Friday 6 March 2015

350 years of FRSs

On this auspicious day 350 years ago the first issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society was published on behalf of the Royal Society by Henry Oldenburg making it by far the longest lived science journal.  The RS is having a year long party to celebrate, with some nice high production-value short films and other events both in the venerable building and out here on the interweb.  They were certainly no quicker than anybody else to recognise that women were capable (of doing science). You first heard it on The Blob that Kathleen Lonsdale was one of two women elected to Fellowship in 1945 - fully 25 years after the passing in the UK of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 (An Act to amend the Law with respect to disqualifications on account of sex).  You can legislate all you like but if chaps want to turn their backs on women, they can just do it.

I'll just suggest you make a start on the RS jamoree with a short film asking the rhetorical question "Where are the Women" which starts off with a series of portraits of men, more often than not in wigs and/or suits, all of whom have been members of the Royal Society. It would be an interesting challenge to see how many of these giants can be recognised in real time as the movie passes, by the midgets who stand on their shoulders.  I doubt if anyone would score 100% because scientists nowadays are generally grossly over-specialised and narrow in their focus . . . and have no sense of history.  The two women who narrate this tale are Athene Donald who "is distinguished for her work relating mechanical properties to the structure of polymers" - a physicist in a word; and Sarah-Jayne Blakemore a cognitive neuroscientist with an expertise in understanding the brain of adolescents. In their investigations, Donald remarks that women still form a minority of the FRS membership and also notes women have a low publication rate in the Philosophical Transactions probably because, she reflects, to be published you have to be sponsored by a FRS . . . and misogynistic old men on the spectrum just don't know many women.

But get this: Sarah-Jayne Blakemore FRS is the daughter of Colin Blakemore FRS and her PhD was supervised by Chris Frith FRS and Daniel Wolpert FRS who is, in turn, the son of Lewis Wolpert FRS.  She's just 40 and I'm not in any sense casting asparagus at her science or saying that she doesn't deserve to be inducted into the old boys club.  I merely suggest that Sarah-Jayne Bloggs, daughter of Joe and Josephine Bloggs of 42 Neasden Crescent, Harrogate, will never make the cut because the people who makes these decisions just don't know her.  More sciencewomen on The Blob.

If you like the film (and ignore my sour-grapes negative comments) you might like the next one of the series on "Controversy" which points out that before he was deified by posterity, Charles Darwin made mistakes and Louis Agassiz proved it.

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