22 Aug 2014

Shaking up the Face of Science History

By Claire Eamer

History books are still dominated by the doings of a bunch of white men - and the history of science is no exception. When I was researching my book Before the World Was Ready: Stories of Daring Genius in Science, I wanted to include more variety - women, people of other races, people from other cultures.

That, I discovered, is remarkably hard to do. I combed through a lot of books and articles, and I found some names to chase down. However, even with the names, information was often scarce or incomplete or not available in a language I can read.

Still – I found some smart and fascinating people, even more than I could fit into the book. Here are a few that made the cut.

We usually credit Copernicus with the idea that Earth is not the still centre of the universe, but rather a planet that spins on its axis and revolves around the Sun. But more than a thousand years earlier, in 499 CE, a young Indian mathematician and astronomer, Aryabhata, came to the same conclusion and wrote a book setting out his explanation – all in verse. He was only 23 years old at the time. India’s first satellite, launched in 1975, was named Aryabhata in his honour.

Aryabhata explaining his ideas, as seen by illustrator Sa Boothroyd. Courtesy of Annick Press.
Still among the stars, there was Caroline Herschel. Her brother, William, was a famous astronomer in 18th-century England, but Caroline was a pretty decent astronomer herself. A childhood illness left her stunted, barely 1.3 metres tall, but it didn’t stop her. She was an opera singer, kept house for her brother, took notes while he peered through his telescope, did mathematical calculations for him, and – in her spare time – made her own observations. She discovered eight comets and several nebulae, and she was the first woman to be made an honorary member of Britain's Royal Astronomical Society. Several comets, a lunar crater, and an asteroid have been named after her.

Mary Anning was an even less likely scientist than Caroline Herschel. She was born in 1799 to a very poor family in an English seaside resort. Mary, her mother, and her brother scoured the eroding cliffs near their home for fossils to sell from a table outside their tiny cottage. At age 12, Mary brought home one of the world’s first fossil ichthyosaurs. Later she discovered a plesiosaur, a pterosaur, and much more. She eventually became as much an expert as the wealthy scientists who bought her fossils, and, after her death, the president of the Geological Society of London delivered a speech in her honour.

Mary Anning and her fossil booth, according to illustrator Sa Boothroyd. Courtesy Annick Press.

One final example: Al-Jahiz. Al-Jahiz lived about 1,200 years ago in what is now Iraq. He was born poor, probably the descendant of an African slave, but he became a famous writer. One of his most famous works was the Book of Animals. In it, he wrote about food chains, in which smaller animals are eaten by ever-larger animals, all the way from minnows to sharks, and speculated about how the behaviour and even appearance of animals can be affected by their environment – ideas that wouldn’t become major concerns of European science until people like Charles Darwin came along, almost a thousand years later, to talk about evolution.

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