Book review: Women of Oblivion

reconsidering

Women who have studied the natural sciences have been around for centuries. Margriet van der Heijden puts them in the spotlight in this delightfully readable book.



Who was the first to show the greenhouse effect of carbon dioxide? Perhaps the Irishman John Tyndall? In 1861 he published laboratory results showing that water vapor and carbon dioxide2 absorb heat radiation. Or the Swede Svante Arrhenius, who in 1896 came up with the calculations of fluctuating temperatures on Earth due to variations in carbon dioxide2? Answer: No.


He was preceded by the American gentlemen Eunice Newton Foot, who in 1856 wrote an article in American Journal of Science showed that the solar heating of the air increased under the influence of carbon dioxide. She noted that “if at any time in history the air had been mixed with more carbon dioxide than it is today, this would have led to a rise in temperature.” The idea, unlike Tyndall a few years later, was received half-heartedly.


The reason for this is actually unknown, Margarete van der Heyden writes in the book published in November Anonymous. About women in science who have been overlooked. Perhaps Newton Foote was taken less seriously because she was a woman, perhaps because she did not hold an academic position, perhaps because the time was (just) not right. But regardless, the publication is reason to honor her as the first-ever female climate scientist.


Van der Heyden has written a column for the past few years Norwegian Refugee Council, with short biographies of women who made discoveries in the natural sciences, but didn’t end up in the history books. These stories are collected in this book, supplemented with portraits by a number of well-known women scientists, and provide a comprehensive essay on women in science, the expectations of “humble service” and how this can conflict.

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incognito


Like, for example, mathematician Grace Chisholm Young (1868-1944). “I liked being incognito to the outside world, and I felt I had every right to do so, because husbands are a unit … I don’t want to be confused with modern, ambitious, self-assured and arrogant women.” For example, she explained to a friend why she shared posts with her Her husband for many years under one name – the name of her husband.


“Everything is now in my name, and then, when it no longer brings material gain, everything is under your name,” was what the man himself said about it. Not out of pride or arrogance or belittling his wife, but simply for practical reasons: it was important to him, because he had to earn a living. After all, she couldn’t get a job.


Van der Heyden explains that it was often these types of role patterns, laws, and practical considerations that prevented women at the time from becoming stars in their profession. She does so without blaming anyone: van der Heyden does not judge, but simply describes what it was like to be a scholar of the natural sciences and a woman.


In some cases, the successes achieved by women were due precisely to (practical) help from male friends or acquaintances. Van der Heijden describes how most of these women never became famous and still gives them the platform they deserve.



Still


The introductory article shows that women in the natural sciences are still not Muslim. When van der Heyden—a particle physicist himself—once set out with a photographer to interview someone at a technical university, the answers with the technical details were always directed at the photographer. An anecdote, of course, but one that every woman recognizes.

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Van der Heyden hopes that the vignettes not only provide insight into how women have advanced in the natural sciences in recent centuries, but also provide a pleasure to read, as she writes in her introduction. It certainly worked. The stories are engaging, clear and easy to read. This is due in part to the wonderful lives of the women that revolve around it.









Anonymous. About women in science who have been overlooked


Margaret van der Heyden | 208 p. | 19.99 euros


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