Monday, December 28, 2015

Can a woman learn science (or mathematics)?

It is not a new idea that women do not have scientific aptitude, that teaching them requires special accommodation.  Here, in a poem by one of the greatest scientists of all time, is a description of a condescending lecture to a female student, individually and behind a curtain, followed by her mocking reply.

Lectures to Women on Physical Science  by James Clerk Maxwell  (1831-79)

I.    PLACE. —A small alcove with dark curtains.
       The class consists of one member.
       SUBJECT.—Thomson’s Mirror Galvanometer.

      The lamp-light falls on blackened walls,
            And streams through narrow perforations,
      The long beam trails o’er pasteboard scales,
            With slow-decaying oscillations.
Flow, current, flow, set the quick light-spot flying,
Flow current, answer light-spot, flashing, quivering, dying.

      O look! how queer! how thin and clear,
            And thinner, clearer, sharper growing
      The gliding fire! with central wire,
            The fine degrees distinctly showing.
Swing, magnet, swing, advancing and receding,
Swing magnet! Answer dearest, What’s your final reading?

      O love! you fail to read the scale
            Correct to tenths of a division.
      To mirror heaven those eyes were given,
            And not for methods of precision.
Break contact, break, set the free light-spot flying;
Break contact, rest thee, magnet, swinging, creeping, dying.

II.  Professor Chrschtschonovitsch, Ph.D., “On the C. G. S. system of Units.”
            Remarks submitted to the Lecturer by a student

Prim Doctor of Philosophy
      Front academic Heidelberg!
Your sum of vital energy
      Is not the millionth of an erg.
Your liveliest motion might be reckoned
At one Tenth-metre in a second.

“The air,” you said, in language fine,
      Which scientific thought expresses,
“The air—which with a megadyne,
      On each square centimetre presses—
The air, and I may add the ocean,
Are nought but molecules in motion.”

Atoms, you told me, were discrete,
      Than you they could not be discreter,
Who know how many Millions meet
      Within a cubic millimetre.
They clash together as they fly,
But you!—you cannot tell me why. 

This poem as well as several others by the Scottish poet Maxwell, are found here at the Poetry Foundation website.

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