Saturday, November 27, 2010

Femininity, Mathematics and Science, 1880-1914

This is an excellent account of the history of women in the academic world of mathematics, science and engineering between 1880 and 1914.

Jones focuses on the barriers women faced at the turn of the 19th century such as the scientific laboratory which was seen as a harsh environment for women. These labs were places of manliness and heroism. An example is Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge which is named after Henry Cavendish who passed electric current through his own body. Even Darwin had theorised that women’s intellect was not on par with men and women were lower down the evolutionary scale, closer to animals. The author also provides an interesting history of the suffragette’s movement.

Jones has concentrated on two particular women, Hertha Ayrton and Grace Young, who both attended Girton College Cambridge to study mathematics. The author states that Hertha was the first Jewish woman to enter Cambridge and that she renounced Judaism so that she could assimilate into the middle class scientific society. Both women took the mathematical tripos examination at Cambridge with Hertha Ayrton opting for the applied mathematics route whilst Grace chose pure mathematics.

The author describes how by the end of the 19th century men were deserting the mathematics tripos for natural sciences tripos which consequently made this masculine in character. However the new women’s colleges (Girton and Newnham) retained their preferences for mathematics.

The author makes a really fascinating point on the use of language in mathematics (something I did not realise) . ‘The feminised language distinguished pure mathematics from the applied and helped women to feel comfortable within the discipline’. Her she is referring to proofs being elegant and theorems - beautiful. Jones gives some really interesting definitions of pure mathematics such as ‘Mathematics is absolute knowledge, permanent and unchanging over time’. The author goes on to say ‘Around 1900 Pure Mathematics prided itself on being uncontaminated by the real world’.

Jones highlights how mathematics was changing by the end of the 19th century. It was moving away from algebraic geometry to a more abstract area such as set theory and Gottingen in Germany led the way. Gottingen was the leading centre for mathematics by the end of the 19th century. Grace Young moved to Gottingen between 1900 and 1908 and became a member of the Gottingen Mathematics Club. By this time it was not unusual to see a small group of women in Gottingen mathematics lectures. However the author highlights some serious impediments on women because there were severe lack of academic openings for women in Germany as well as England.

Grace’s work at Gottingen had an enormous influence on the development of Cambridge mathematics according to the author. Her and her husband were at the forefront of the new mathematical analysis.

Hertha Aryton’s research at Central College London was in arc lights being used for search lights, street lights and other public lighting. When her husband died in 1908 she had no further dealing with Central College London.

Jones states that women encountered fewer obstacles in infiltrating mathematics as it did not necessarily require an institutional base. Hertha required a lab whilst Grace needed pencil, desk and access to a mathematical education.

In general this book is an excellent history of the barriers faced by women in academic circles around the 1900’s. I was not aware of such rich history and there are very few books in this particular field. I particularly liked the rare photographs in the book and would have preferred to have more of these. Also the author has made good use of graphs by highlighting the number of male and female students taking the mathematics and natural sciences triposes. My only gripe would be the cost of the book at £55. I think this book should be within the financial budgets of students.

I only found a couple of typos. On page 40 it should say 1890’s not 1990’s. On page 169 it should say 23 mathematical problems rather than 123 mathematical problems.

Kuldeep Singh