June 9, 2023

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The great courage to stay human

the wise Survey by Sarah Cesti and Liliana Moreau on the female contribution to the research: “In many cases, victims of amnesia and clichés”

Marie Curie wrote: “I am among those who believe that science has great beauty.” Science and beauty, rigor and inspiration, rationality and humanity, aspects of the One Universe that many female scientists know intimately. however…

Whether they discovered dark matter or developed experimental economic models, whether they paved the way for computer science or molecular biology, the contribution of countless female scientists, from ancient times to the present day, has mostly been downplayed, overshadowed and attributed to male colleagues. Known as the phenomenon, the “Matilda Effect” is nothing but an isolated episode. The volume “Scientists Across Time. More than 100 Biographies of Women Challenging Millennial Prejudices ”, by Sarah Cesti with Liliana Moreau (new ed. 2023, LeDizione), rescues extraordinary profiles from oblivion, identifies their features and recurring paths, and transmits us, in addition to discoveries, Exactly the passion and beauty that Marie Curie speaks of.

Pilot project

The result of a pioneering project born in 1997 under the banner of Choral Activity, as part of the Pristem of Bocconi University, the work has come to us thanks to the publishing commitment of the two authors who have developed a preliminary research procedure in synergy, reinforced by shared experiences and participation in the Free Women’s University, a place for critical discussions and studies. Since 2016, updating the volume has been in the hands of Sarah Sisti.

“Our feminist background made us united in the project,” Liliana Moreau, teacher and historian, tells us. Through those biographies, we wondered about the “damoria memoriae” of women, as in the case of actress Hedy Lamarr — to whom the cover is dedicated — inventor of the Spread Spectrum, the basis of modern telephony and wireless systems. A cover that included not only female scholars, but also jurists, painters, and artists… ».

If, with the passage of time, women are forced to deal with clichés, such as the supposed distance from certain fields of knowledge, and the objective difficulty of making a career in the scientific field, the investigation by the two scientists also brings out interesting strange traits. Among these, a genuine passion for the scientific subject, independence of thought, willingness to publish, and, as stated by Sarah Cesti, a professor of mathematics and researcher in the history of science, “the ability to produce important group work. Let’s think of the teams that worked on star catalogs in the 19th century, creating “La Carte du Ciel” and the Harvard Photometric Catalog. The directors of the observatories appointed exclusively female employees because they believed that only women, with their patience and perseverance, would do such hard work. And not only did they complete it, but they also showed that they were able to use astronomical instruments (…) And again we remember the four nuns of the Vatican Observatory who cataloged more than 40,000 stars, or in the field of computers, the mathematicians who devised the programming of the first computers Non-Mechanical: Eniac in the USA and Colossus in England ».

Urgent questions

The comprehensive and valuable research raises urgent questions and touches on issues of enduring relevance. “One of the most prevalent clichés is the fact that scientific research is motivated by wars, but that is not the case,” says Liliana Moreau. “Think of Clara Imruer, who committed suicide because she had a falling out with her husband, Fritz Haber. , the inventor of asphyxiating gases, and in other fields entirely, we think of Rosalind Franklin, who provided experimental evidence of the structure of DNA or of Ellen Swallow Richards who discovered in the second half of the nineteenth century that certain diseases suffered from Boston children because of factory waste in their discharges and campaigned To purify the water, among other things to arrange his home in an environmentally correct way. It is a pity that his work is classified as home economics.”

In the volume’s final edition, Sarah Sisti presents biographies of ecologists Alice Hamilton (1869) and Donella Meadows (1941) who, with their mixture of science, passions, and feelings, have profoundly influenced their respective fields of research. The author tells us that «Hamilton» is considered the mother of occupational medicine for its research on factory diseases that changed workplaces around the world. Meadows, in turn, was the author in 1972 of the interdisciplinary report The Limit to Growth, which urged the academic world to imagine a sustainable planet as a single entity in which physical, ecological, and social systems coexist.

And if in Italy, in the 1970s and 1980s, Laura Conti devoted herself to themes of work, health and the environment, highlighting the events of Seveso and contesting the self-destructive model of development, we would like to remember, on a grand scale. A panorama of “Scientists Over Time,” as well as Rachel Carson, who fought in the 1950s for pesticide bans, Wangari Mota Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize winner for her work in Kenya, and Vandana Shiva, who was involved in the Biodiversity Conservation and Social Ecology Project .

Without making the mistake of attributing only virtuous discoveries to women scientists – think of the 85 women on the Manhattan Project who contributed to the production of the atomic bomb – it can certainly be said that concern for morality and the human factor among women is recurrent, even in so-called ‘dismal science’, as evidenced by Rosa Luxemburg and Joan Robinson, proponents of economic theory linked to political and social practice, and Nobles Elinor Ostrom and Esther Duflo who dealt respectively with the group. Managing shared resources and combating poverty.

The examples and scenarios are indeed numerous and it is not surprising that, over the years, Scholars Over Time has been adopted by schools and institutes as an investigative tool, giving rise to other publications and exhibitions. Unsurprisingly, the biographies, in their colorful diversity, served as the inspiration for the show “Dreaming Scientists, the World We Want,” produced by Bacta de Teatre, co-authored and translated by Sarah Cesti.

After all, as the two researchers explained to us, science is only a neutral activity far from feelings, and the topic clearly goes beyond gender equality. The goal, it would seem, is to overcome any dualism in order to arrive at a more humanistic science.

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