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A brief history of science writing shows the rise of the female voice

3 0 1
21.03.2019

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.

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.

Read more: How not to write about science

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.

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........

© The Conversation