Week 4: The First Scientist Rediscovered

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Tuesday, July 5, 2016


Samantha Spytek

I have completed four weeks as an AIP intern. That's 2,419,200 seconds, or 40,320 minutes. This past week was very successful for our group, as we finished going through all of the lesson plans together. Many of the standardizations we came up with and changes that we decided needed to be made have been completed as well. We now have one week to go through as many of them again as we can, looking for the minutest errors and correct spacings, before the skeleton of the website will go up and we can start modifying it and adding to it. Essentially we're right on track.

Something else that we've been able to start this past week is our own research into topics we'd like to make lesson plans for. I had been going through a lot of books and wikipedia articles with lists of women in science in some capacity or another, throughout time - starting in antiquity and moving through to present day. I came across a woman named Mary Somerville. She is particularly interesting for a number of reasons, but the main one is that she never did any scientific experiments of her own, yet was lauded in the scientific community during the first half of the 19th century when she was active. Why, you might ask? It's because she had the gift of communicating difficult and highly advanced scientific research and concepts in a manner that could be understood by all. She was a science writer and no, she did not use a pseudonym. Everyone knew her for who she was, and it is a testament to this time period that she was able to ascend to the pinnacle of the scientific community with such ease and grace, and be practicaly deified for her work in the process. 

Mary Somerville

Mary was able to succeed as she did because she was born into an aristocratic (if extremely poor) family. They had their name, blood and family ties but nothing more. During this time period, from about 1815 - 1840 there was a cultural and societal realization that the endeavors of science could produce marvelous advances in technology, and it became fashionable to be interested in science. It was not uncommon for high born families to display mineral collections in the drawing room, or for ladies to carry around the newest little trinkets and mechanical toys to play with, and the men to take an interest in scientific research. Many of the highly commemorated and lauded societies of today started out essentially as gentleman clubs, where the rich could go to talk about that fashion - science. Of course by 1850, many of these societies had changed to be more merit based and required actual scientific training and contributions to join, but their beginnings speak to who was able to do science at the start of the century. 

Women, as I mentioned before, we able to participate as well. While many held only a shallow interest in science, it was possible for those who were actually interested to be educated in science and gain apprenticeships under leading scientists. Since it was not possible for a woman to gain a job as a scientist, they were not considered threats to the men who were currently creating the field. Therefore it was not unusual that Mary gained an apprenticeship under the respected Professor Playfair, and while she did not go on to do her own science, her work in communicating scientific concepts to the public gave her such fame and respect as any man would only hope to acheive in her place. 

She is also, as it happens, the first person who the term 'scientist' was used to refer to. Before then, the common term was 'man of science'. However, since she was not a man the name obviously did not fit. So William Whewell coined the term in his review of the first edition of "On The Connexion of the Physical Sciences" by Mrs. Somerville. The seventh edition of this book is in fact a member of the Neils Bohr Library and Archives here at ACP, and I have been able to work directly with it in creating a lesson plan. The seventh edition came out in 1846, so the pages I turn and the print I read are all 160 years old. It's really something else to hold in your hands a book that someone now long dead bought for the pleasure of learning. The cover is quite beautiful, yet simple. It is brown, and shows in gold one hand passing the torch of knowledge to another. I do believe this cover represents exactly what Mrs. Somerville was trying to do. 

At the end of the week, we had a three day weekend. It started off quite nicely, with me and Victoria going to Union Market, right across the street from Gallaudett University where my Mom works. She met us there and we drank some nice cool drinks while enjoying the last bit of sun before the clouds rolled in for the weekend. 

Union Market

We were there as they were preparing for a drive-in movie. So of course, I took a picture of the Popcorn Food Truck parked on the outskirts of the parking lot, waiting for the crouds to come. 

Popcorn Truck

After we were done, we went and drove around Gallaudett University grounds for a bit, then off to capitol hill to drop Victoria off at the Air and Space Museum. Then my mom and I drove home, and I snapped some nice shots of the sunset through the low hanging clouds that were on the edge of the front moving in. 

Sunset and Plan on Memorial Bridge

In this one you can see we were on Memorial Bridge, and on the far right of the frame is the National Cathedral. It's always fun to drive across because you can almost always see a plane either landing or taking off, and in this picture you can see the plane that was coming in for a landing.

Sunset and Airforce Memorial

 You can see the sun setting here as we pass the Air Force Memorial. Despite the rain that would come, it was a nice way to end the week. 

Samantha Spytek