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Meet Mary Somerville: The Brilliant Woman for Whom the Word “Scientist” Was Coined

How a Scottish polymath forever changed the course of gender in science and made a high art of connecting the seemingly disconnected.

Meet Mary Somerville: The Brilliant Woman for Whom the Word “Scientist” Was Coined

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.

Mary Somerville (Portrait by Thomas Phillips)
Mary Somerville (Portrait by Thomas Phillips)

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.

BP

Albert Camus on Consciousness and the Lacuna Between Truth and Meaning

“From the evening breeze to this hand on my shoulder, everything has its truth. Consciousness illuminates it by paying attention to it.”

Albert Camus on Consciousness and the Lacuna Between Truth and Meaning

“The need of reason is not inspired by the quest for truth but by the quest for meaning. And truth and meaning are not the same,” Hannah Arendt observed in her brilliant treatise on the life of the mind, adding: “The basic fallacy, taking precedence over all specific metaphysical fallacies, is to interpret meaning on the model of truth.”

The nature of consciousness and its role in both creating and mediating that fallacy is what Albert Camus (November 7, 1913–January 4, 1960) explored three decades earlier in The Myth of Sisyphus (public library) — the source of his abiding wisdom on the will to live and the most important question of existence.

albertcamus

Noting that “everything begins with consciousness and nothing is worth anything except through it,” 28-year-old Camus considers the nature of consciousness and its supreme object — truth. Fifteen years before he became the second youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, awarded him for the “clear-sighted earnestness” with which he “illuminates the problems of the human conscience,” he writes:

Seeking what is true is not seeking what is desirable. If in order to elude the anxious question: “What would life be?” one must, like the donkey, feed on the roses of illusion, then the absurd mind, rather than resigning itself to falsehood, prefers to adopt fearlessly Kierkegaard’s reply: “despair.” Everything considered, a determined soul will always manage.

[…]

From the evening breeze to this hand on my shoulder, everything has its truth. Consciousness illuminates it by paying attention to it. Consciousness does not form the object of its understanding, it merely focuses, it is the act of attention, and, to borrow a Bergsonian image, it resembles the projector that suddenly focuses on an image. The difference is that there is no scenario, but a successive and incoherent illustration. In that magic lantern all the pictures are privileged. Consciousness suspends in experience the objects of its attention. Through its miracle it isolates them. Henceforth they are beyond all judgments. This is the “intention” that characterizes consciousness. But the word does not imply any idea of finality; it is taken in its sense of “direction”: its only value is topographical.

And yet the ultimate function of consciousness, Camus suggests, is not the retrieval of truth but the higher-order synthesis of meaning. He writes:

I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it. What can a meaning outside my condition mean to me? I can understand only in human terms. What I touch, what resists me — that is what I understand. And these two certainties — my appetite for the absolute and for unity and the impossibility of reducing this world to a rational and reasonable principle — I also know that I cannot reconcile them. What other truth can I admit without lying, without bringing in a hope I lack and which means nothing within the limits of my condition?

If I were a tree among trees, a cat among animals, this life would have a meaning, or rather this problem would not arise, for I should belong to this world. I should be this world.

With this, Camus comes full circle to the opening sentence of his treatise, which remains among the most famous in literature and poses one of the most profound questions of philosophy — whether or not life is worth living. With an eye to his first great philosophical preoccupation — the experience of the absurd and the perplexity of how one is to live with it — he writes:

The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.

[…]

I draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom, and my passion. By the mere activity of consciousness I transform into a rule of life what was an invitation to death — and I refuse suicide.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly indispensable The Myth of Sisyphus with Sy Montgomery on how the octopus illuminates the wonders of consciousness and Israel Rosenfield’s trailblazing exploration of consciousness, memory, and how our sense of self arises, then revisit Camus on the art of awareness, how to bolster our spirit in hard times, what it means to be a rebel, happiness, unhappiness, and our self-imposed prisons, and his moving correspondence with Boris Pasternak.

BP

Art in the Light of Conscience: The Great Russian Poet Marina Tsvetaeva on Loving vs. Understanding and the Paradoxical Psychology of Our Resistance to Ideas

“Not to go onwards (in verse, as in everything) means to go backwards — that is, to leave the scene.”

Art in the Light of Conscience: The Great Russian Poet Marina Tsvetaeva on Loving vs. Understanding and the Paradoxical Psychology of Our Resistance to Ideas

“People have a hard time accepting anything that overwhelms them,” Bob Dylan observed in his 1991 conversation with journalist Paul Zollo about the unconscious mind and the creative process.

More than half a century earlier, the great Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva (October 8, 1892–August 31, 1941) explored the paradoxical psychological machinery of that resistance in one of the eight beautiful pieces in her collection of essays on art and writing, Art in the Light of Conscience (public library) — a discovery embodying my longtime saying that literature is the original internet, for I found a “link” to the book in a footnote in Tsvetaeva’s exquisite correspondence with Pasternak and Rilke, which was in turn “linked” to in Marina Abramović moving memoir.

Marina Tsvetaeva
Marina Tsvetaeva

In a sentiment of equal cultural and political perceptiveness, Tsvetaeva writes:

Not to like a work is, in the first and most important place, not to recognize it: not to find the pre-cognized in it. The first cause of not accepting a work is not being prepared for it… A physical turning away of the head: I see nothing in this picture, therefore I don’t wish to look at it. — But, in order to see, one needs to look; in order to really see, one needs to look really closely. Disappointment of an eye that is used to seeing at first glance, which means used to seeing along its old track, that of others’ eyes… [an eye] used to not an act of cognition, but recognition.

Tsvetaeva considers the only position from which we have the right — intellectual, creative, moral — to reject an idea or a work of art:

The only case worthy of respect, the only legitimate non-acceptance of a work, is non-acceptance of it in full knowledge… No one is obliged to love, but every non-loving person is obliged to know — first, what it is he doesn’t love, and second, why he doesn’t love it.

In a fine complement to her compatriot Leo Tolstoy’s ideas about the paradoxical nature of love, she adds:

Anyone who loves only something, loves nothing.

Although our instinctual reaction to that which we do not understand is to reject it, Tsvetaeva reminds us that such rejection is maladaptive and to the detriment of our evolution — be it in art or in politics or in our private lives. She writes:

Not to go onwards (in verse, as in everything) means to go backwards — that is, to leave the scene.

What we reject most often is that which rebels against and challenges the status quo, but such rejection, Tsvetaeva admonishes, is antithetical to the creative force that propels us forward. Once again, what is true of poetry is true of life itself:

There is no poet who would reject any elemental force, consequently any rebellion.

[…]

What doesn’t accept (rejects, even ejects) is the human being: will, reason, conscience.

In this realm the poet can have only one prayer: not to understand the unacceptable — let me not understand, so that I may not be seduced. The sole prayer of the poet is not to hear the voices: let me not hear, so that I may not answer. For to hear, for the poet, is already to answer, and to answer is already to affirm, if only by the passionateness of his denial. The poet’s only prayer is a prayer for deafness.

Complement this particular fragment of Art in the Light of Conscience with Hannah Arendt on thinking vs. knowing and André Gide on art’s vital role as both acceptance of and rebellion against reality.

BP

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