By Helen De Cruz
When I first arrived in Somerville College, Oxford, in September 2011, I found myself incredulously staring at the women's portraits, gazing calmly and confidently at me in the dining hall and throughout the college buildings. I was so used to all male portraits and busts in lecturing halls and common rooms in Leuven, and in practically every other academic venue. Central in the dining hall hangs a painting of Mary Somerville (1770-1872), the scientist and science popularizer after whom the college is named (this picture shows me when I was a senior common room fellow with Mary Somerville's portrait in the background).
Somerville published several original experiments on sunlight and magnetism in the Royal Society's Philosophical transactions. She was also the first to suggest in, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (1842), that anomalies in Uranus' orbit could be explained by the presence of another planet, "possibly [the orbit of Uranus] may be subject to disturbances from some unseen planet revolving around the sun beyond the present boundaries of our system." (a hypothesis that was later confirmed with the discovery of Neptune).
I'd like to focus here not on Somerville's many scientific accomplishments, but on her work as a science popularizer. Comparisons are hard to make, given the changing nature of media, but Somerville was a famous science communicator, at least of the renown of Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, or Neil deGrasse Tyson. Today, most science communicators are male - a recent poll for the most influential ones listed 11 men and 3 women. A list of top science popularizers of all time has only one woman, Mary Somerville. When the driving force behind the popular facebook page I fucking love science (pictured, together with two male science communicators, Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson) turned out to be a young woman (Elise Andrew), commenters wrote things like, “Dude, you’re a chick? Wtf.” “Wait… you’re a chick? And you’re hot?! lol.", which prompted Andrew's response "EVERY COMMENT on that thread is about how shocking it is that I’m a woman! Is this really 2013?” And it is 2015 meanwhile, nothing much has changed. So it is all the more amazing to see Mary Somerville's rise to fame as a science communicator in the mid 19th century, when prejudices against women and women's intelligence were even more outspoken.
Whewell wrote a comprehensive review of her book On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (1842). The book aims to bring the lay audience up to date on then-contemporary exact sciences). Next to a detailed summary of the book, Whewell mused how Somerville could have written such a book:
Our readers cannot have accompanied us so far without repeatedly feeling some admiration rising in their minds, that the work of which we have thus to speak is that of a woman.
One easy temptation is to treat Somerville as an anomaly for her gender - the exception to prove the rule that women in general aren't capable of such works. However, Whewell resists this temptation, and while he acknowledges women in science are rare, he does accord her the title 'scientist' (which was a new term at the time) and goes on a rather gender essentialist tour to explain why there are women like Hypatia, Maria Agnesi and Mary Somerville:
There is a sex in minds. One of the characteristics of the female intelligence is a clearness of perception, as far as i goes: with them, action is the result of feeling; thought, of seeing; their practical emotions do not wait for instruction from speculation; their reasoning is undisturbed by the prospect of its practical consequences.
By contrast, Whewell describes men as "practical instincts and theoretical views are perpetually disturbing and perplexing each other." Today, most people would be hesitant to embrace such gender essentialism, even if it paints women in a favorable light (although intrinsic differences between men and women are still sometimes invoked, e.g., to explain why there are so few women in philosophy).
Why would we want more women science communicators?
Good science communicators accomplish several things. At minimum, they provide the lay audience with some qualitative understanding of the results of the sciences. Somerville, for instance, did this by writing an annotated layperson's version of Laplace in The mechanism of the heavens (1831).
Great science communicators also provide the audience with a glimpse of the awe, wonder and curiosity that lies behind scientific inquiry, and that its products affect. Kathryn Neeley argues that Mary Somerville used literary techniques to great effect to give her readers a sense of awe and wonder. In her notebooks, which she used to gather ideas for her books, she frequently jotted down fragments of poetry. Although her work is scientifically meticulous and rarely cites it directly, she does use poetic language to engage the readers' imagination and to instill a sense of wonderment:
If such remote bodies shone by reflected light, we should be unconscious of their existence. Each star must then be a sun, and may be presumed to have its system of planets, satellites, and comets, like our own; and, for aught we know, myriads of bodies may be wandering in space unseen by us, of whose nature we can form no idea, and still less of the part they perform in the economy of the universe. (Connexion, p. 381)
Effective science communicators also help the lay audience to understand something about the nature of science, which Somerville also did. In her Connexion, Somerville draws out the connections between the emergent sciences, thereby fostering an understanding of the nature of science. All these features together foster an acceptance of science. Several studies suggest that a better understanding of the nature of science can improve attitudes toward science, for instance, accepting evolutionary theory. They also suggest more than a passive role of science communicators - the best science communicators do more than just synthesize; they also can detect broader patterns in scientific practice that elude specialists, as Somerville did in her Connexion.
The work of Mary Somerville can provide a useful illustration for reasons why I think there should be a better gender balance in science communicators today. First, since science communicators offer new philosophical and scientific ideas, as a direct result of their work qua communicators, Longino's idea of scientific objectivity, realized through several voices becomes applicable to science communication as it is to science. We need a diversity of perspectives and pursuits to obtain a better picture of the nature of science.
Second, for better or for worse, for most people - with the exception of college students - science popularizers are the first encounter with science (there is of course, also scientific education in primary and secondary education, but these rarely present students with contemporary findings, as science communicators do. If science popularizers are mostly men, this reinforces the idea that science is only for boys. Conversely, having a woman as a face of science can help fight stereotypes about women's scientific and intellectual capacities. Somerville defied stereotypes, by not only being a woman in science who communicated scientific findings, but also by being a mother and wife-properties that were regarded (and still are) as incompatible with the pursuit of science. Somerville's reputation did a lot for women's rights - J.S. Mill asked and got her signature first on his petition for women's suffrage (a controversial topic at the time, see picture). The architects behind Somerville College hoped to secure an Oxford education for women (who at the time had one women's college).