different content areas, that the coverage of topics more likely to be of interest to female users of Wikipedia is seen as inferior, and that Wikipedia is missing out on the successful development of its social and community areas.

There is also, particularly around more controversial topics, a tendency to macho behaviour among editors. Women, it turns out, are much less likely to edit articles in these areas and, if they do, their edits are more likely to be rejected. These rejections are often not to do with factual content, but differences in tone and approach.

This experience means that these women are very likely to back away from the whole project. In other words, women’s voices and views are seriously underrepresented, even when they might consider themselves experts in a particular area.

The Royal Society’s edit-a-thon will include a range of well-qualified and motivated women with an interest in making themselves, as well as women in the history of science, heard. Wikipedia will certainly benefit from developing an atmosphere that is more welcoming to women like these.

Finding women in the history of science

Cross-posted from The H Word (first published on 16 October 2012 – Ada Lovelace Day)

Margaret Bryan and her daughters
Margaret Bryan, portrayed here with her daughters, was a writer of popular scientific books and taught sciences at her school for girls. Source: Wikimedia

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, which has been marked annually since 2009 as a celebration of women in science, technology, engineering or mathematics. The Finding Ada website explains that “The aim is to create new role models for girls and women in these male-dominated fields by raising the profile of women in STEM”.

Readers of some of my earlier posts – on the Tesla museum campaign, for example, or on whiggish and triumphalist histories – will be aware that I do not see the celebration of heroes in history and science as an uncomplicated matter. This is because, all too often, lionising a particular individual can lead to dismissing the contribution of others and, beyond that, a lack of appreciation of the very collaborative – or aggregating – nature of scientific work.

In fact, despite being named after a woman born in 1815, Ada Lovelace Day is less about heroines and history and more about sharing stories about women who have inspired others’ careers in STEM. This might be because of their achievements in science or because of their roles as teachers and mentors. Such factors can be of huge individual significance and, given that women are still sadly in the minority in the upper echelons of science, there is a lot of good to be done.

I have to admit, though, that I find the choice of Lovelace as the marker for this event slightly peculiar. She has become something of a cult heroine, claimed as the writer of the first computer programme, produced for Charles Babbage‘s never-realised Analytical Engine. But it is only very recently, with a lot of hindsight, that she has been an inspirational figure.

It is clear that Lovelace had a deep interest in and feeling for Babbage’s work and an ability in mathematics that few women in the early 19th century were able to demonstrate. However, it is also clear that Babbage indulged and flattered her because she had wealth and influence and, frankly, was one of a number of routes through which he could advertise his scheme. It is not the case that her programme was the first written for Babbage’s machine and there has been much doubt cast on the significance and originality of what she did produce.

One would think that there are many women who made more significant contributions in the history of science who might provide a better model. And yet, there is some good to be done in recalling Lovelace, and in seeking out women in the history of science, most of whom, before the 20th century and on the face of it, do not make the grade to be placed in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography without special pleading.

Because of their lack of education, and society’s expectations of their role as home-makers and child-rearers, there are vanishingly small numbers of pre-20th century women who made clearly-attributable, original and influential contributions to the content of scientific theory. However, recalling my earlier mention of the collaborative and aggregating nature of science, it is perhaps only our inheritance of older perspectives that leads us to place such work on a higher pedestal than other contributions.

It takes all kinds of skills and input from people from across society for scientific ideas to be developed, used and shared. And what is an idea without this? Many of the women who are recalled in the history of science were translators, teachers, writers, collectors and illustrators. These were the kinds of roles that women could undertake without disapproval, and they are ones that really are essential to the development of science and should not be too quickly dismissed.

Seeking women in the history of science, we find a significant number who were able to make their mark as assistants or collaborators to their fathers, husbands and brothers. In many cases the true significance of their input may be hard to uncover but, even if simply amanuenses, secretaries or sounding-boards, their contribution may have been absolutely necessary. We will also find some – a very few – who took on paid work of a scientific nature: undertaking calculations, perhaps, or making instruments. Skilled work that played its part in developing a society dependent on science and technology.

Lovelace made her mark both in the early 19th century and today as someone who was enthused by and championed a particular technological and mathematical vision. Cheerleaders in influential places have always been essential too. But today, as I host a Finding Ada event, I will be recalling the many, apparently minor, roles that women have taken on, for science is not just made by the big names. I will also be celebrating the fact that today, at last, the big names may increasingly be female ones.

Martyr of Science

I wrote this introduction to David Brewster’s collected biography of Galileo, Tycho Brahe and Kepler, Martyrs of Science (1841), some time ago when there was a plan to republish it as part of a collected edition of popular 19th-century works on science and history of science. This never worked out but, given my recent discussions on popular history of science writing, and current anxieties about financial support for science, now seems as good a time as any to give it an airing. Read More »