Looking for Women in the History of Astronomy and Physics

There’s a new physics and astronomy editorial up on Science Borealis, now written with my co-editor Jared Strang. Since it was Marie Curie’s birthday last week, we wrote about the general lack of historical role models for physics-minded girls, and how having only one titanic role model in a field is hard to aspire to. Not everyone’s going to win two Nobel prizes and revolutionize physics, after all.

So to make a point, we compiled a list of historical (roughly pre WWII) women who studied physics or astronomy, and we wound up a list of about 50 women. Jared and I both went looking for historical female astronomers and physicists, and in the first go round we had very similar lists. I found all the relatively well known women (Emmy Noether, Chien-Shiung Wu,,Lise Meitner, Hypatia, etc) and a handful of other lesser known figures within an hour or so. But I looked at the list, and almost all the figures were Western, and most lived in the 19th or 20th centuries. There were a couple from antiquity, and a couple from outside Europe or North America, but it was a pretty uninclusive list.

So I went looking for more women, particularly astronomers, as the history of astronomy is longer than the history of physics, and it is in many ways more accessible than physics. You don’t need any equipment to stand outside and look at the stars, so it’s hard to believe that over a millienia and a half, no women anywhere in the world sat down and wrote about the heavens.

You really have to go looking for hints of these women, though. Over a few days, I spent probably between 10 and 12 hours combing the internet and looking through history textbooks. I found a few more women, and a number of Renaissance salonists and teachers. Even though they didn’t necessarily do original research, I included them in the list because due to the exclusionary policies of universities, salons were one of the few ways that women could participate in the scientific culture of the day.

But most of the women were still European, which didn’t make sense. There was a huge revolution in mathematics in the Islamic Golden Age (9th – 12th centuries), and lots of the innovations Islamic scholars developed relied on Indian texts. There are lots of documents showing that the Malinese empire had advanced math and science. What about the Polynesian islanders, who must have had excellent knowledge of astronomy to travel the Pacific? There’s lots of evidence of excellent astronomical knowledge in Mesoamerica! It’s not like astronomy and physics are the sole domain of Western thinkers, so surely someone on the internet, repository for all things meticulously enumerated, would have some evidence of female astronomers from around the world.

Here’s who I found from outside of the Western world pre-1900:

  • Hypatia (Egypt), the titan of math, astronomy, and philosophy
  • Ban Zhao (China), who was not properly an astronomer but a renowned scholar of many topics, who wrote a treatise on astronomy
  • Queen Seondeok (Korea), who built the first observatory in East Asia (but I found no evidence that she herself was an astronomer)
  • Maryam al-Ijiliya (Syria), who was renowned for building innovative astrolabes
  • Fatima of Madrid (Spain, but had Arabic heritage), who worked on compiling tables of astronomical data
  • Wang Zhenyi (China), who wrote multiple astronomical treatises on equinoxes, planetary motion, and eclipses.

That’s six women, spread over 1800 years, one or two of whom weren’t themselves astronomers. If ever you need some evidence that women have been effectively written out of the history of science, there’s some evidence for you. I couldn’t find a single named female astronomer from India, Polynesia, non-Egyptian Africa, Mesoamerica, Japan, southeast Asia, Australia, etc in 2000 years of history.

I should note that names of non-Western male astronomers weren’t plentiful either, much to my irritation. Rather than trying to wade through a sea of names and fish out the one or two who belong to women, I spent those hours craning my metaphorical neck going “where is everyone?!”

It’s frustrating to be confronted with a thoroughly Western-centric history of one of the most universal fields of science. There is ample evidence that plenty of cultures developed sophisticated calendars that required precise astronomical knowledge, and it’s patently ludicrous to think that no women, and few men outside of Europe, were ever involved in that sort of work.

It’s worth noting that the majority of the earlier Western women on the list worked with their husbands, brothers, and fathers, often starting as transcribers or assistants. How many more historical women in science are hidden away out of sight of the history books? How many women’s contributions were roundly ignored by the scientific establishment, and discarded? I shouldn’t need to be a historian of science to find enough non-Western female astronomers in 2000 years to enumerate with more than one hand.

Here’s a somewhat unrelated anecdote that I failed to shoehorn in elsewhere: I first heard of Noether’s theorem in, I think, second year of undergrad physics. Noether’s theorem states that a symmetry in a non-dissipative system corresponds to a conserved quantity in that system. (It’s technically a bit more complicated than that, but that’s the gist of it.) This theorem underpins most of classical mechanics and greatly clarifies what “energy” means in general relativity, so to say it’s an important theorem is a pretty big understatement. Since every other named theorem, law, lemma, algorithm, equation, or unit that I’d come across in math or physics up to that point had belonged to a man (exception: Marie Curie), I naturally assumed that Noether was male. It wasn’t until two years later, in my last year of undergrad, when I came across the name Emmy Noether, and was genuinely astonished that she was a woman.

One response to “Looking for Women in the History of Astronomy and Physics

  1. “It wasn’t until two years later, in my last year of undergrad, when I came across the name Emmy Noether, and was genuinely astonished that she was a woman.”

    Ooh, plot twist!

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