Women with numbers destined for straightjackets, and feminism

Once again I’m busy with my forthcoming book Double Entry, this time proofreading the typeset pages. I’ve just noticed that my publisher Allen & Unwin has put up a page for it on their website here, so I’d better get on with it.

But in the meantime, here’s my review of Robyn Arianrhod’s new book Seduced by Logic: Emilie du Chatelet, Mary Somerville and the Newtonian Revolution from last weekend’s Australian. At the end I say the book is important for two reasons, the first is that it clearly shows the historically contingent nature of science, a fact that seems to be missing from many of the debates about global warming and climate change: that just because a scientific theory or hypothesis hasn’t (yet) been incontrovertibly proved, it doesn’t mean it isn’t valid or doesn’t have bearing on the world. Arianrhod’s story of the long decades spent proving Newton’s theory of gravity is a powerful example of this.

My favourite climate change video clip also makes this argument.

The other reason I think Arianrhod’s book is important is that it shows once more the staggering extent to which women have been excluded from intellectual pursuits, this time from mathematics. Arianrhod’s stories of her two heroines’ secret and guilty self-education in mathematics in hours stolen from their domestic chores and children while their sons, husbands and lovers (in Emilie’s case this was Voltaire, a far lesser mathematician than she) were educated in style and devoted their lives to their intellectual pursuits are agonising and enraging to read. (When Mary’s father discovered her hidden love of algebra and geometry he put a stop to it lest she go mad and end up in a straightjacket.)

The fact that, as Arianrhod says, until the mid 20th century women were not granted full academic degrees in universities like Oxford and Cambridge, and that even Arianrhod herself in the late 20th century struggled, as a woman, to become a mathematician, makes current talk about the importance of feminism – for example Sophie Cunningham’s forthcoming talk at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival – terribly urgent. Still.

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One Response to Women with numbers destined for straightjackets, and feminism

  1. Pingback: Girls of Australia: stand up and count! with Margaret Wertheim, Clio Cresswell and Robyn Arianrhod | bookish girl

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