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A brief history of science writing

Women played a role as both readers and authors in the history of science writing. Shutterstock/Africa Studio.

Robyn Arianrhod, A brief history of science writing shows the rise of the female voice, The Conversation, 22 March 2019

Three centuries ago, when modern science was in its infancy, the gender disparity in education was not a gap but an abyss: few girls had any decent schooling at all.

The emerging new science was clearly a male enterprise.

But it arose from a sense of curiosity, and women, too, are curious. If you look closely enough, it’s clear women played an important role, as both readers and authors, in the history of science writing.

New vs old ideas

Both science and science writing were up for grabs in the 17th century. Technology was rudimentary and researchers struggled to obtain even the simplest observational evidence, and then searched for ways to make sense of it.

You can see this struggle in the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei’s famous Dialogues of 1632 and 1638. He painstakingly and somewhat tortuously tries to justify his arguments for heliocentrism – in which the planets go around the Sun – and the nature of motion and gravity.

Tortuously, not only because he was bending over backwards to please the censors – heliocentrism was held to defy scripture – but especially because most of the experiments, methods, and even the mathematical symbolism of modern science did not yet exist.

So although yesteryear’s scientific content was simple compared with today’s overwhelming complexity, Galileo’s Dialogues show that the lack of data, methods and scientific language presented its own problems for science communication.

Conversation in science

Galileo resorted to the Socratic device of a conversation, in which he debated his ideas in a long dialogue between an innovative philosopher, Salviati, and two (male) friends.

In trying to convince even the least scientifically learned of his interlocutors, Galileo was writing what we might call popular science (although the more complex parts of the 1638 Dialogue read more like a textbook).

There were no scientific journals then, and there wasn’t quite the same distinction between the announcement of scientific discoveries to colleagues and the communication of those ideas to a wider public.

Perhaps the first mass-market popular science book was another dialogue related to heliocentrism, Frenchman Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle’s 1686 Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds.

It was a runaway success that helped non-specialists accept the Copernican system – a Sun-centred solar system – rather than the time-honoured, seemingly self-evident geocentric one with Earth at the centre.

The hero of Fontenelle’s story, too, is a male philosopher – but this time he is conversing with a pretty marquise, who is spirited and quick to grasp new facts. Although its style was flirtatious, Fontenelle’s book was a significant recognition that women are curious and intelligent.

Science gets complex

Then, the very next year, everything changed. The English physicist and mathematician Isaac Newton published his monumental Principia Mathematica. Suddenly science became a whole lot more complex.

For instance, Fontenelle’s explanation of the cause of heliocentrism had been based on Frenchman René Descartes’ notion that the planets were swept around the Sun by gargantuan cosmic ethereal vortices.

Newton replaced this influential but unproven idea with his predictive theory of gravity, and of motion in general, which he developed in 500 dense pages of axioms, observational evidence, and a heap of mathematics.

Principia provided the modern blueprint for experimentally based, quantitative, testable theories – and it showed the fundamental role of mathematics in the language of physics.

The trouble was that only the best mathematicians could understand it. It was so innovative (and tortuous in its own way) that some of the greatest of Newton’s peers were sceptical, and it took many decades for his theory of gravity to become universally accepted in Europe.

Science writers played a key role in this process.

Something ‘for ladies’

The earliest popularisations of Newton’s work were short or semi-technical, such as that by the French mathematician Pierre-Louis Moreau Maupertuis.

In the 1730s, Maupertuis tutored a real-life marquise, Émilie du Châtelet, but she was of a very different calibre from Fontenelle’s fictional student – or indeed the curious but rather flighty marquise in another mass market popularisation: the Italian Francesco Algarotti’s Newtonianism for “the ladies”.

Newtonianism here referred not just to Newton’s theory of gravity. As its somewhat patronising title might suggest, it focused mostly on his more accessible 1704 work, Opticks, which explains his experiments on the behaviour of light and the nature of colour. But these, too, were controversial, and Algarotti was an expert in optics.

He had been inspired to address “the ladies” by two outstanding female contemporaries: his French mathematical friend Émilie du Châtelet, and the Italian physicist Laura Bassi. But both women disliked his book’s flirtatious style.

Du Châtelet and her lover Voltaire were writing their own more serious (and non-gendered) popularisation of Newton’s work. Du Châtelet later wrote a very successful popular synthesis of the scientific ideas of Newton and his German rival Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz – Bassi used the Italian translation of it in her own teaching.

Du Châtelet then went on to produce the first translation of Principia outside Britain – an insightful work that is also interesting in the context of popular science writing. She appended a 110-page commentary, summarising Newton’s method in everyday language, and explaining more recent applications of his theory.

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