The word "scientist" was invented for Mary Somerville

I'm not kidding. Huge thing we never knew! The word "scientist" was coined for the Scottish genius Mary Somerville (1780–1872), since the term then in use, "man of science," obviously did not apply to her. "The history of science is strewn with remarkable women who overcame a crushing dearth of opportunity and towering gender bias to contribute to the corpus of human knowledge in ways that have transformed our understanding of reality, the universe, and our place in it. In history’s hindsight, their legacy lives between the heartening and the heartbreaking — both a testament to their extraordinary genius and an elegy for the tragedy of denying basic human rights to entire populations.

"Among the most blazing examples are pioneering physicist Lise Meitner, who discovered nuclear fission but was denied the Nobel Prize for the discovery, astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who discovered pulsars and was similarly excluded from the Nobel for her own discovery, and astronomer Vera Rubin, who confirmed the existence of dark matter and is still bereft of a Nobel as she approaches her ninth decade. These were women who, like the early female astronomers making revolutionary astronomical discoveries decades before they were allowed to vote, never waited for the status quo to catch up to their intellectual might and merit. But despite our so-called cultural progress, women still comprise far less than half of the scientific workforce.

"That women should face such an Everestine climb toward inclusion and equality is a piece of curious and rather cruel cultural irony, for the very word “scientist” didn’t always have the overwhelmingly male connotations it has had in recent history. In fact, it was a coined for a woman — the Victorian polymath Mary Somerville (December 26, 1780–November 28, 1872), who had tutored pioneering computer programmer Ada Lovelace and later introduced her to Charles Babbage, thus sparking their legendary collaboration on the world’s first computer.

"Somerville’s 1834 treatise On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences so impressed her peers, readers, and reviewers that “man of science” — the term used to refer to a person who had advanced the progress of knowledge — seemed suddenly inappropriate and obsolete.

"Scholar Renée Bergland relays the little-known origin of the word in Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of Science: An Astronomer Among the American Romantics (public library) — a terrific cultural history unfolding centripetally from the biography of the trailblazing astronomer who paved the way for American women in science. Bergland writes:

'In 1834, the Cambridge don William Whewell wrote a complimentary article about Mary Somerville, a Scottish researcher whose erudite books brought together previously disparate fields of mathematics, astronomy, geology, chemistry, and physics so clearly that the texts became the backbone of Cambridge University’s first science curriculum. He called Somerville a scientist, in part because “man of science” seemed inappropriate for a woman, but more significantly because Somerville’s work was interdisciplinary. She was no mere astronomer, physicist, or chemist, but a visionary thinker who articulated the connections among the various branches of inquiry. According to Somerville’s biographer Kathryn Neeley, Whewell’s coinage of the word “scientist” was not meant to be merely a gender-neutral neutral term. Whewell wanted a word that actively celebrated “the peculiar illumination of the female mind”: the ability to synthesize separate fields into a single discipline.' [!!!] It was this ability that Virginia Woolf meant when she lauded the creative supremacy of the androgynous mind a century later.

"Whewell called Somerville “a person of real science,” as opposed to the mere popularizers of science whom he held in mild disdain. In suggesting the term “scientist,” he emphasized its similarity to how the word “artist” is formed. Indeed, he had recognized in Somerville that singular creative genius of drawing connections between the seemingly disconnected, which is itself an artistic achievement. Maria Mitchell, Somerville’s American counterpart, would capture this uncommon gift in a beautiful appreciation of Somerville’s genius published in The Atlantic a quarter century later:

'To read mathematical works is an easy task; the formulae can be learned and their meaning apprehended: to read the most profound of them, with such appreciation that one stands side by side with the great minds who originated them, requires a higher order of intellect; and far-reaching indeed is that which, pondering in the study on a few phenomena known by observation, develops the theory of worlds, traces back for ages their history, and sketches the outline of their future destiny.'

"In 1835, a year after the publication of her treatise and Whewell’s coinage of the word “scientist,” Somerville joined astronomer Caroline Herschel as the two became the first women ever admitted into the venerable Royal Astronomical Society. But, lest we forget the tectonic pace of progress, Somerville’s entry into the pantheon of science was far from unobstructed. Despite being celebrated as “the most learned woman in Europe,” in Mitchell’s words, she was denied entry into the Vatican Observatory on account of her gender. Still, without her perseverance — a testament to what Susan Sontag called “the courage of an example” — the arc of accomplishment for women in science would have been rather different and would have undoubtedly taken even longer to bend toward justice and equality.

"Complement with Maria Mitchell on why women are better suited for astronomy than men, Einstein’s emboldening letter of advice to a young South African girl who wanted to be a scientist but feared her gender would hold her back, and this wonderful illustrated celebration of women in science."

Groundbreaking astronomer Maria Mitchell, who taught at Vassar.

Astrophysicist Vera Rubin, from independent scholar Maria Popova:

"When trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell was hired to teach at the newly established Vassar College in 1865, she was the only woman on the faculty and according to the original college handbook of rules, female students were not allowed to go outside after dark. Although Mitchell fought to upend this absurd obstruction to the study of astronomy and became a tireless champion of young women in the field, lamentably little changed in the century that followed.

"Exactly one hundred years later, another remarkable observer of the cosmos ushered in a new era both for astronomy itself and for women’s role in it. In 1965, astronomer Vera Rubin (July 23, 1928–December 25, 2016) became the first woman permitted to observe at the Palomar Observatory, home to the most powerful telescopes at the time. So began her pioneering work on galaxy rotation, which precipitated Rubin’s confirmation of the existence of dark matter — one of the most significant milestones in our understanding of the universe. (That Rubin hasn’t yet received a Nobel Prize is a testament to the systemic flaws in how these accolades are meted out.)

"Nowhere do Rubin’s extraordinary mind and spirit come more alive than in Origins: The Lives and Worlds of Modern Cosmologists (public library) — a magnificent 1990 collection of interviews exploring “the ways in which personal, philosophical, and social factors enter the scientific process” by Alan Lightman and Roberta Brawer, featuring luminaries like Stephen Hawking, Alan Guth, and Martin Rees.

"Like Jane Goodall, who turned her childhood dream into reality, Rubin’s cosmic career began at the very beginning:

'My childhood bedroom … had a bed which was under windows that faced north. At about age 10, while lying in bed, I started watching the stars just move through the night. By about age 12, I would prefer to stay up and watch the stars than go to sleep. I started learning, going to the library and reading… There was just nothing as interesting in my life as watching the stars every night. I found it a remarkable thing. You could tell time by the stars. I could see meteors. ... When there were meteor showers and things like that, I would not put the light on. Throughout the night I would memorize where each one went so that in the morning I could make a map of their trails.'

"By high school, Rubin knew that she wanted to be an astronomer. But she had never met a single astronomer in real life — she only knew of Maria Mitchell from a children’s book. In a testament to the power of picture-books about cultural icons to offer vitalizing role models and expand children’s scope of possibility, Rubin recounts:

'I knew that [Maria Mitchell] had taught at Vassar. So I knew there was a school where women could study astronomy… It never occurred to me that I couldn’t be an astronomer.'

"She followed in Mitchell’s footsteps and went to Vassar, got married to a fellow scientist, and went on to a graduate program at Cornell along with her new husband. Rubin relays a jarring sign of the times:

'Actually, I had been accepted by Harvard. I have a letter somewhere from [Harvard Observatory director] Donald Menzel saying, “Damn you women,” handwritten across the bottom. This was a response to a letter I wrote saying that I wished to withdraw because I was getting married and going to Cornell. He scribbled across this very formal letter, thanking me for letting him know, something like “Damn you women. Every time I get a good one ready, she goes off and gets married.”'

"But marriage didn’t obstruct Rubin’s scientific pursuits [given what follows, i'd say that it did], nor did Cornell’s nearly nonexistent astronomy department, which consisted of one man (a former wartime navigator who actively discouraged Rubin from pursuing astronomy) and one woman (who Rubin surmises was the only female faculty member at Cornell at the time). Still, the university offered an unparalleled physics program of which Rubin took advantage. Richard Feynman was on her thesis committee. The actual presentation of her master’s thesis is a poignant parable of both Rubin’s remarkable character and the Sisyphean climb required of women in just about every professional field at the time.

"In December of 1950, 22-year-old Rubin was to present her thesis at the American Astronomical Society. Having just given birth to her first child and nursing the newborn, she made her way through snowy upstate New York, walked into the meeting, gave her 10-minute presentation on galaxy rotation, and left.

"The concept of large-scale motion of the universe was a revolutionary one, twenty years ahead of its time, and it garnered the skepticism with which all such visionary ideas are at first received. Rubin’s resulting paper was rejected by the two major astronomy journals of the era. Even the few scientists intrigued by her work were subject to the limiting conventions of the time — the great theoretical physicist and cosmologist George Gamow, who would later become her doctoral advisor, contacted Rubin to inquire about her galaxy rotation work but refused to let her attend his lecture at Georgetown’s Applied Physics Lab “because wives were not allowed” there.

"But Rubin remained driven by the same irrepressible curiosity with which she had peered into the night sky from her childhood bedroom, so she went on with her work, animated by that most powerful of motives — the joy of discovery:

'Although several times in my career I have found myself in relatively controversial positions, I really don’t enjoy it. For me, doing astronomy is incredibly great fun. It’s just a joy to get up every morning and come to work. In a sense, the heated controversy really spoiled the fun. I mean people were really very harsh. Maybe one learns to take this. I’m not sure you do. ...

'I decided to pick a problem that I could go observing and make headway on — hopefully, a problem that people would be interested in, but not so interested in that anyone would bother me before I was done.'

"That problem was dark matter, the existence of which Rubin set out to prove through observation. At the time, it was still a theoretical construct, regarded as rather inconvenient in the context of existing theories:

'Many people initially wished that you didn’t need dark matter. It was not a concept that people embraced enthusiastically. But I think that the observations were undeniable enough so that most people just unenthusiastically adopted it.'

"Today, dark matter has become not only accepted but central to our understanding of the universe and even of our own existence. Its story is a testament to the most perennial truth of science and human knowledge, as well as to the fact that a great scientist is always more interested in understanding than in being right, both of which Rubin captures beautifully:

'We’re still groping for the truth. So I don’t really worry too much about details that don’t fit in, because I put them in the domain of things we still have to learn about. I really see no reason why we should have been lucky enough to live at the point where the universe was understood in its totality… As telescopes get bigger, and astronomers get cleverer, I think all kinds of things are going to be discovered that are going to require alterations in our theories… Science consists of continually making better and better what has been usable in the past.'

"I’m reminded of Marie Curie, hunched over in her lab long before the first of her two Nobel Prizes, asserting in a letter to her brother that “one never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done.” Amid our age of productivity, this might sound like a dispiriting sentiment — but to the scientist ablaze with curiosity, it is a source of invigoration. Indeed, one of the most wonderful aspects of science is how inherently unproductive it is — each new discovery illuminates a new frontier of curiosity, each new known unravels a myriad new unknowns, and the measure of good science is the willingness to reach for that unknown, even if it means recalibrating our present knowns.

"Rubin captures this wonderfully:

'I hope 500 years from now astronomers still aren’t talking about the same big bang model. I think they won’t have done their work if they are… I still believe there may be many really fundamental things about the universe that we don’t know. I think our ignorance is greater than our knowledge. I wouldn’t put us at the 50-50 point of knowledge about the universe.'

"She revisits the question of gender and considers what prevented many other women in her generation, and even in her daughter’s generation, from going into science — the same concern with which a little girl once turned to Albert Einstein. Rubin reflects:

'It’s the way we raise little girls. It happens very early. I think also it’s what little girls see in the world around them. It’s an incredible cultural thing. I have two granddaughters. One of them — her mother and father are both professionals, her aunt and uncle are professionals — said her toy rabbit was sick. Her uncle said, “Well, you be the doctor and I’ll be the nurse, and we’ll fix it,” and she said, “Boys can’t be girls.” And her mother realized that she never had seen a doctor who was a woman. By the age of 2, she knew that men were doctors and women were nurses. So you may talk about role models and your thinking about colleges, but this happens at the age of 2. It’s a very complicated situation.'


"Rubin — who has three sons and one daughter, all with doctorates in science — argues that the only viable solution to this systemic problem lies in raising little girls with enough confidence to pursue their interests and withstand the limiting cultural messages about what they can and cannot be. She recounts her own conquest of the odds:

'I went to a D.C. public high school. I was very, very interested in astronomy, and I just could keep myself going by telling myself that I was just different than other people, that they just had different interests than I did. I had a physics teacher who was a real macho guy. Everybody loved him — all the males. He did experiments; he set up labs. Everybody was very enthusiastic. I really don’t think he knew how to relate to a young girl in his class… He never knew that I was interested in astronomy, he never knew that I was interested in science. The day I learned I got my scholarship to Vassar, I was really excited because I couldn’t go to college without a scholarship. I met him in the hall, and probably said the first thing I had ever said to him outside of the class, and I told him I got the scholarship to Vassar, and he said to me, “As long as you stay away from science, you should do okay.” It takes an enormous self-esteem to listen to things like that and not be demolished. So rather than teaching little girls physics, you have to teach them that they can learn anything they want to.'

"How pause-giving to consider that science progresses much more rapidly than the cultural norms of science do. In the generation between Rubin and her daughter, who is also an astronomer, we have discovered cosmic microwave background radiation, decoded the molecular structure of DNA, and invented lasers, and yet the gender ration of science hasn’t improved nearly enough, nor has the subtle cultural messaging. What Rubin recounts a quarter century ago is still the basic reality in many rooms and in many parts of the world:

'My daughter is an astronomer. She got her Ph.D. in cosmic ray physics and went off to a meeting in Japan, and she came back and told me she was the only woman there. I really couldn’t tell that story for a long time without weeping, because certainly in one generation, between her generation and mine, not an awful lot has changed. Some things are better, but not enough things.'

"What a poignant slogan for all human rights movements, from racial justice to marriage equality: “Some things are better, but not enough things.” And yet, like Curie, we can see this not as a lamentation but as a frontier of hope — because “what remains to be done” can be done, and it falls on us to do it."

Vera Rubin delivered this commencement address at University of California, Berkeley, in 1996:

"When pioneering astronomer Vera Rubin (July 23, 1928–December 25, 2016) graduated from Vassar in 1948, she was the only astronomy major in her class. She was rejected by Princeton’s graduate school, which didn’t allow women into the program, and eventually received a master’s from Cornell in 1950 and a Ph.D. from Georgetown in 1954. She went on to confirm the existence of dark matter — one of the most important milestones in the history of understanding space — by proving beyond doubt that galaxies spin faster than Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation dictates they should.

"As if being a trailblazing woman in science in the 1950s weren’t already challenging, Rubin was at first severely criticized for her theories, but once her evidence proved indisputable even for the greatest skeptics in the astronomy community, she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences as only the third female astronomer and was eventually awarded the National Medal of Science, America’s most prestigious scientific accolade.

"On May 17, 1996 — exactly 48 years after her own graduation in 1948 — Rubin addressed the graduating class at Berkeley. The transcript of her timeless and timely commencement speech was included in her altogether excellent 1997 anthology of essays, Bright Galaxies, Dark Matters (public library).

'The invitation to address you tonight came while I was preparing to go observing at Kitt Peak National Observatory, to study orbits of gas and stars and galaxies. And on several disappointing rainy nights, I wondered what you might like to hear on this momentous day in your lives. I wondered if you realized how long is your past, and how much more there is in your future. I remembered a Peanuts cartoon that my family likes. Lucy is saying to Charlie Brown, “on the oceans of the world are many ships, and some of them carry passengers. One of the things the passengers like to do is to sit on the deck and watch the water. Some of the passengers like to face forward, so they can see where they are going, and some like to face backwards, to see where they have been.” And then Lucy asks Charlie, “On the ship of life, which way are you going to place your chair: to see where you are going or to see where you have been?” And Charlie Brown replies, “I can’t seem to get my chair unfolded.”

'Well, my chair is OK, and tonight I am going to look backward, to tell you how you are connected to the early universe, and how the early universe connects to Berkeley, 1996.'

"Rubin goes on to give a sweeping tour of the history of astronomy to answer the deceptively simple, windingly complex question of where in the universe Berkeley, California is. Much like the magnificent Charles and Ray Eames film The Powers of Ten, she traces the journey of a single carbon atom from 15 billion years ago to the miracle of the human body, by way of a glass of milk, then brings it all back to the awareness that we are all stardust:

'You drank the milk, the carbon atom entered your bloodstream, traveled to your brain, displaced a carbon atom, and took part in the thought process permitting you to pass your final exam. So without that single carbon atom, made in some star billions of years ago, you might have failed to receive your diploma today. See how lucky you have been?' This then is the answer to the question, “Where in the universe is Berkeley, California?” ...

' And for those of you who choose to be scientists, I have one piece of advice. Don’t give up. Science is hard and demanding, but each of you must believe that you can succeed. It may seem unlikely tonight, but there is not one among you who cannot make important, major contributions to the world of science. At my commencement on May 17, 48 years ago, the probability that I would be addressing you tonight surely was zero. ...

'Instead of advice, I offer my hopes for you. I hope you will stay alert and heed the words of Yogi Berra: “You can see a lot by just looking.” I hope your lives will be filled with health and peace, that you understand there is much work to be done in the world and that many of you will choose to join with those who work and lead. I hope you will disdain mediocrity and aim to excel in whatever you do. I hope you will love your work as I love doing astronomy. I hope that you will fight injustice and discrimination in all its guises. I hope you will value diversity among your friends, among your colleagues, and, unlike some of your regents, among the student body population. I hope that when you are in charge, you will do better than my generation has. In 1993, U.S. universities awarded Ph.D. degrees in physics and Astronomy to a total of nine black Americans. You do better.

'My achievements in science came about because I knew what I wanted to do, and I found professional colleagues among helpful, gentle astronomers. I was never discouraged by others who were sometimes discouraging. Instead, I insisted on working on problems outside the main stream of astronomy so that I could work at my own pace and not be pressured by bandwagons. I do not offer this as an example for you, but only to show that there can be diverse approaches to science. There must be. I hope some of you will be able to devise your own paths through the complex sociology of science. Science is competitive, aggressive, demanding. It is also imaginative, inspiring, uplifting. You can do it, too. Each one of you can change the world, for you are made of star stuff, and you are connected to the universe.'"

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