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I would agree, but I have it on good authority that girls have cooties.

Emilie du Chatelet does rock, though. She was portrayed rather well by Helene De Fougeroles in the Nova documentary "Einstein's Big Idea" (

Yep, I'm quite happy with the concept of his&her story, or her&his story if you prefer. I'm comfortable enough in my own skin. Thanks for high lighting these notable women in (his)story.

I've always been a Hypatia man, but Sonya seems like quite a chick!

Hypatia rocked, big time... DarkSyde over at Daily Kos wrote a terrific bit about her a couple of weeks ago, which I might have linked to, if I could be bothered to look it up. :)

Incidentally, NOVA's "Einstein's Big Idea' was based on an earlier Bodanis book, "E=mc<2>". He stumbled across Emilie du Chatelet while researching it, and became fascinated. Quite the prolific writer, that Bodanis -- he only just finished winning the Aventis Prize for his book on electricity!

I am an historian of science in training, and its good to see people getting so interested in women's role in the history of science! That being said, there has been a LOT done on women in science, science and gender (my area), women and philosophy, etc though most of it is academic and hidden away in subscription only journals. But women and science is probably one of the hottest areas of research in academic history of science. As for du Chatelet, just FYI, there is an entire session on her at this years History of Science Society (Friday Nov 3, Vancouver).


Why, after reading stories like this, is it still so hard for some men (like Ex-Harvard president Larry) to accept that women can be not just good or adequate, but have a true vocation for science and math? Is it because it took women of absolute genius and indomitable will to fight their way into the ranks? I suspect so.

And can I just weigh in on the first name-last name thing? Call me old school, but I still think it trivializes women to use their first names over their last. We routinely refer to male scientists by their last names (Feynman, Einstein, Darwin) because it seems disrespectful to use the more familiar personal names. Can we accord the women the same respect? It's a small thing, but indicative, I think, of the still-underlying disbelief in the seriousness of women's endeavors.

And Ms. Ouellette will now cattleprod me for being a feminazi (we're old friends, so it's okay).

"Why, after reading stories like this, is it still so hard for some men (like Ex-Harvard president Larry) to accept that women can be not just good or adequate, but have a true vocation for science and math?"

I must take issue with this. Larry Summers was asked to speak about why there aren't as many women in hard sciences. He was in a position to have dealt with the issue, so the question was fair.

In good faith he answered, and put forth several possibilities, one of which was that women may have innate mental facilities in the aggregate which make them less suited to math and the hard sciences.

If we expect to continue the progress toward a better understanding of the natural world, we can't make certain questions (or possible answers) unspeakable. He made it fairly clear that he didn't find it hard to believe that women could perform as well as men in the sciences, he brought forth the idea that it wasn't impossible to believe that it might be true.

My wife is smarter than I am, she's better at logical thinking, better at engineering, and generally a better, clearer thinker than I (and I am not denigrating myself, I'm a professional engineer). Does that make it impossible that along a normal distribution we could find that women cluster in a different spot than men?

Men cluster on the higher side for physical strength than women. Women cluster on the side of more robust immune systems. Men are more aggressive, women slightly more suited to childbearing. Why must we assume that we think identically?

If your answer to that last question is that there are compelling social reasons not to ask such things, then I can respect that position. There is little question that should we find the answer, it might be used to attempt to systematically reduce the options for half our population. If such a thing were to happen it would be to all our detriment immeasurably. But if we decide to take that path, let's not then pretend that we are pursuing truth.

I have no idea what the answer is, and no matter what the answer, it doesn't change the fact that individual women of genius will continue to contribute in all areas of human endeavor. Misquoting or misapprehending Larry Summers' comments does not serve the debate, however.

It is great that Sonya Kovalevsky's incredible talent was recognised and that she got as far as she did. Even today many women are slotted into teaching K-12. My experience is that if a woman solves a problem that her professor cannot, he will shove the solution back at her without reading it and insist that she made an error.

Some really interesting comments on this post. I'm pleased to hear that the the study of women's role in the history of science is flourishing in academia, but the fact that this is largely relegated to subscription-only journals is part of the reason why only a select few know some of these women's names. It's equally important that eventually their stories move out of the Ivory Tower and into the mainstream public consciousness.

I was going to break out the cattle-prod for Lee's feminazi rant, but I forgot to recharge the batteries. :) Seriously, I understand the rationale for sticking with last-name only for women scientists, but it IS possible to be just a bit too uptight about this. If it causes confusion or impedes clear communication, then we should be willing to be flexible on this count without automatically taking offense as somehow disrespecting those women.

As for the whole Larry Summers debate -- I haven't followed it closely enough to offer an informed opinion, but I do know that Summers' troubles at Harvard didn't begin with his widely reported comments. I certainly can't pretend to know whether or not his comments were offered in "good faith." And while Matt raises a valid point, I doubt Lee is claiming that there aren't any gender differences at all between men and women -- just that these should not be used to exclude or denigrate women's abilities and contributions to the hard sciences. That these sorts of prejudices have played a major role in excluding women in the past is pretty much indisputable.

And Mike -- yes, girls have cooties. Or is that just what we WANT you to think? :)

Jen's right when she says I'm not insisting that gender differences don't exist. My complaint is that "different" often seems synonymous with "inferior" in many (but not exclusively) male minds. And the point Louise makes is all too true, as Kovalevsky's experience with the French Academy illustrates. (I've heard similar anecdotes from other women myself.) This is part of my problem with Larry Summers (thanks for supplying his last name; I seem to have blocked it. Can't think why.) Among all the "good faith" reasons he supplied, the active discouragement of women was not among them. It was, instead, somehow our fault: the reluctance or inability of women who have children to work 80-hour weeks (not of institutions to provide childcare); fewer girls than boys have top scores on science and math tests in late high school years (because girls have been weeded out by then); and our innate abilities (those pesky double X chromosomes!). Thus it has been throughout history, thus it will remain, world without end, Amen, unless that "innate opinion" of women is recognized and counteracted. One of the ways to do that is what's going on here: advertising the stories of intelligent women scientists to provide role models.

So, go Jen! (Even if I still think you oughta call all researchers equally by their first or last name.)

My summer project has been to write a profile about a woman in science every week. Here are the products thus far (9 entries and counting):
Ironically, Sofia K was my first entry on the subject, and du Chatelet my most recent.

On the names issue, I find myself fairly consistently using first names when writing about them. This isn't to trivilise them, but I think it sounds better to me perhaps because I subconsciously think of them as metaphorical friends or sisters in arms (cheesy, I know) and also because I am just doing informal character sketches of them. If I were writing a more rigorous biography, I would probably tend more towards last names.

A good quick read about women in maths is Women and Numbers by Teri Perl.

Not only was Sonya a precocious mathematician but she was also a very good writer. I read her childhood memoirs a couple of weeks ago and it was amazingly well-written. There is a brief mention of the wallpaper incident.

Kudos for bringing forth women in science, it is sometimes done but still sorely needed. According to UN women owns a few percent of the Earths resources. I wouldn't want to make a Summers-style comparison until there has been a few generations with equal economic and other opportunities...

Kovalevsky's main result on PDE's are BTW clever and beautiful, IIRC. It was in a course book on DE's outside the curricula, but I took a look. The other PDE results were much messier.

I didn't mean to imply that we don't have work to do to remove the roadblocks women currently encounter. We are on our way, but I do not think women currently enjoy the freedoms that men do to pursue their interests in all arenas.

But do we need to remove from offices or posts those people who might propose the possibility of cognitive differences? Are we saying those inquiries are to be unspoken? I think it's important to answer that question since we are removing heads of major universities for the offense. You can point out Summers' issues prior to the Big Event, but the truth is that he left his post because of that speech and its fall-out. It's a weighty thing to tell educators and scientists that certain lines of inquiry are not to be pursued.

A few points, mentioned in no particular order:

1. About calling famous scientists by their last names --- the real puzzler here is how we refer to Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler. Almost everybody I know, every book I've read and every documentary I've screened use "Tycho" and "Kepler" respectively. David Goodstein in **The Mechanical Universe** says that "Brahe" is unfamiliar-sounding while "Johannes" is just too common, so we call one by his first name and the other by his last. Loony, huh? Plus, if we followed common Russian practice (say, if we were living in a Nabokov novel), we'd call Sonya by her first name and "patronymic", which I guess would be Sonya Vasilievna.

2. I met Larry Summers once, at a barbecue they threw for incoming Hahvahd freshmen. I snuck in to spy for MIT (well, actually, a good buddy from high school was enterinig Harvard that year). After shaking his hand and participating in a normal, congenial conversation --- during which he reminisced about his good times with Bill Clinton --- I felt a sudden need to wash with lots of soap. Subconscious at work! The only other thing I have to say about the women-in-science brouhaha, I already said in the Spring 2005 issue of MIT's humor magazine, **Voo Doo**. My piece was entitled, "Interfraternity Council Protests Lack of Women in Science", and you can read it on page 8 of the following:

Warning: I think I was recovering from some emotional trauma/drama while writing that. Or else I'm even more tasteless than I had formerly believed.

3. Linking to the Wikipedia article on Thomas Pynchon tickles my fancy. I wrote big chunks of it, including that list of cameos promised to be in **Against the Day**! Ain't the Matrix a small world after all? And because it comes from me, you **know** it's reliable. (-;

Matt, Summers did not leave because of that speech and its fall-out -- there were much more important reasons, the speech was just the final straw. And the objections to the speech were most definitely not that he "proposed the possibility of cognitive differences," that's a complete straw man. The objections were that he was (1) woefully underinformed, (2) wrong, (3) speaking from a position where his words had a potential (and, as it turns out, very real) negative impact on girls and women in science. Nobody sensible objects to psychologists studying gender factors in cognition, but that has nothing to do with what got Summers in trouble.

I was just about to make the exact same points as Sean, who phrased them so clearly and succinctly that I feel no need to add much more to the discussion. I don't think there's any truly substantive disagreement here, but feelings tend to run high where Larry Summers is concerned, and I think Matt read more into Lee's tossed-off original comment than she'd intended. Summers is the human equivalent of a "red flag word": perhaps his name just shouldn't be uttered in serious discussions of women in physics. Like Voldemort. Or "Firefly." :)

And one more thought on the name thing, called to mind by Blake's comment on Tycho vs Kelper: part of that might be related to time period, geographical region, or any other number of factors. Case in point: Leonardo da Vinci is simply referred to as "Leonardo" by historians. "Da Vinci" indicated where he was from; as an ilegitimate offspring, technically he had no last name.

I know very little about Voldemort, but I can see several reasons why one could legitimately bring **Firefly** into a discussion of women in physics. In two words, "River Tam".

Or wait, am I missing a point here?

On the naming thing: quite a few notable scientists are commonly remembered by aristocratic titles, not names. We have the "kelvin" as a unit of temperature, but the man was William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin (1824--1907). Likewise for Rayleigh, he whose scattering explains why the sky is blue, who was John William Strutt, 3rd Baron Rayleigh (1842--1919).

(Bonus points for those who recall Voltaire's real name without looking it up!)

Within mathematics, Kovalesky is quite famous. I'm surprised that she isn't more famous in physics, since she arguably discovered the existence of characteristic directions in PDEs, and for the Kovalesky top, one of the few exactly integrable classical mechanical systems known in the nineteenth century.

Weierstrass is as famous as a mathematician can be, which apparently isn't very famous.

Nice piece! On the name dispute, I'm going to weigh in for Kovalevskaya. I believe a lot of the tendency to refer to scientists by their last name, or by their title if they had one, comes from the usages of the British upper classes. It has perpetuated partially by inertia, partially because it does provide the easiest means to identify a person by a short moniker (how many Johns are there?).

With Russian names, particularly of aristocrats, the situation is even more extreme. First a short primer: Russians generally have three names: a first name, a patronymic, and a surname. In this case, Sofia is the first name (Sonya is its diminutive, to be used by close friends and family). Vasilyevna is the patronymic, and is formed by taking either the mother or father's name and (for a girl) adding -evna to it. Addressing an acquaintance or any situation where you would refer to someone as Mr. such-and-such in 19th C. English, you would use the first name and patronymic (Sofia Vasilyevna). For my Russian friends, I generally use the diminutive ("Ulia", for instance), unless they have just done something egregious ("Uliana Katerinevna, what have you done!").

However, because Russians know that grandchildren will have to carry a name given to a child, they tend to be conservative about names, and so the situation is almost worse.

Weierstraß isn't as famous probably because he was a down to earth guy who spent a lot of his life teaching at Gymnasium (you could actually be a high school teacher and do research then), and produced such little gems as the Weierstraß approxiimation theorem, forms of which make large swathes of modern analysis possibly by reducing it back to continuous functions, and the Weierstaß function, a function which is everywhere continuous and nowhere differentiable.

And why does anyone still pay attention to Larry Summers, who has spent most of his life demonstrating that he's a moron?

Weierstrauss is also responsible for the epsilon-delta definition of limits, the scourge of calculus students everywhere. He deserves to be famous for that reason alone. :-)

If you want an example of someone who's unjustly forgotten, I nominate Grete Hermann. She was the first person to point out that Von Neumann's proof that hidden variable theories of quantum mechanics is wrong, a fact rediscovered 40 years later by John Bell. I created a skeleton page for her in Wikipedia, but more detail is needed.

Thanks for the tip on Grete Hermann! I did a quick Google, and she's definitely fodder for a future post.... especially since, among other things, it would force me to discipline myself to fine-tune my shockingly inadequate grasp of Bell's theorem. :) I grok the basics, but the devil's in the details.

You should do a post on why famous physicists are more famous than famous mathematicians.

I stepped into this cocktail party from Peter Woit's blog where he mentioned this Kovaleskaya thread. There exists quite a number of books and papers on SK and her work, as well as a few literary pieces of her own (which one an find listed by Joan Spicci). I once even heard about a Swedish film portraying her: Berget på månens baksida/The mountain on the back side of the moon//dir. Lennart Hjulström, 1984. In fact the 80s seemed to have been a time of SK-renaissance with sympiosia and books on SK (A. H. Koblitz, R. Cooke, P. Kochina, L. Keen, ... 3 books related to SK were reviewed in Physics Today, 1984, April). I myself learned about SK from her novels and essays, and the charming biography written by her close friend Anna Carlotta Leffler (whose brother was Gösta Mittag-Leffler, the mathematician who got SK to Sweden). From the portraits in the book one can BTW see that she used to write her name as Sophie Kov/w/alevski. From Leffler's piece (includes some letters from SK too) and SK's novels one gets a very vivid picture of a lost world, the fin de siècle Europe with idealistc intellectuals gathering in Paris, Zürich, Naples, etc. At the same time it is sad to think how cruelly their dreams were to be crushed later. There is also a sad trail in Leffler's story about SK. SK died young (41), leaving her daughter Foufi behind her, and she never seems to have felt truly loved (reading her Russian childhood it is apparent that she craved for an attention from her parents that she never received). But smart people often have such high standards which reality cannot meet. Finally about SK's impact on math - I think she could have had a more lasting influence if she had written a stylish textbook or monograph on PDE or rotating bodies, which she might have done had she survived past 41 [the other option is to crack a famous problem, prove a useful lemma (or get associated with one), or have a loyal group of disciples].

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