Skepchick Quickies, 2.7


Jen is a writer and web designer/developer in Columbus, Ohio. She spends too much time on Twitter at @antiheroine.

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  1. So, in recent years I’ve seen several lists like this “Women in Science History” one. They all seem to follow a pattern of name dropping Hypatia then leaping into the Enlightenment. Fellow Skepchic readers, please help out here, do we know of any women in science history from the Dark Ages / Middles Ages / Medieval period / Renaissance? There’s 1300 years of history there to fill.

  2. Couldn’t read the top women scientists article. There was an incredibly annoying embedded video ad that had no “pause” or “close” button, had a volume control that had no effect on volume, and just rolled onto the next ad when the 1st one finished, and pulled down so much bandwidth the I gave up waiting for the article to finish loading. I only got as far as Carolyn Herschel before I gave up.

    Too bad, the article itself was cursory but interesting, and would have made a good intro especially for girls interested in science who are feeling pressured out of it (I think this was the intended audience), but I wouldn’t inflict this on anyone.

  3. I am such a fan of Violet Blue’s stuff, I just worry that the link to the article is NSFW. As there is no warning, is it safe to assume that it is safe, or not?

    Might just have to check it out later when I am done with work.

  4. @ Jake: those are pretty miserable 1300 years of non-science, to be honest. Well, at least until the Renaissance. The only three females names that leap to my mind are all non-science people – Anna Comnena, Heloise (wife of Peter Abelard), and … … (I really do miss my mind, honest). That period of Euro-history is dominated by The Church and it was not exactly friendly to science and women. Outside of Europe, there was the Islamic area with its rich mathematical and alchemetical traditions, of which I have only cursory knowledge, but I don’t recall women getting equal time there either. I’m even weaker in that era of Chinese science history but again, I don’t think women had much chance there. Tough times, back then. The Renaissance might prove more fruitful but that’s also an era I’m weak in. … What am I good at???

    Disappointment for me on that list – no Barbara McClintock!

  5. On the Top Women Scientists I like the article and like the fact that we are doing our best to make up for the lack of attention these important scientists received during their lifetimes. I think Lise Meitner is a rather glaring omission, however.

    @Buzz Parsec: Couldn’t read the top women scientists article. There was an incredibly annoying embedded video ad that had no “pause” or “close” button…

    I run Firefox with No Script and AdBlockPlus extensions. I don’t see the video at all.

  6. @wombats: Yeah, I know it was a bad time in for science in general in Europe, my knowledge of the Islamic and Asian cultures during that period is as spotty as yours. I was just wondering/hoping if/that there were one or two outliers who had managed to sneak into the official record.

  7. @Buzz Parsec: Reloaded the top women scientists page, and this time got lucky(?) because the slow video ad (for a cold remedy) didn’t appear. It still didn’t load most of the images, but at least I got the text.

    I was glad to see they didn’t talk about Maria Mitchell discovering a comet, which was the least of her accomplishments (though perhaps it got her foot in the door of professional astronomy.)

    Rosalind Franklin is my favorite, of course, since we share our birthday. Along with Louise Brown…

  8. Re: Women in Science

    Regarding the request for women scientists in the lost 1300 years, there are several issues to make note of: there is a difference between a scientist who actually does research and makes discoveries and advances a science, and a mere doctor or engineer who just uses science in professional practice (ditto working astronomers).

    In the Middle Ages you might find a practicing female doctor or two (there were tons of them in antiquity; probably hardly any in the Middle Ages, but my field is antiquity so I’m not enough of an expert in the medieval sources to say for sure), but is that really a “top woman in science”? (you wouldn’t put your local female surgeon or GP on such a list; so putting medieval ones on that list would just whitewash what was actually wrong with the Middle Ages)

    I very much doubt you’ll find any medieval female professionals in the sciences apart from doctors, if even that (unscientific carers-for-the sick don’t count). Gender issues blocked women’s access to engineering in antiquity, and I expect likewise afterward; and female astronomers/mathematicians were exceedingly rare in antiquity, so I’d be surprised to find any afterward.

    So for the Middle Ages (those lost 1300 years) I very much doubt you’ll find even a single female “scientist” in the proper sense–since there weren’t even any men who qualified for that title.

    See my long, dull/fascinating discussion of this point elsewhere:


  9. Follow-Up on Ancient “Top Women in Science”

    Note that even Hypatia probably doesn’t deserve to make the list. She made no significant scientific discoveries that we know of, nor even conducted any research that we know of, and appears only to have been a science teacher and editor, possibly a practicing astronomer. Which is cool, but we shouldn’t misrepresent reality.

    The only woman I know from antiquity who appears to have made advances in a science is Ptolemais, a first century expert in harmonics who wrote what appears to be a highly respected and influential treatise on unifying the disparate theories of harmonic science, and she may have contributed important advances. Sadly the medieval Christians chose not to preserve any of her writings. We only have a quote or two (and only from pagans, BTW). So we can’t be sure.

    By contrast, that website says Hypatia is “considered the first notable woman in mathematics” but that’s simply a bias in modern scholarship. The “first notable woman in mathematics” from the POV of ancient writers, and that we know of (many others will simply have been lost in the surviving record), is a female mathematics professor in the earlier 4th century A.D. named Pandrosion. Male mathematicians referred to her admiringly but we know nothing of her or her writings.

    It’s also possible the late 2nd/early 3rd century philosophy professor Arria (whom we know of only because Galen was crushing on her a book he wrote around that time) was a mathematician, and possibly dabbled in mathematical astronomy, since she was a Platonist (just like Hypatia, and probably Pandrosion), and Platonists were typically keen on math, far more so than empirical science, which they tended to sniff at.

    But certainly Pandrosion beats Hypatia for the “first-known” slot in mathematics. And Ptolemais beats her for the “first-known” slot in actual science.

  10. @Jen: thank you for that, while I am not overly concerned about the language content of a page, unless it is a site known to not show things like nudity, I am a little cautious of things posted by Violet Blue (love her stuff but she’s very sex forward and has no problem throwing porn photos into an article about sex when given the chance, not that there’s anything wrong with that :))

  11. A little late (I’m posting this in response to the comment of the week post that doesn’t seem to exist outside of my RSS feed), but I would definitely argue for the inclusion of Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hildegard_of_Bingen], a German nun. OK, so she claimed to have ecstatic visions of God (which most historians who like to search for these sorts of explanations chalk up to extreme migraines) and was by all accounts a religious mystic, but she also wrote several books on natural history, physics, and medicine, if it could be called that back then.

    So she wasn’t a “scientist” persay, because as we’ve seen they didn’t really exist between antiquity and the Renaissance. She certainly didn’t use the hypothetico-deductive model, at least. But one assumes that the books she wrote on what we now call science drew both on earlier authors (who mostly didn’t know any more than she did) AND her own personal experience as a physician and observer of that natural world. So even if data wasn’t being systematically recorded, she probably DID create original data to be stored mostly in her head, and that original data probably DID make its way into her writing. So, not science, but I’d go so far as to call it a proto-science – or at least as much of a proto-science as anyone else was doing in the 11th century.

    And the best part? She wrote what many historians consider to be the first known description of the female orgasm:

    “When a woman is making love with a man, a sense of heat in her brain, which brings with it sensual delight, communicates the taste of that delight during the act and summons forth the emission of the man’s seed. And when the seed has fallen into its place, that vehement heat descending from her brain draws the seed to itself and holds it, and soon the woman’s sexual organs contract, and all the parts that are ready to open up during the time of menstruation now close, in the same way as a strong man can hold something enclosed in his fist.”

    (She probably doesn’t dwell too much on the pleasurable side of it because she considered chastity to be one of the highest virtues. She was a nun, after all.)

  12. Thank you for the reference there, Zhankfor – though I disagree with your definition of scientist. I can’t think of one that would exclude Hildegard of Bingen, and still include, well, anyone before Kepler at the very earliest…

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