Patricia Fara on Newton, Scientific Progress, and the Benefits of Unhistoric Acts (Ep. 116)

Is scientific progress best characterized by discrete leaps or incremental improvement?

Patricia Fara is a historian of science at Cambridge University and well-known for her writings on women in science. Her forthcoming book, Life After Gravity: Isaac Newton’s London Career, details the life of the titan of the so-called Scientific Revolution after his famous (though perhaps mythological) discovery under the apple tree. Her work emphasizes science as a long, continuous process composed of incremental contributions–in which women throughout history have taken a crucial part–rather than the sole province of a few monolithic innovators.

Patricia joined Tyler to discuss why Newton left Cambridge to run The Royal Mint, why he was so productive during the Great Plague, why the “Scientific Revolution” should instead be understood as a gradual process, what the Antikythera device tells us about science in the ancient world, the influence of Erasmus Darwin on his grandson, why more people should know Dorothy Hodgkin, how George Eliot inspired her to commit unhistoric acts, why she opposes any kind of sex-segregated schooling, her early experience in a startup, what modern students of science can learn from studying Renaissance art, the reasons she considers Madame Lavoisier to be the greatest female science illustrator, the unusual work habit brought to her attention by house guests, the book of caricatures she’d like to write next, and more

Watch the full conversation

Recorded January 15th, 2021

Read the full transcript

TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. I’m very happy to be here today with Patricia Fara. I’ve read and enjoyed all of her books. She is a historian of science at Cambridge University. Her next forthcoming book is called Life after Gravity: Isaac Newton’s London Career. She’s also well known for her writings on women in science, and she appears often on BBC, typically on topics related to science. Patricia, welcome.

PATRICIA FARA: Well, thank you very much for inviting me. I’m very glad to be on the show.

COWEN: Let’s start with Isaac Newton. How was it that he died rich?

FARA: He earned his money from several different ways. When he went down to London, he had far more than he ever did as a Cambridge professor because he was running the London Mint. He got a fat salary for that. He also got a premium, a reward for every single gold coin that was minted.

He invested in global trading companies like the East India Company, for example, that were sending guns and textiles out to Africa and then shipping enslaved peoples over to the Americas.

He also invested in other stock market companies. There was this famous occasion — it’s the anniversary this year of what’s called the South Sea Bubble — when he invested a small fortune in a new company, the South Sea Company, and he watched the levels rise, and he stayed in there, and he sold when the stocks had gone up. He made a small fortune, but then he made the classic beginner’s error. He invested in again at a higher price, and he watched the value crash.

So he did lose several million in today’s currency on that particular venture. But in general, when he died, he was an extremely rich man, and you can tell that — the inventory of his possessions runs to a vellum scroll that’s 17 feet long.

COWEN: What was it that he collected so obsessively to have all these possessions?

FARA: Well, a lot of it was equipment for catering. He’s got this reputation for being very antisocial, but he had hundreds of plates and sets of cutlery and things like that. He also had that ultimate Georgian luxury: he owned two silver chamber pots.

He spent money on having a good number of portraits of himself painted that he would send out to other people as bribes or as rewards for their allegiance to him. He had furniture. He had decorations. He had a carriage. He had a sedan chair tucked in the stables. He had lots of servants.

On Newton’s time at The Royal Mint

COWEN: Now, as you know, Newton spends what, over 30 years working at the Mint?

FARA: Yes.

COWEN: What’s your model of why he did this? How much was it for income? Did he think he was done with major contributions, say, to physics and optics? How do you think about that decision in his life?

FARA: I think he was very frustrated with being at Cambridge. He applied for several positions there, which he didn’t get. In theological terms, he was rather at odds with everybody else at Cambridge because he was a very, very devout believer in God, but he didn’t adhere to the traditional, to the orthodox Anglican theological belief in the Trinity, so that was difficult for him.

He’d been trying to leave Cambridge for some time, and he had a very close friend, Charles Montagu, the Earl of Halifax, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer, very influential man. He managed to find Newton this very prestigious job at the Mint that paid a good salary. The minute Newton heard about it, he downed tools at Cambridge, rushed down to London, and he moved and started a new life within a few months.

COWEN: Why was the Mint located next to the weapons ordnance in London?

FARA: The Mint was traditionally located right inside the Tower of London. If you go to London now as a tourist, in normal times, when you go, you can be shown around the Mint. It’s squashed into the inner and outer walls of the fortifications of the Tower right on the edge of the river. It’s in an ideal location for all the gold coming in from Africa, and it was close to Westminster and royalties and Parliament, so that was also a convenient location.

Newton didn’t like being physically in the Mint. He was given a house that had walls all around the garden, so you couldn’t see anything. The worst thing was that it was very noisy. At that time, there was a zoo in the Tower, so he was kept awake all night by the roaring of the lions and the other animals in the zoo. There was also the clanking of all the Mint machinery.

Because it was a tower, it was a military fortification. There were many soldiers there, and they were riding around on horses and doing all that drill and all the stuff that soldiers do. After a few months, he left the town because he really didn’t like living there. He worked there one day a week, but he did most of his work at home.

COWEN: What do you think about Newton’s basic idea on silver recoinage — bring in all the silver coins, melt them down, reissue at a lower value? Was he right about that or not? Or do you side with John Locke?

FARA: He actually didn’t want to do that. There was a big consultation when he was still in Cambridge. The trouble was that coins in those days were made of valuable metal. If you’ve got a silver coin that was worth a pound, the silver in it was itself worth a pound in money. It’s not like dollars or cents now, where it’s a bit of paper. A bit of paper, a dollar bill, is in itself absolutely worthless.

What criminals did was to file bits off the edge of these silver coins. They had lots of little silver shavings, which they could melt down and turn into silver and get rich that way, but that meant the currency, the coins, were getting lower and lower and lower in value.

Newton’s first job when he got to the Mint was to call in all the currency. Every single coin was meant to go to the Mint. Then he melted it all down, and he started again with new coins that had milled edges like modern coins do, so they’re much, much more difficult to scrape or to forge, and then he reissued those. But quite a lot of things went wrong, and like all those stories, it was a tale of the rich got richer and the poor got poorer.

COWEN: But why think that melting down the coins and reissuing them will solve the problem? Don’t you just reenact the same scenario each time all over again?

FARA: No, you don’t because he changed the way the coins were made. He modernized it. He kept the dies. The molds for making the coins were highly secret, and that made the coins much more difficult to forge. Also, the fact that all the coins have this milled edge — the little ridges around the rim of the coin — meant that you couldn’t shave a bit off because it would be noticeable. Nobody in a shop would accept that coin because they’d immediately see that it wasn’t worth its full value.

COWEN: Newton, as you know, was very interested in alchemy. Was this just craziness on his part? Or is there a way to read him that this is early nanotechnology, and he was ahead of his time? Or was he just out to lunch?

FARA: No, he was definitely not out to lunch. Alchemy was a very serious pursuit. It’s had a very bad press. It’s always associated with people who are cranks or magicians. If you think about the classic example, alchemy is turning lead into gold. That’s changing something that is base, that’s low, that’s valueless, that’s dirty — changing it into something very valuable.

When alchemists looked out on the world, they could see everything around them changing. For example, acorns were growing into trees, or babies were growing into adults, or wood was buried — forest was turning into coal. This idea of change seemed to make a lot of sense to them.

And the idea was that just as a base metal, lead, can be transmuted into gold, if you pray, you can cleanse your own soul and get nearer to God. It was that sort of spiritual alchemy that Newton believed in, but he pursued a huge amount of alchemical research.

He was very expert in alchemy, and many of his alchemical beliefs actually got carried over into his natural philosophy. You can’t draw a hard line between alchemy that’s rubbish and science that’s legitimate and that science is right. It’s not like that at all. You have this very difficult problem of explaining how it is that gravity operates because if you think about it, it’s something we still really haven’t resolved.

If you’ve got two lumps of matter, like the Earth and the moon, made of inert material, how is it that, somehow, they can attract each other, that they’ve got an innate power? That’s the sort of question that science has never really been able to answer. He drew on his alchemical theories to provide different mechanisms to justify and to explain his theory of universal gravity.

In many people’s view of the world, God created the universe, and then God disappeared and left it to run itself like a clock. Newton’s idea was that God was constantly present throughout the universe. He used the word “immanent.” He’s immanent throughout the universe.

When a comet comes in — comets, in his view, are sent by God, and they’ve got fiery tails that have got vegetative — a live matter in them that reanimates the universe. There’s a very vibrant, vital, living view of the universe. It was one that’s absent from modern physics and one that he developed from his own chemical research.

COWEN: Now, Newton’s notion of the ether in his Opticks — was that crazy? Was that a precursor of dark matter? Is ether God? What’s your take on that?

FARA: In the Opticks, as the name suggests, it’s a book about optics. At the end, he added 31 questions or “queries” as he called them. That was a really good opportunity for him to float some really outlandish ideas, and he simply put a question mark at the end. Then nobody could accuse him of actually believing that. He said, “Oh, I was just speculating.”

In the queries of the Opticks, he formulated two different views of gravity. One is the one that there’s some sort of invisible power that stretches out through empty space and attracts the sun to the moon or the apple to the ground.

The other version is that there’s something called an ether and that the ether is made up of tiny, tiny, tiny invisible particles that you can’t weigh. You can’t see them. You can’t smell them, but they pervade everywhere, and then gravity can travel through that ether just like sound is transmitted through air or through water.

That basic model sounds really weird now, but throughout the 19th century, regular scientists, very eminent, prominent scientists all believed in ether, and they developed models of it. It only finally disappeared in 1905 when Albert Einstein introduced his theory of relativity, and one of his aims in doing that is to dispense with the ether, to say it’s a hypothetical substance, and it’s no longer needed.

COWEN: Did Newton ever have sex?

FARA: When he died, he told his doctor that he was a virgin, but of course, that can’t be proved. He certainly had a very close, emotional relationship with at least one young man, but the concept of homosexuality is a 19th-century one. He might well have had a very, very intense, emotional relationship with young men without actually having had sexual relationships with them.

COWEN: Why was Newton so productive during the London plague? Was he self-isolated? Was he sending letters back and forth earlier in his career, before your book starts?

FARA: Oh, yes —

COWEN: It’s in your other book about Newton.

FARA: Oh, that’s right. During the pandemic — which we might now call it, except it wasn’t caused by a virus — yes, he retreated to his country cottage, which now is about an hour by car away from Cambridge. That’s when he supposedly sat beneath a tree in the garden and watched an apple fall to the ground and conceived the theory of gravity. We can never know whether that happened, but it was a story that he only started telling about five years before he died, and he did tell it to four separate people.

It sounds as though he was creating a mythological version of scientific creativity. The story was unknown for decades. It was only, really, in the 19th century that the story of the apple tree came back. Now, of course, it’s as though he were a secular saint. He has an attribute. Like Saint Catherine has a wheel, well, Isaac Newton has his apple.

COWEN: Looking to the history of science more broadly, investigators have known about static electricity for a long, long time — since the ancient Greeks. If it wasn’t Benjamin Franklin, who is actually the researcher who deserves credit for discovering what you might call the full power of electricity? How does that happen exactly?

FARA: I think the person who deserves most credit for identifying it was Alessandro Volta, the Italian researcher. Because you’re right — people have been able to generate static electricity for a long while. There was a big argument. Is the electricity generated by a machine — by human beings — is that the same sort of electricity as exists inside our bodies?

What Volta was able to do — he created a thing called a pile, which was a precursor of a modern battery. He managed to produce a current of electricity, and he showed that it’s the same as the electricity that’s in our bodies. So I think Alessandro Volta is the most important person in the creation of current electricity as opposed to static electricity.

On scientific revolutions and the history of science

COWEN: So many factors seem to lie behind the origins of the Scientific Revolution in England, but also in Europe more generally. Which do you think is the underrated or under-discussed cause of the Scientific Revolution?

FARA: I personally don’t think there was a Scientific Revolution. I think it’s a very inappropriate label. If you meet historians of science on the European continent, it’s something they haven’t really heard of. It was a term that was really introduced during the 20th century. It became particularly important after the Second World War when science was compared with religion. The rather idealistic view was that there could be a universal language of science.

I suppose Isaac Newton’s Principia would be the Bible of the new science, and that could spread internationally. It went along with the very pacifist aim to reduce international tensions. This concept — the label, the Scientific Revolution — became really important during the second half of the 20th century. Since then, a lot of historians have strongly challenged it. I personally don’t think it’s a very good label.

COWEN: But isn’t there something to the notion that, say, Boyle, Cavendish, and Hooke — what they did, which was quite significant, typically multifaceted — it couldn’t have happened in the year 1500, but it could have happened and, indeed, it did happen in the years they lived in. There was additional amount of wealth. There was some institutional support for science. There were royal societies. There’s the beginnings of professionalization. Why shouldn’t we see that as a discrete break in the history of science?

FARA: Because you’ve just given precisely all the reasons why I think it was a continuous effect. And you’re quite right — it couldn’t have happened in 1500 because the other social factors weren’t in place. But the name of a revolution suggests that something changes precipitately and very quickly. It’s quite relevant to remember that the word scientist wasn’t even invented until the 1830s. In this country, it didn’t become common until the late 19th, early 20th century.

Science, as we know it, didn’t exist in the 16th, 17th century, which is where the Scientific Revolution is usually placed. The term “Scientific Revolution” implies that you go from a nonscientific state to a very scientific sort of position, and that actually didn’t happen. There was a long process of continuity.

You could see the 18th century as being extremely important for developing the idea of careers outside the Church and the law, which were the traditional careers — developing different sorts of careers and making science into a professional activity, and that’s what happened in the 19th century.

COWEN: Now, you’ve written a book on 4,000 years of the history of science. How well do you feel we understand the scientific understanding of the ancient world?

FARA: I look back on that book, which I wrote about — I think it came out about 15 years ago. When I wrote it, I was trying extremely hard to get away from a Eurocentric approach and to write an international history of science. Since then, history of science has become still more global and international.

We do know a lot about the ancient world. Unfortunately, we still don’t take sufficient account of other cultures outside Greece and Rome as seen as being particularly important. I think, more and more, we have to look at what was happening in other parts of the world and recognize that not everything originated with Europe.

COWEN: If we look, say, at the breeding and origins of corn, which happens in central Mexico by a group of people now misleadingly called the Aztecs, how much do we understand about how that happened? How much do we know about their science? Do we think they just got lucky? If we knew everything, how many big surprises would there be? Because it’s a remarkable achievement, right? They take a weed, and they make it into a foodstuff that later fuels the Industrial Revolution.

FARA: Yes, but you could say the same with the Egyptians. They cultivated a weed and turned it into something that we used to print books on and used for transmitting knowledge.

A lot of ancient cultures, ancient civilizations had very advanced levels of knowledge, but they weren’t directing it to what we would call science. They wanted to live better. They wanted to be more healthy. They wanted to grow more crops. They wanted to get from one place to another. They wanted to become rich. To do all those things, they developed techniques that later got taken over and were adapted and now are seen as being part of science.

COWEN: Some number of years ago, researchers discovered what’s called the Antikythera mechanism from the ancient world. It seems to be a kind of computational device. Do we need to revise everything we had thought about the ancients with regard to science? Or is this just a marginal change in our understanding of what they were able to do? What else haven’t we discovered from the ancient world?

FARA: The Antikythera device, which was this ancient mechanical clock from the Greek era, which was discovered in the early 20th century, is an absolutely magnificent example of the sort of thing that I’m talking about because, according to the standard historical works, such an elaborate set of gears and such an intricate understanding of what’s going on in the heavens, but particularly the mechanical work that was involved, couldn’t possibly have happened before the Middle Ages.

Here, there is this clock that’s long, long preceding the Middle Ages. The fact that one has been found which is so technically proficient suggests, or really confirms, that there must have been many, many others as well. What historians have started doing is rereading ancient texts and reinterpreting different references to pick up indications that this sort of technology did exist long before we thought it ever did.

COWEN: What should undergraduate science students know about the history of science?

FARA: Oh, I would like to make history of science compulsory for all science students. One thing that they learn — they obviously learn about debates of the past. A lot of the ethical considerations involved in previous debates are still very, very relevant now, so that’s very useful for them. Another reason for them to learn history of science is that if they’re scientists, they’re taught how to carry out calculations and how to advance from a certain base of knowledge and to produce new knowledge.

What historians of science do is argue and interpret and find ways of expressing their own points of view. We teach science students how to write essays, how to present their own position. That’s the skill that everybody is going to need. If you’re writing a grant application, you need to be able to present your ideas clearly.

The other reason for why I think every science student should learn history of science is that the students I teach absolutely love it because they have an opportunity to argue and to express their own ideas and think for themselves. It’s something that students really, really enjoy as well as learning a lot from.

COWEN: How valuable is Thomas Kuhn for understanding the history of science?

FARA: Thomas Kuhn introduced — he didn’t introduce it himself — he developed earlier ideas, and it has come to represent this idea that science doesn’t proceed in a straight line — go up the mountain of truth — that it proceeds through revolutions so that people get hold of a fixed idea.

For example, they know in their absolute hearts that the sun goes around the earth. They know that the sun goes around the earth, but then more and more evidence comes up that really argues against that belief, and that becomes a sort of a crisis when the evidence overwhelms the previous belief. You flip into a new paradigm and go through a different belief that the earth goes around the sun.

An enormous number of holes have been picked in Thomas Kuhn’s book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I think Thomas Kuhn himself would agree with many of those. On the other hand, it was a key book in the way that it influenced people and persuaded them to think about the interaction between science and society in a different way. So it’s been enormously influential, although I don’t really agree with all that much of it.

COWEN: What is it from philosophy of science that you find most valuable in understanding the history of science, if not Kuhn?

FARA: I suppose discussions about the nature of truth and objectivity and whether you can ever attain truth. And what does that mean? Yes, the philosophical relationships between an observation and a fact, that the theory is much more complicated than most people are led to believe.

COWEN: In the history of science, is the abacus overrated or underrated in its importance?

FARA: The abacus?

COWEN: The abacus.

FARA: I don’t think it is rated particularly highly in history. It’s a good example of something that wasn’t invented for scientific purposes but was developed by merchants when they’re trading. You need to add up the bills and work out — I don’t know — how much 6 meters of cloth at $10 a meter is going to cost. It’s a good example of an instrument that was not developed for scientific reasons but for other reasons — in this instance, trading and marketing.

COWEN: Why is Queen Christina of Sweden an important figure for the history of science?

FARA: Queen Christina — well, she’s important because she was a very, very intelligent woman, and she was lucky enough to be rich, so she could study science.

Queen Christina as Minerva. Credit: National Museum of Norway

Queen Christina as Minerva. Credit: National Museum of Norway

She collected an intellectual court around her. She attracted René Descartes, the French philosopher, to her court to come and be her tutor. She learned maths and physics from Descartes, one of Europe’s leading philosophers at the time. But it’s quite cold in Sweden, unlike France. He got very chilled, and he caught some illness, and he died while he was in Sweden with her.

That’s what she’s best known for, but she was also revered in her own age as Athena or as Minerva, the goddess of wisdom. That became a very common emblem. There are various busts and pictures of Queen Christina dressed like Minerva, wearing a helmet — because she was also the goddess of war — wearing a helmet with an owl on the top.

I think Queen Christina was also important for launching a tradition of learned numbers of women who were capable of understanding scientific ideas.

COWEN: Which is, to you, the most interesting city in Northern England?

FARA: Well, if I’m going to extend Northern England to the south a bit, to the Midlands, I would say Lichfield because that’s where Erasmus Darwin lived, who was Charles Darwin’s grandfather. Lichfield is near Birmingham. In the 18th century, Birmingham was quite small and insignificant, and Lichfield was very important. That’s where Darwin developed one of the earliest theories of evolution to be expressed in Britain.

COWEN: Do you think that Charles Darwin noticed his own genetic resemblance to his grandfather Erasmus?

FARA: Oh, Charles Darwin was very impressed by his father. For one thing, physically, they both had a large nose, and they both had a stammer. That was something that Charles Darwin commented on. He also inherited the family aversion to alcohol.

When Charles Darwin was a medical student in Edinburgh, he had to read Erasmus Darwin’s medical textbook, which was called Zoonomia. It was in Zoonomia, in the pages at the end, that Erasmus Darwin first suggested evolutionary ideas.

When Charles Darwin went on the Beagle voyage, when he started taking notes about all the flora and fauna that he saw, he had several notebooks. There’s one notebook that has got his first sketch of an evolutionary branching tree, and that notebook is called Zoonomia. That’s just one example of how influential his grandfather’s intellectual ideas were, but also his general approach to life, his aversion to slavery, for example.

On the lateness of certain scientific discoveries

COWEN: Why do you think it took the world so long to unravel the geological insights that were behind Darwin’s theory of evolution? You need to see that the earth has changed. You see fossils in a historical record. You see sediments of earth corresponding to different areas of time. You would think something like that could have been figured out by the Romans, but it really comes quite late in the history of science. Why?

FARA: Well, it comes late. One reason why it came late in Europe was because of Christian beliefs. It says in the Bible that the earth was created in six days, and on the seventh day God rested. But more importantly, I think the idea of evolution — that God created the world just as it is now — it took a long time to overturn those ideas.

But long before Charles Darwin formulated his idea of evolution by natural selection, that view of the permanence and the unchanging nature of the earth had been overturned a long while previously, and all the geological information was already in place by then.

If you go back, for example, even to Robert Hooke, who was a contemporary of Isaac Newton — during the plague, when Isaac Newton was in his country home at Woolsthorpe, Robert Hooke took refuge at a country house in Surrey. He went for long walks over the downs, and he found lots of fossils of marine organisms. Already, in the middle of the 17th century, Robert Hooke was arguing that there must once have been a sea that lay over that land because he was finding all these marine fossils.

It’s a long, slow process. In retrospect, it’s quite easy to say, “Well, why did it take so long for people to discover that?” One reason is that they had other things to do.

Another reason is that during the 18th and 19th centuries, when all the new canals and the railways were being built, then people started slicing down inside the earth, and for the first time, they could see all those layers, all those geological strata. Again, it was a different activity — improving transport — that stimulated the scientific insights.

COWEN: Now, Linnaeus comes up with his system for classifying plants in what, 1730s, 1740s. That also seems quite late. We’ve had plants around forever. Christianity is not an obstacle there. Why does that development take so long?

FARA: Plants have been classified for many, many centuries. They’ve just been classified in a different way. That is not —

COWEN: But not with unique identifiers, right? Everyone would have their own system. There were multiple dimensions. What do you use plants for? Or is the Linnaean system — it more or less did uniquely identify plants, almost like a search engine, in a way that other researchers could work with, and that’s what took so long.

FARA: Because people classified plants according to why they needed to use them. Plants are mostly used for food and for drugs. John Ray, in the 17th century, did introduce a classification system. It was a different classification system. By the time Linnaeus proposed his, there was several others, and his was strongly opposed. It’s got several important defects, and it’s completely arbitrary, the way that it counts the sexual characteristics of the flowers.

Also, roughly half the flora don’t have flowers that you can count the sexual characteristics in that way. It’s a deeply flawed system that was much criticized at the time. It was like all new scientific ideas — it had to be promoted. There had to be almost a sort of public relations exercise to make sure that Linnaean botany was accepted rather than another one. And it’s now being replaced. There’s a lot of debate about whether it is the best and most useful classification system. It’s not absolutely right. It’s just one system of doing it.

COWEN: If we look at 18th-century portraits, either of scientists or of patrons, they rarely seem to be happy. Why is that?

FARA: [laughs] Perhaps they didn’t look happy because they had to sit still for so long while being painted. That’s certainly true of the early photographs, that people had to pose for a long while. Because portraits were painted . . . if they’re painted of a man — it’s different for a woman — a portrait was painted of a man to show his importance and his seriousness and his gravitas. They didn’t necessarily show him as unhappy.

In the 18th century, they were shown mainly as being noble and austere. In the 17th century, a lot of them actually were given very melancholic expressions — someone like the diarist John Evelyn, for example, or Isaac Newton himself, because being melancholy was associated with scholarship — the idea that you would sit inside in a darkened room, and you had very white skin and fine bones. Your physical attributes reflected the brilliance of your brain.

COWEN: Who is the great, underrated British visual artist in all of British history?

FARA: Well, one of my favorite pictures is not particularly underrated. It’s by Maggi Hambling. The reason it’s my favorite picture is because it’s a portrait of Dorothy Hodgkin, who is the only British woman to have won a Nobel Prize for science. Very, very few people have heard of this. I would like to see Maggi Hambling more represented, but also this particular portrait. Dorothy Hodgkin — she won the Nobel Prize. She identified the molecular structures through X-ray crystallography. She identified insulin, vitamin B, and penicillin.


Portrait of Dorothy Hodgkin

Portrait of Dorothy Hodgkin. Credit: National Portrait Gallery, London.

She was also a very affable, lovely person who campaigned for maternity leave for women in the universities, who was very supportive of other women. She doesn’t have a glamorous, heroic, tragic tale like Rosalind Franklin, for example. She was just an ordinary woman who got on, and she did her science, and she had four children, and she was very supportive of her peers, and everybody liked her. It seems to me that she is the ideal role model for a scientist.

Maggi Hambling has painted a very, very sympathetic portrait of her as an elderly lady burrowing amongst her papers, and she’s painted her with four arms because she’s so busy that her arms are dashing around all over the place. She’s got a big model of a molecule in the middle of her desk to show off her achievements.

On women in science

COWEN: Now, on the role of women in the history of science, Londa Schiebinger has written that early women’s scientific contributions were most prominent in, and I quote, “illustrating, calculating or observing.” Do you agree? If so, why was that the case?

FARA: Science was being carried out at home. Before the 19th century, not much was happening in universities or in public laboratories. A lot of women were at home, and they were essentially working with their brothers or their fathers or their husbands. They weren’t allowed to go to university. Unless they were very rich and could afford a private tutor, they didn’t have the opportunity to learn all the scientific theories that men could because men were allowed to study those sorts of subjects.

If you think about the history of science, of course there are individuals, like Newton and Einstein, who made great discoveries, but science isn’t just about that. You have to be able to communicate ideas from one person to another, from one country to another.

If you think about that model of science, if you think of science as being continuous, not as a range of mountain peaks with individual geniuses standing on top of them, then women played a very, very important role because teaching, illustrating, drawing, editing, running museums, collecting different specimens — those are all absolutely crucial.

If you think of Isaac Newton — he wrote his Principia in a very complicated geometrical language. He said he deliberately made it very difficult because what he said was, “I don’t want to be bothered by little smatterers in mathematics.” So ordinary people, even quite skilled mathematicians, found his book impossible to approach. It was only when other people translated it or explained the ideas in it in simpler terms that his vision, supposedly under the apple tree, managed to spread around the world.

Women played a very important role in that sort of communication and spread of science. I agree with Londa Schiebinger, but I also think that we need to rewrite how we think about the history of science and what’s important about the history of science. Science is about collaboration. It’s about cooperation. It’s not about unique effort, and women were very important in that process.

COWEN: Between 1650 and 1710, 14 percent of German astronomers were women, arguably higher than is the case today. How did that happen?

FARA: Because astronomy — it is a subject now that you study at university, but it also was a craft. To study astronomy, to study the stars, you need to make instruments, and the instruments were being made at home.

The guild structure was very strong in Germany, and a lot of women — in England as well — who were working in instrument-making shops inherited their father’s business, or they were trained up from when they were small children to work with their father. That sort of structure was stronger in Germany than it was in England, but there were also some important female astronomers.

For example, the first Astronomer Royal at Greenwich, when the observatory was built in the 17th century, the first Astronomer Royal was John Flamsteed, and his wife, Joanna (Margaret), was also a good astronomer. She was very good at carrying out all the mathematical calculations that are needed to transform the data — the readings of the stars — to transform those data into measurements that can be recorded in a star catalog.

Another excellent example of that is Caroline Herschel, who came over from Germany with her brother, William, and they set up in Bath together. She was going to be a musician, and she started on her musical career. But then William Herschel got the astronomy bug, and he persuaded her to devote her life to helping him.

She was out there all night, observing on the telescope, also carrying out this work of translating raw data into figures that could be recorded in the star catalog. Also, on her own, she discovered several new comets, and she became very well known for that in the late 18th century.

COWEN: Why are women today so prominent in vaccine science, compared to, say, theoretical physics?

FARA: I’m glad they’re prominent in some science. That’s absolutely excellent.

The problem with theoretical physics — I think there aren’t enough good teachers in the girls’ schools. That’s one problem. I also think we still have a cultural bias, which is very unfortunate, which suggests that women are not clever enough to do physics. I personally really resent that because I got a degree in physics from Oxford. I think a lot of men in physics, unfortunately, are still unwilling to recruit or to promote female scientists. Those are some of the prejudices that we have to smash down.

COWEN: What do you think of the literature on the paradox of gender equality and STEM? For instance, if you go to many of the Muslim nations, where women are quite oppressed, they’re quite a high percentage of STEM students. If you go to the Nordic nations, where women really have pretty strong rights, they’re quite a low percentage of the STEM students. Does that suggest it’s really about preferences and not about social constraints?

FARA: I think that those data are very, very interesting. I, unfortunately, don’t know enough about the situation in Muslim countries. As I understand it, it’s different in . . . Well, naturally, it’s different in different countries, but that does very strongly confirm what I was saying, that it’s a social prejudice, a set of cultural beliefs rather than an intrinsic inability of women to do physics.

As I understand it, a lot of women in Arab nations who go into science at university level then end up teaching other women. That’s something that we could benefit from in this country. Whereas, a lot of the problems start at school, that girls aren’t well taught, and they’re discouraged from carrying out subjects like computer science or physics.

COWEN: In your path to getting a physics PhD, as a woman, what was the greatest barrier or obstacle you faced?

FARA: I haven’t got a physics PhD. I graduated in physics, and that was at a time when, because I got a good degree result, I was offered a position as a PhD student, which would be fully funded by the government. Life was much better back then.

I turned it down because I didn’t want to spend the next three years in a laboratory, fine-tuning instruments and working out some number to the 10th place of decimals. I made a positive decision that I was bored by physics. I wasn’t very good at the practical aspect anyway, and I wanted to get out in the world, and I wanted to do something different.

On the beneficial effects of committing unhistoric acts

COWEN: In one of your interviews, you said the following. This is a quotation: “For example, when I first finished reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch in my early 20s, I resolved to live by her concluding insight that even unhistoric acts, small ones that seemed within my grasp, could have cumulative beneficial effects.” How has that decision shaped your life?

FARA: Oh, I still try to abide by that. For example, I was what’s called the senior tutor of a college, which is like a dean in America, I believe. I was responsible for the pastoral well-being and the educational welfare of about 700 students — something like that — each year.

The aspect of that work that gave me the most pleasure and most gratification was when a student was in deep distress for some reason or another, and I managed to help that individual student and help them regain their life and get back to work and become a happy student again.

I think that’s the sort of thing that George Eliot was talking about — that I had hope that I had a big influence on individual lives. That was the most rewarding aspect of my career.

COWEN: Who first spotted your talent in science?

FARA: Oh, when I was at school, a teacher. In retrospect, I was at a very competitive girls’ school, and I was very, very good at science and maths, but I was pretty good at English and history as well. Sorry, it sounds like I’m boasting, but I was always told —

COWEN: No, you’re supposed to boast. That’s the purpose of our last segment.

FARA: Okay. Well, I was always top of the form. There’s lots of other qualities which I don’t have, but intellectually, I was a year younger than everybody else, and I was at top of the form. I was a very clever person. Intellectually, I was very clever — not in all sorts of other ways. Because it was a high-powered girls’ school, I think all the teachers and my parents were absolutely delighted that they had a teenage girl who was very, very good at science and obviously could succeed.

I also steered into studying science without anybody — including me — seriously questioning whether that was what I actually wanted to do. I was very intellectually competent, so I passed all my exams. I went to Oxford, and I got a very good degree. But I’m far happier now, now that I’ve undertaken a historical subject and I’m more on the art side. Perhaps that’s what I should have done when I was at school, but no one ever noticed that at the time.

COWEN: Why is it you think you didn’t suffer from so much of what is sometimes called a gender confidence gap?

FARA: Oh, I did — enormously. I’m much older now. I’ve slightly had time to get over it. but yes, I was hugely unconfident, not so much when I was at university. After I left university, what I discovered was that I should never ever admit that I had a degree in physics from Oxford because if I was at a nightclub or a party or something, there would soon be this big empty space all around me.

At that time, there was a double image. I was being encouraged to succeed intellectually as a scientist, but also, there was still that older role model, that I had to be the perfect wife and the perfect mother. I had to have my nail varnish all sorted out. There was this double role model, and I was trying to fulfill both, and I felt that I was fulfilling neither. I don’t think it was really until my 40s or 50s that I started feeling confident.

COWEN: Are you a fan of segregated single-sex education, like girls’ schools?

FARA: No, I’m not. There are still a couple of colleges at Cambridge which are single-sex. I have been quite consistently outspoken about saying that I personally think that that’s wrong.

COWEN: For junior high school?

FARA: No, I think education should be mixed all the way up. We’re never going to get away from gender discrimination if we keep separating people, and we’ve got to bring them together. Achieving gender equality isn’t just a matter of improving the position of women. We’ve also got to change the attitudes of men and women towards their lives and towards work.

That’s one of the things I find wonderful when I walk around Cambridge now, and I see young fathers taking their children to school or playing with their children. That’s a cooperative parental approach towards their children that’s fantastic. It’s wonderful for the children, and it is also very rewarding for the parents as well — for both parents, particularly the father.

We’ve got to get away from this idea that work is what really matters because it’s life that matters and how happy you are. That’s far more important than what work you manage to do.

COWEN: How did your start-up experience teach you how to write?

FARA: My start-up experience — how do you mean by that?

COWEN: You talk about this in one of your interviews, that you had a small — within the family — tech company of sorts, and you had to do writing for the company.?

FARA: Right, okay. My husband and I both — foolishly, probably — in our early 20s, both left our work, and we set up a small company making educational material about statistics and about computers, and my role in that was to write the script. I had to translate some quite complex ideas about computer programming and about statistics. I already knew about them, but I had to translate them into very simple phrases, and each one had to be matched to an illustration.

That’s probably why I have so many images in my book, because we were making — they don’t exist now, but they were called tape-slide programs, the 35-millimeter slides that were synchronized with a tape cassette. You had to present an image and an idea together in very simple, basic terms, and I think that was fantastic intellectual training.

COWEN: What do we need to do, then, to produce more highly intelligent, popular writers on science? If you needed to learn to write that way, that suggests it’s pretty hard to get more through the pipeline.

FARA: Well, my remedy, naturally, would be to teach them all history of science, and the latest book — I don’t know, I assume it’s come out in America — Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life. He was one of my students, and he did history of science when he was at Cambridge. He is an excellent example of how someone who studied history of science can also be a brilliant scientist and a brilliant writer.

COWEN: What do you find most rewarding in the visual arts? Because your writing is suffused with images, as are your talks.

FARA: I think pictures are very important. Pictures include a huge amount of information. Many types of information can only be communicated visually. Personally, I love going to art galleries.

And I’ve found it a very rewarding way of teaching because if you . . . At the beginning of the academic year, you’ve got a group of students, and they’re all very nervous — not just of me. They’re nervous of each other. They don’t want to embarrass themselves in front of the other students. If I show them a picture, everybody can say something about a picture. They can say, “Well, that’s a man and a woman sitting at a table.”

By encouraging them to explore the picture, more and more ideas come out. It’s a very helpful way to start a conversation about what’s happening and what all the subtexts are and what all the symbols are.

The frontispiece about the Temple of Serapis by Charles Lyell

The frontispiece about the Temple of Serapis by Charles Lyell. Credit: ResearchGate

If you go back to the Renaissance and the 17th century, it was traditional that the frontispiece of a book — the image opposite the title page — the frontispiece carried a visual summary of the arguments of the whole book. That was true . . .

I suppose the latest famous example was in the middle of the 19th century, Charles Lyell’s famous book on geology. It had a frontispiece about the Temple of Serapis, and that summarized his whole theory about the temple sinking and rising. On the pillars of the temple, you could see boreholes from the marine organisms where it had been submerged below the waters. That’s an old tradition, to summarize an argument in pictures. Perhaps it’s one we could valuably get back to.

COWEN: Who was the greatest female illustrator of science?

FARA: Madame Lavoisier — Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier. She was married to Antoine Lavoisier, who was the French chemist who introduced a lot of the symbols that we’ve got today. He introduced the idea that you have an equation in chemistry, and all the weights have to be the same on both sides.

One of Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier’s 12 plates, page 512

One of Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier’s 12 plates, page 512. Credit:

When they got married, she was only 13. The first thing she did was learn English, which he never did, so she was absolutely essential in his work with all the English chemists and people like Benjamin Franklin from the States and Joseph Priestley from England.

He published a big book, a revolutionary book of chemistry — it was published during the French Revolution — which is commonly regarded as a revolutionary book. It’s regarded as the foundation of modern chemistry. It’s got 12 plates in it. Each of those plates shows an instrument and takes it apart so that somebody who reads the book in Berlin or New York or London could replicate Lavoisier’s results precisely and build an instrument that was exactly the same as the one that he was using. She drew all those plates.

There’s a famous portrait of them. It’s in the Metropolitan in New York — a big portrait, a double portrait of the Lavoisier couple. On his side of the picture, there’s lots of glass instruments and bowls and tubes, and on her side of the picture — she’s looking very beautiful and glamorous — but on her side of the picture, there’s a big portfolio. She was an art student, and she learned from David, the man who painted the double portrait.

All her illustrations, her sketches still survive at Cornell University in the archive. There’re pictures of her made by her, showing her husband’s laboratory, and she shows herself sitting in the middle of the laboratory, and she’s writing down all the observations, and she’s very, very much involved in the scientific work.

Sketch of Marie-Anne Lavoisier’s husband’s laboratory. Credit: HistoryOfScience

Sketch of Marie-Anne Lavoisier’s husband’s laboratory. Credit: HistoryOfScience

There’re two different kinds of illustration that she did. One was technical illustrations for the book, and the other was this illustration showing science not as the sole product of Lavoisier’s brain but as a collective work. There’re about 10 people in the picture, and it includes her as a woman right at the center of Lavoisier’s science.

COWEN: Who was an important illustrator for the development of the science of botany?

FARA: An important illustrator — well, one of them was a 17th-century Dutch woman called Maria Sibylla Merian. She was an extraordinary woman who went out to the East Indies either on her own or with her daughter — I can’t remember. She painted the most wonderful pictures of butterflies and plants and insects. She was a very important illustrator.

Her works were collected by Queen Charlotte, who was the wife of King George III. She did a great deal to promote the science of botany amongst women at the end of the 18th century.

COWEN: Last two questions. First, what is your most effective, unusual work habit?

FARA: My most effective and unusual . . . Well, people who stayed with me in my house have told me that I have a habit of which I was completely unaware — that I sit upstairs, where I’m sitting now, in my study, and I work on my computer. Then, about every half an hour, there’s an enormous bang, and I stamp around the room swearing. The people in the house are terribly worried that something has gone awfully wrong.

Then I get back to work, and everything resumes as usual for the next half an hour, and then it all happens again. I was completely unaware that I did that until several people have told me that I do, but it seems to work.

COWEN: Last question: your book about Isaac Newton — and again, the title is Life after Gravity — that’s coming out soon. It is finished. I recommend it highly. But after that, what will you be doing next?

FARA: I’ve got several projects. One is, I would like to write a book about caricatures. My ideal project would be to have a set of about 50 caricatures by people like William Hogarth or Gillray, which satires on science, and to accompany each caricature with about a thousand words, explaining what the joke is because we’ve lost touch with it.

For example, one of the most famous — which seems relevant today — is that when Jenner introduced smallpox vaccination at the end of the 18th century, everybody was absolutely terrified about what effects that would have on the human body. Gillray did a very famous caricature of all the patients in the clinic sprouting horns and turning into cows because the vaccine was based on cowpox.

That’s just one very obvious example. There were a lot of caricatures about Charles Darwin, for example, representing him as an ape because what he dared to do was bring together animal life and human life.

There’s another famous one of Marie Curie, and she’s with her husband, and it’s so typical that her husband Pierre is holding up this tube of radium chloride, and it’s shining out on his forehead as though he were the genius. She is dressed very demurely and timidly, and she’s hiding behind his back, so it’s giving him all the credit for this discovery, whereas actually, it was her work. It was her project, and she was in charge of radiation.

COWEN: Patricia Fara, thank you very much.

FARA: Well, thank you.