It’s a hot, clear, summer’s day. You can feel the sunshine on your skin. You can feel it warming the air, even the wind. It’s warmed the water in your glass and the sand under your foot. If you’ve been out long enough, you might have spotted it bleaching your hair or darkening your skin. You’ll probably just enjoy it.
But a scientist doesn’t just want to experience the world, they want to understand it, possibly even improve it. They’ll split bits of the world into its constituent parts – conceptually at least, though sometimes physically too – poking at them, playing with them, fiddling with them till they have a better sense of how one thing interacts with another. Then they’ll put what they’ve learnt together with other bits of learning, perhaps repeating their experiments in other contexts, have a think or run some maths, continuing to poke, fiddle and play to eek out a better understanding of how the world works.
That’s what Eunice Foot did. She didn’t just want to sit in the sun, she wanted to understand the how the sun’s rays interacted with different gases. She took two glass cylinders and stuck two thermometers in each of them. Next, using an air pump, she removed all the air from one cylinder, and ensured the other cylinder was filled with it. She did that with air (i.e. a mix of nitrogen, oxygen, argon and carbon dioxide), but also with carbon dioxide and oxygen. Then she stuck them in the Sun, to look at the temperature changes.
She noticed that carbon dioxide trapped the most heat. Moreover, writing up these experiments in a paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, she argued that “an atmosphere of that gas would give our earth a high temperature.
This was 1856 and what Foote was describing was pretty much what today kids around the world learn as the greenhouse effect.
Establishing an experimental backbone for the greenhouse effect is generally credited to Irish physicist John Tyndall, in 1859 (more on him in a week or so).
We don’t know much about Foote’s early education, though she it appears that she picked up some scientific training. It wasn’t unusual for women in the period to be interested in science. Indeed, there were plenty of books written for them. For a middle or upper class white woman, at least, learning something of science was seen as a form of refinement. Doing science was a slightly different kettle of fish (though again, not unheard of, just ask Ada Lovelace, and let’s not assume it was only posh people, there’s Mary Anning too).
We do know that the AAAS was open enough to include both amateurs and women members at the time. But we also know that Foote went to the meeting with her husband, Elisha, and that he was allowed to read his own paper, whereas Eunice’s was presented by a Professor Joesph Henry of the Smithsonian.
The first elected female member of the AAAS was astronomer Maria Mitchell, a few years before Foote’s 1856 paper, in 1850. The titles of professional or fellow were almost exclusively kept for men, but women were allowed to join the ranks as science enthusiasts.
According to a recent Smithsonian magazine interview with historian Sally Gregory Kohlstedt, one Alexander Dallas Bache (a physicist and surveyor, and leading light in the AAAS) had strongly promoted open membership. But But he also enforced very strict and critical reviews of any papers they published, hoping to build a very specific image and voice for American science. Just by glancing at the member list and published papers, it's clear that the image and voice favored was male. As is often the case in science, a performance of openness comes alongside heavily enforced boundaries (what sociologists of science call boundary work, TF Gieryn wrote a great book on the topic).
I couldn’t find a photo of Eunice Foote. But here’s one of Alexander Dallas Bache. He had a great scientific beard. It’s just sad it’s so much easier to find pictures of these bearded chaps, rather than all the women science-ing at the time.
We also know that Eunice’s work was left out of the published proceedings of the event. There is a reference in a Scientific American report of the 1856 meeting, under the title “Lady Science”, and it made its way into the American Journal of Science and the Arts. But one of the problems women scientists have (now, as then) is not just that it’s hard to do science and get published, but even when you do people just seem to let their attention waft over it. It’s the classic joke of a board room full of suits – “ah yes, Joan, that’s a brilliant idea, now let’s jet John to say it so we can pay attention to it.”
When the American Journal of Science and the Arts was digitized in 2016, climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe found Foote’s contribution after a colleague asked why there were no women in the history of the discipline.
As Hayhoe told the Climate Home website, with too many uncontrolled factors in the experiment, Foote could not have anticipated that atmospheric CO2 levels would rise quite in the way they did. “There was a bit of luck involved,” says Hayhoe, “but I think it is amazing that she connected the dots and came to a conclusion that subsequent science has proved to be correct.
Foote did receive some praise at the time. The Professor Henry who presented her paper at the AAAS meeting added the preface “Science was of no country and of no sex. The sphere of woman embraces not only the beautiful and the useful, but the true”.
Nice words, but largely bollocks. If science really was “of no sex”, he wouldn’t have had to speak for her. If it had no country they couldn't have stuck American in the title of everything, and everyone would be so bloody white. As with recent spats over politics and the upcoming science march, the affectation that science is somehow without gender, race or any other aspect of humanity only ignores the politics already happening. Science, done well, may aspire to see beyond human prejudices, just as it aspires to see beyond the normal constraints of human eyes, ears and noses, but ignoring politics that is already taking place is just bad science. It's wishful thinking, it’s blinkered and it is a distortion of the truth.
Or, in the awesome, awesome words of Dr Raychelle Burks, science is done by people, and people are assholes. Best remember that.
Next time: a male scientist, but one without a beard, and we'll explore the start of the idea of the greenhouse effect