A Fresh View on the History of Science

A Fresh View on the History of Science

Author: Vera Koester, Annette Lykknes, Brigitte Van Tiggelen

Professor Annette Lykknes (pictured left), Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Trondheim, and Dr. Brigitte Van Tiggelen, Science History Institute, Philadelphia, PA, USA, edited the recently published book Women in Their Element.
Here they talk to Dr. Vera Koester, ChemViews Magazine, about their idea to provide a wider view of the history of science, to acknowledge that science is done in cooperation and not by a single genius, and to give the unknown contributors their names back.



Can you say something about the idea of your book?

Annette: When we heard about the upcoming anniversary of the periodic table, we discussed ideas and realized that there were not too many stories about women’s contributions, although we knew that women had been working on the elements of the periodic system. So we decided to make a collective volume.

The idea was not just to emphasize women and create new heroines. We also wanted to take the opportunity to show the complex nature of chemical work—in particular work in the lab, where a lot of collaboration is involved, and not just individual geniuses at work.



Who is the book aimed at?

Annette: We have two readership groups in mind: The general audience interested in science and the historical aspect of science and the professional historians of science. The articles are scholarly, not just popular work.

Brigitte: We did not want to sacrifice accuracy and good science for popularity. As historians of science, we wanted to provide this double readership with substantial and well-grounded information based at least on the latest scholarly research in this field. We did not want to add to literature that is already very abundant. We wanted to have both the science and the history straight, and in not too much detail.

Annette: Yes, all of the chapters are quite short, but the bibliography provides accessible literature for those who would want to go beyond each chapter.



Who wrote the book?

Brigitte: In the same way as the readership is diverse, the authorship is diverse as well. Not only do we have men and women—which is always nice, because one of the problems is that there are not always enough men working on the topic—we also have authors from different backgrounds, some in chemistry, others in physics. We have chemists, teachers, popular writers, and people working for Wikipedia.



How did you find this diverse set of authors?

Brigitte: Some of them we already knew, some were recommended by others, and we sent out a call for papers.



So a team of authors wrote each article, or did everybody provide a chapter?

Annette: The book has single-authored chapters and others written by a team of two or three.



How did you select the women included in the book?

Annette: We made a general call to some email lists of historians. And we contacted many people personally who we knew had worked on these topics.

Brigitte: One of the things we didn’t discuss at first and which we were confronted with is that we also included women who are still alive. The common practice is to wait until they’ve passed before you start working on these individuals and figures. But, first off, the number of women who have been active in science has increased tremendously over the last few decades, and the other thing is that as historians we are also very sensitive to the fact that we will soon no longer be able to work with archives, manuscripts, letters, and so on. More and more of this will be in electronic formats, which can be very difficult to preserve and use.

There is a new field of history of science, called oral history, in which memories are preserved.

Annette: This means that you record long interviews and use that as a material for your work.

Brigitte: Some of the living women that are featured in this book have been selected out of a pool of oral histories devoted to women.



That’s interesting. You always think that today there is much more information than there used to be.

Annette: Yes, there is, but it is not kept in the same way. For example, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, we relied on written correspondence. Now we don’t keep letters and papers. It depends on what will happen with emails. People are working on it, but we don’t know yet how this will work out.

Coming back to the choice of women for the book: Another point is that as the periodic system dates from the 19th century, we also wanted to include older understandings of the elements. This includes the classical elements that refer to the concepts in ancient Greece: earth, water, air, and fire. So we have a few chapters on early modern conceptions, for example, the chapter on Emilie Le Châtelier, who wrote about fire.

Brigitte: This allowed us to bring in a longer perspective work of women in science in general and how, at each period in time, they were, maybe sometimes in very small amounts, able to be scientists and add to our knowledge.



Women in chemistry is currently a hot topic. Is there a problem of overemphasizing some of the things women have done?

Brigitte: In general, yes; in our book, no. As Annette said at the beginning, we do not aim to create heroines of science. Basically, history has been a narrative around heroes. And in science, in particular, you have geniuses. Everyone knows about their multiple biographies, and everything is aggregated and crystallized around this one figure who has done something that changed science.

We took another approach: We focused on women because they are underinvestigated and scholarship on these women is not well disseminated. And we focus on women in their context. We don’t want to replace heroes with heroines. Doing so would mean to miss the point about doing full justice to these historical figures and about providing a wider and more nuanced picture of the scientific work, which is about collaboration, about sharing, to get a more complete and richer picture of science.

Annette: The introduction to the book places all of the chapters in perspective. We wrote it as a sort of short history of chemistry, chronologically, but with all the histories mentioned in the book embedded in it. One of the people who reviewed the book wrote that this actually made him conscious that we cannot write a history of chemistry without including women because they were everywhere and at all times.

Brigitte: Actually, writing the book was a very enriching experience for ourselves, as well.



The book was supposed to be quite short?

Brigitte: Now it is more than 500 pages.

Annette: And is richly illustrated. Every chapter has at least one photo, usually two or three.

Brigitte: Actually, it is like a thread. When you pull it, other things come up. We discovered that behind women that were already somehow in the shadows, we found men that were even more in the shadows. I think it is important that all these people are brought to the fore.

There is a very well-known picture, which is also in the book, where Marie Curie and Pierre Curie are standing or working in the laboratory. A third person is to the side of the picture, maybe an assistant, or a technician, it is not even clear what his job is. Furthermore, we only know him as Monsieur Petit. He doesn’t even have a first name. For me, this is really moving. By focusing on women, we want to give the names back to the invisible army of people who actually contributed to science and to the achievements of more well-known figures.



You wanted to give the unknown contributors their names back. These could be very, very many.

Brigitte: Yes, and we already know that there are many more figures that could have been added. This book provides another access to the historic figures and the context in which they were working. The perspective given is fresh and something that will be adopted, hopefully.



Thank you for the interview.

Annette Lykknes gained her M.Sc. in chemistry/chemistry education in 1998 and her Ph.D. in chemistry education/history of chemistry in 2005 from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Trondheim. Currently, she is a professor at NTNU.

Annette Lykknes’ research interests include the history of 20th century chemistry in Norway, studies of technical-chemical education in Norway, radioactivity and nuclear science, the periodic system, the material culture of chemistry, women in chemistry, collaborative couples in the sciences, textbooks in chemistry, 19th and 20th century teaching practices and tools, small-scale experiments in chemistry education, writing cultures and practices in science.


Brigitte Van Tiggelen graduated in physics and history and earned her Ph.D. in physics from the UCL, Belgium. Her main Ph.D. dissertation was devoted to chemistry in 18th century Belgium; her other thesis focused on wavelets (mathematical physics). Currently, she is the Director for European Operations at the Science History Institute, Philadelphia, USA, and a member of the Centre de Recherche en Histoire des Sciences, Université catholique de Louvain (UCL), Louvain-la-neuve, Belgium.

Brigitte Van Tiggelen’s research interests include topics such as couples and women in science, domestic science, Belgian chemistry, and philosophy of chemistry. To promote the history of science among the general public and especially among secondary school teachers, she has founded Mémosciences, a Belgian non-profit organization that organizes an annual conference cycle on the history of chemistry, scientific conferences, and teacher workshops.


The book they are talking about



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