Category Archives: Science

A Steampunk Feminist’s Perspective on Science Week 2017

Warning Science Ahead

 

You can’t have Steampunk without Science … it would be like trying to build a locomotive without cogs! You could do it with great difficulty, but is the result worth the effort? And is it in a recognisable form? Do the wheels fall off when you try to run with it? I have read Science Fiction stories that claim to have no science, but it sneaks in under the door like smoke from a coal fire. After all, you can’t have a coal fire without coal!

Rocket for SCIENCE

This week is World Science Week, celebrating all the various fields of science from the so-called ‘soft sciences’ like Sociology and Anthropology all the way through to the diamond-hard sciences involving Physics. (Personally, I find this sort of description of the fields of science rather judgemental and divisive, and pretty damn useless.) In Brisbane, the majority of the festivities are taking place in and around the Cultural Precinct. You can find a description of the events here: http://www.worldsciencefestival.com.au/

I attended a Science Writing workshop that was one of the events to kick off the celebrations. I wondered if I should attend, since I have considered myself a science writer for over fifteen years, but curiosity and interest got me there in the end. I am endlessly fascinated by how other writers work. It was a well run and very useful workshop, and I always gain insights into my own process as well as garnering some very good tips.

What I did notice was that most of Science Writers mentioned in the course were men, while at the same time, only one man attended the workshop; the rest were women (including me). Several of the women attendees were already working as science writers or scientists (or both). I wonder if this a sign that things are about the change in the field of Science Writing, to reflect the increase of women working in the STEM fields. As well, the workshop didn’t mention too much about blogging, which is a growing arena for science writing. My favourite female science blogger is the SciBabe: http://scibabe.com/

Science!

So, as more women find their feet in the various fields of science, gain respect, and go on to have stellar careers … so should the women science writers … as should the female writers in the Steampunk genre. There is a knock-on effect.

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Filed under Feminism, Science, Steampunk, Steampunk Feminist, Steampunk Themes, Uncategorized, Women in Science

The Old Astronomer (To His Pupil) by Sarah Williams

 

Sarah Williams

Reach me down my Tycho Brahé, – I would know him when we meet,
When I share my later science, sitting humbly at his feet;
He may know the law of all things, yet be ignorant of how
We are working to completion, working on from then to now.

Pray remember that I leave you all my theory complete,
Lacking only certain data for your adding, as is meet,
And remember men will scorn it, ‘tis original and true,
And the obloquy of newness may fall bitterly on you.

But, my pupil, as my pupil you have learned the worth of scorn,
You have laughed with me at pity, we have joyed to be forlorn,
What for us are all distractions of men’s fellowship and wiles;
What for us the Goddess Pleasure with her meretricious smiles.

You may tell that German College that their honor comes too late,
But they must not waste repentance on the grizzly savant’s fate.
Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light;
I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.

What, my boy, you are not weeping? You should save your eyes for sight;
You will need them, mine observer, yet for many another night.
I leave none but you, my pupil, unto whom my plans are known.
You “have none but me,” you murmur, and I “leave you quite alone”?

Well then, kiss me, – since my mother left her blessing on my brow,
There has been a something wanting in my nature until now;
I can dimly comprehend it, – that I might have been more kind,
Might have cherished you more wisely, as the one I leave behind.

I “have never failed in kindness”? No, we lived too high for strife,–
Calmest coldness was the error which has crept into our life;
But your spirit is untainted, I can dedicate you still
To the service of our science: you will further it? you will!

There are certain calculations I should like to make with you,
To be sure that your deductions will be logical and true;
And remember, “Patience, Patience,” is the watchword of a sage,
Not to-day nor yet to-morrow can complete a perfect age.

I have sown, like Tycho Brahé, that a greater man may reap;
But if none should do my reaping, ’twill disturb me in my sleep
So be careful and be faithful, though, like me, you leave no name;
See, my boy, that nothing turn you to the mere pursuit of fame.

I must say Good-bye, my pupil, for I cannot longer speak;
Draw the curtain back for Venus, ere my vision grows too weak:
It is strange the pearly planet should look red as fiery Mars,–
God will mercifully guide me on my way amongst the stars.

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Filed under Poetry, Science, Uncategorized

Scientific Writing seen as a Form of Creative Non-fiction

 

What really defines the genre of science writing isn’t so much its structure, which uses all the same devices as fiction, but its intent.

Lynne Lumsden Green

 

Like any the genre, fictional or non-fictional, the genre of scientific writing is characterised by several markers:

  1. It is objective, and so by inference, unbiased. However, simply by picking a topic, a scientist is showing a bias. The impression of objectivity is an artificial construction.
    Any research should be repeatable by anyone with the same equipment and methodology. However, the choice of methodology will affect the results, as will the method used for interpreting the data.
  2. It is factual, with no assumptions or guesswork. However, the very choice of the facts can create a bias.
  3. The language is formal, and incorporates scientific terms and jargon. This is a style constraint, and both fiction and non-fiction genres have their own styles that vary from genre to genre.
  4. Scientific articles are usually written by people with scientific qualifications. However, it must be pointed out that scientists are just people and are capable of getting things wrong just as easily as getting things right.
  5. Research should be based upon proving or disproving a hypothesis.

Now…speaking of the concept of what a hypotheses is: a hypothesis is not a law, it is just a theory, a story that explains the known facts in the best way. If another scientist comes up with a theory that explains the facts better, is won’t take long for that to become the accepted theory.

Bruce and Tony  and SCIENCE.PNG
Often, a hypothesis is constructed in metaphorical language, like the Big Bang Theory, Schrödinger’s Cat, and Survival of the Fittest. And that goes against the concept that only poets use metaphors.

In the genre of science writing, the aim is to be an authoritative way of explaining reality.  However, what is real for one person isn’t necessarily real for another. And pseudo-scientists are quite capable of using all these genre markers to good effect.

Warning Science Ahead

What really defines the genre of science writing isn’t so much its structure, which uses all the same devices as fiction, but its intent.

 

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Filed under Creative Non-fiction, Genre, Genre Markers, Science, Science Articles, The Writing Life, Uncategorized, writing, Writing Style

Richard Owen: the Real Victorian Dinosaur

Owen: the most distinguished vertebrate zoologist and palaeontologist… but a most deceitful and odious man.”

— Richard Broke Freeman in Charles Darwin: a Companion, 1978
Richard Owen

Richard Owen -the gifted palaeontologist who coined the word ‘Dinosaur’, and best remembered for his opposition to Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.

In his day, Sir Richard Owen was a controversy magnet, as well as a talented and highly intelligent English biologist, comparative anatomist and palaeontologist. However, he was also inclined to not give credit where academic credit was due, was argumentative and opinionated, and this tended to undermine his real achievements. He was a complex man, and it impacted on his legacy as a scientist.

1846_Owen_Moa

Owen with a Moa bone in 1846

The Good:

Personally, I believe Owen’s support for the founding of the Natural History Museum at South Kensington is his outstanding achievement.Work  on the building that houses the museum began in 1873 and was completed in 1880. The museum was officially opened in 1881, although the move from the old museum was not fully completed until 1883.The collection has both historic as well as scientific value, as many of the specimens collected were by scientists like Darwin or Banks.

Owen did do a lot of original work. It was Owen who first explored the differences between reptiles and dinosaurs, and went on to name Dinosauria – the terrible lizards. It was Owen’s interest in the Dodo that helped with documenting and preserving the remaining partial specimens. He theorised the existence of Moas from a single femur bone, sent to him by a Doctor John Rule of Sydney, who had received it from his nephew in New Zealand, John Harris. Owen named the new species Dinornis. It was his work on fossils that he is best remembered for in the scientific community. Several of his academic text books are still in use today, like Odontography, or are the basis for further work in the field of anatomy.

Owen's Archetype

Owen’s Archetype

Owen was granted right of first refusal on the corpses of any freshly dead animals from the London Zoo, and made significant contributions to the science of taxonomy. This created some amusing situations; Owen’s wife once arrived home to find the carcass of a rhinoceros in her front hallway. However, it was his work on fossils that he is best remembered for. One of Owen’s most notable accomplishments was his description of the vertebrate archetype. There he provided a theoretical framework to interpret anatomical and physiological similarities shared among organisms. Owen saw these mutual features as manifestations of a common blueprint. He defined the archetype this way: “that ideal original or fundamental pattern on which a natural group of animals or system of organs has been constructed, and to modifications of which the various forms of such animals or organs may be referred.”

Richard-owen2

The Bad:

Darwin and Owen started out as colleagues. But Owen was in two minds when Darwin’s The Origin of Species came out; his own theories along similar lines had been much ridiculed in the press and by the scientific establishment. Much later on, he was inclined to publicly agree in the concept of evolution, but was dead against the theory that natural selection was the underlying cause. This brought him the enmity of Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin’s greatest supporter and a member of the X Club. (I told you I would get back to the X Club eventually).

“I often saw Owen, whilst living in London, and admired him greatly, but was never able to understand his character and never became intimate with him. After the publication of the Origin of Species he became my bitter enemy, not owing to any quarrel between us, but as far as I could judge out of jealousy at its success. Poor dear Falconer….had a very bad opinion of him, being convinced that he was not only ambitious, very envious and arrogant, but untruthful and dishonest. His power of hatred was certainly unsurpassed. When in former days I used to defend Owen, Falconer often said, “You will find him out some day”, and so it has proved.”

Charles Darwin, 1887

logic-quote

 

The Ugly:

Owen plagiarised the work of others, and used his influence to hinder the publication of other scientists’ work. In 1846, he was awarded the Royal Medal for a paper he had written on belemnites (an extinct Order of cephlapods).  What Owen had failed to acknowledge was that the belemnite had been discovered by Chaning Pearce, an amateur biologist, four years earlier. It was then that other scientists noted similar behaviour in regards to the late Gideon Mantell. His antagonism towards Gideon Mantell and sabotage of Mantell’s reputation as the original discoverer of the Iguanodon was uncovered. As a result of the ensuing scandal, he was voted off the councils of the Zoological Society and the Royal Society, and denied the presidency of the Royal Society. He didn’t learn a lesson from these incidents.

As he grew older, he ruined his own reputation with his arrogance and ill tempered attacks on other scientists. Not only had he alienated and offended supporters of Darwin like Huxley and Hugh Falconer, he attacked Joseph Hooker – another member of the X Club – and Kew Gardens, and joined up with the reprehensible Acton Smee Ayrton. Owen thought Hooker and Kew Gardens were threatening the success of the Natural History Museum, and again took to using his influence to ruin the reputation of others. It backfired. In the midst of his troubles, Hooker was elected as President of the Royal Society in 1873. This showed publicly the high regard which Hooker’s fellow scientists had for him, and the great importance they attached to his work.

There had been an official report on Kew which had not previously been seen in public. Ayrton had caused this to be written by Richard Owen. Hooker had not seen it, and so had not been given right of reply. However, the report was amongst the papers laid before Parliament, and it contained the most unscrupulous attack on both the Hookers, and suggested (amongst much else) that they had mismanaged the care of their trees, and that their systematic botany was nothing more than “attaching barbarous binomials to foreign weeds”. The discovery of this report no doubt helped to sway opinion in favour of Hooker and Kew (there was debate in the press as well as Parliament). Hooker replied to the Owen report point by point in a factual manner, and his reply placed with the other papers on the case. When Ayrton was questioned about it in the debate led by Lubbock, he replied that “Hooker was too low an official to raise questions of matter with a Minister of the Crown”.

From Wikipedia

Owen had worked hard to contribute to the science of biology, and in the end he muddied his own reputation more than anyone else’s. He spent the last half of his career working as the superintendent of the natural history department of the British Museum and then his Natural History Museum, and even managed to taint that legacy. In 2009, his statue  in the main hall of his museum was replaced with a statue of Darwin (oh, the irony).

In my Steampunk work-in-progress, Owen is only mentioned in passing. But I considering upping his presence…

 

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Filed under Antagonist, Characterization, Dinosaurs, Historical Personage, History, Richard Owen, Science, Steampunk Genre, The X Club, Victorian Era, writing

Science as Hero and Villain

First posted on the HarperCollin’s Voyager Blog

A real scientist sees and considers all the facts…whereas a bad scientist deliberately ignores the facts that don’t support his or her theory.

Lynne Lumsden Green

Bad Science. Bad science infuriates me because it is so often used by Pseudoscientists to back up their pet theories. It is easy to make statements that sound valid and appealing, without having packing evidence. However, the supporters of pseudoscience, bad scientists, turn their backs on the truth and make facts jump through hoops. By blurring the truth, they give all science a bad name, so the honest, hardworking researchers are tarred with the same brush.

Over the years, I’ve brought up this issue before on the Science Page. I’ve shown how statistics can be manipulated or misunderstood, how small sample sizes can skew a result, how biases are formed simply by how a scientist picks a topic and design her experiment. This may have given you all, my readers, the incorrect impression that most scientific research isn’t something to be admired and supported. If I have, I do apologise; Science is always working to improve the human condition, improve society, and save the planet.

This isn’t because every scientist is a selfless individual devoting themselves to the greater good (though some are exactly that sort of person). Being a scientist is like any other job … just as a plumber follows the career path suggested by his or her education interest and abilities, so do most scientists. It’s a job. Some days are good days, when the boundaries of knowledge are expanding and a theory is finally proven, and other days are a dull slog through mountains of reference reading or results. It isn’t a job that suits every one; and you have brilliant and mediocre scientists just like in any other field of human endeavour.

But even a mediocre scientist shines like a diamond when compared to a bad scientist.

You see a lot of Bad Science on the internet as well, usually sprouting up on the Internet. And Bad Science hates proper science, because it might reveal the fallacies and inaccuracies in the pseudoscience rubbish. One of the things about haters is that they only see the facts that they want to see. They will shout down anyone who disagrees with them or questions them, and they are often much louder than the real deal. This high profile means that everyone hears about it when their claims are disproved. And so, because they paraded their ‘facts’ as science, the reputation of all scientists gets a little more tarnished. (I am ignoring here the actual Luddites who won’t even accept proven scientific facts.)

So, it is time we put Science back on its pedestal and the scientific community the recognition and respect it deserves.

Personally, I’ve always felt that the ordinary, everyday scientific advances have benefited women. Who has the most to gain from plumbing? It was the women who carried the water from the wells, heated the water for laundry, cleaning, washing and bathing, and scrubbed the chamber pots after throwing away the contents. Few men were ever involved in these chores; they probably thought it built character, or kept the women too busy to gossip, or some such patriarchal bunkum. However, a clever woman is very good at making a man think he has had a good idea. Like internal plumbing or flushing toilets…

Historically, Science has been womankind’s knight in shining lab coats. These days, Science provides all sorts of toys for the girls and boys.

This article was inspired by the Australian government’s decision to no longer have a Minister for Science. I don’t like to get too political, but I think that is quite a frightening step backwards for our clever country. It is up to us to keep Australia a clever country.

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Filed under Opinion Piece, Science, Uncategorized, Women in Science

The Cryptozoology of the Victorian Era

feejeemermaid_bostonmuseum_midgley_sightsinboston

The Feejee Mermaid on display in the Victorian era.

The Australian platypus probably contributed to the proliferation of rogue taxidermy and out-in-out hoaxes that occurred during the Victorian era. When skins and specimens were sent back to Europe, scientists thought the animals were constructed from parts cut from ducks and beavers and who knew what else. The platypus, a real animal, was discounted as a fake.

A Victorian-era illustration of the Platypus – body too fat, tail too small, and with frilly feet and a square bill. Still cute.

That the example of the Feejee Mermaids (there were more than one) was obviously following. The original was construction from the taxidermy remains of an infant monkey sewn to a fish. It looked nothing like the lovely mermaidens used on the advertising. In fact, it was a grotesquerie of the highest order, displayed under glass for the edification of the masses.The original mermaid was exhibited by P.T Barnum in Barnum’s American Museum in New York in 1842.

Feejee Mermaid

The Original Feejee Mermaid

Feejee mermaid of monkey plus fish tail

Modern example of a feejee mermaid.

The infamous Hydrarchos – the alleged skeleton of a sea serpent – was brought to New York City in 1845 by the amateur German-American fossil hunter Albert Koch. It had previously been on exhibit in Europe. The Hydrarchos skeleton  was constructed mainly from the remains of several specimens of the prehistoric whale Basilosaurus with the exception of its paddles, which were made from collections of invertebrate shells. During the early 19th century, Basilosaurus cetoides fossils were so common they were regularly used as furniture in the American south, and so were easily to obtain for his Hydrarchos.

Hydrarchos exhibited in the Hall of the Royal Iron Foundry in Berlin, 1842.

Hydrachos exhibited in Berlin in 1842.

This wasn’t the first time Koch had tried to hoax the public; he had previously used wooden blocks and extra vertebrae to construct a mastodon. He managed to sell the grotesquery to the British Museum in 1842. They took out the extra bits, put the tusks back properly, and recovered the original mastodon for their collection.

The Missourium or Koch’s Mastodon.  Note the tusks have been twisted around to make for a bizarre skull.

At least Koch had used actual bones to create his masterpieces. New Yorker George Hull hired men to carve out a 3.2 metre block of gypsum in Iowa, telling them it was intended for a monument to Abraham Lincoln in New York. He shipped the block to Chicago, where he hired a German stonecutter, Edward Burghardt, to carve it into the likeness of a naked giant. Various stains and acids were used to make the giant appear to be old and weathered, and the giant’s surface was poked with steel knitting needles to mimic pores. In November 1868, Hull transported the giant by rail to the farm of William Newell, his cousin. Nearly a year later, Newell hired Gideon Emmons and Henry Nichols, ostensibly to dig a well, and in October 1869 they found the giant sculpture.

the Cardiff Giant.jpg

The excavation of the Cardiff Giant

People flocked to see the giant, happy to pay the admission to see the ‘petrified’ man. (I can’t find any reference to the exhibitors hiding his rather prominent man bits from the ladies.) Palaeontologists declared it a fraud, but that didn’t stop the crowds. Hull sold it to a syndicate. P T Barnum went as far as creating a copy, when the syndicate wouldn’t sell him the original. This all came out  on December 10, 1870, Hull confessed to the press that the giant was a hoax. He claimed he did it to prove a point about the gullibility of people who believed in giants.

I am finding this topic fascinating. But I will get back to the X club members.

 

 

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Filed under Cryptozoology, Frauds and Hoaxes, History, Science, Steampunk Themes, Uncategorized, Victorian Era

Being First – the Triumphs and Tragedies of Sofia; A Steampunk Feminist’s Perspective

Sometimes, being first isn’t what it is cracked up to be. This is particularly true if you are the first woman to achieve recognition in what is considered a solely masculine area. Sofia Kovalevskaya (née Korvin-Krukovskaya), was not only a great mathematician, she was the first woman in modern Europe to gain a doctorate in mathematics, the first woman to hold a university chair in modern Europe, the first woman on the editorial staff of a mathematical journal, as well as a writer and advocate of women’s rights. Being first means a constant struggle against the current of tradition and opposition to change.

As a young child Sofia was fascinated with the unusual wallpaper on the wall of her bedroom, the lecture notes on Mikhail Ostrogradsky and his interpretations of differential and integral calculus. Who knew that a money saving measure would be so inspirational? The family’s tutor, Yosef Malevich, took note of her interest, and at age eleven, Sofia undertook her first proper study of mathematics.

Her father wasn’t supportive of her maths studies, at least, not at first. He put a stop to the lessons, but it was too late for Sophia, as mathematics was now her passion. She snuck a copy of Bourdeu’s Algebra into her bedroom and she read it at night when the rest of the household was asleep (I used to sneak books too, but not maths texts).

Professor Tyrtov, a friend of the family and a neighbour, presented her family with a physics textbook which he had written. and Sofia attempted to read it. She did not understand the trigonometric formulae and attempted to explain them herself. Professor Tyrtov realised that in her working with the concept of sine, she had used the same method by which it had been developed historically. This inspired him to argue with Sofia’s father that she should be encouraged to study mathematics further, rather than waste her intelligence and interests.  Sadly, it was several years before he was finally agreeable to allow Sofia to take private lessons. I suspect her mother may have had some influence, as she was a scholarly woman in her own right.

The tutor her family hired was A. N. Strannoliubskii, a well-known advocate of higher education for women, who taught her calculus. Strannoliubskii wrote scholarly articles on education, such as ‘The Procedure for Determining the Position of a Teacher Beginning in the City Schools in the City of St Petersburg’ and ‘Insolency’, which was a critique about the city’s educational policies. (Both those article title translations were made by me using Google Translate. I apologise if they are incorrect.) At the same time, Sofia began an exploration of the philosophy of nihilism, with the encouragement of her local priest. One can only wonder at how her intellectual horizons were expanding during this time in her life.

Sofia wanted to go onto study mathematics at university; Russia at that time didn’t allow women into institutions of higher learning, and so she made the decision to go abroad to study. Her father would not allow her to leave home to study at a university, and women in Russia could not live apart from their families without the written permission of their father or husband. So, Sofia hit upon a novel solution. At the age of eighteen, she entered a nominal marriage with Vladimir Kovalevski, a young palaeontologist. It was meant to be a marriage in name only. They emigrated from Russia that very same year.

Sofia Kovalevskaya

You might think Sofia’s problems with getting an education were over, but they were just starting. When Sofia tried to enrol in the university at Heidelberg, she discovered women could not matriculate at the university. Eventually, she was able to persuaded the university authorities to allow her to attend lectures unofficially, provided that she obtain the permission of each of her lecturers, among whom were Hermann von Helmholtz, Gustav Kirchhoff, and Robert Bunsen. She certainly impressed Professor Leo Königsberger, mathematician and science historian, because in 1871, she moved to Berlin to study with Professor Königsberger’s teacher, Karl Weierstrass, considered the “father of modern analysis”. However, the university senate would not let Sofia attend university, even with the support of her teachers. Over the next four years Weierstrass tutored her privately.

Three years later, she presented three papers to the Göttingen as her doctoral dissertation:

  • on partial differential equations,
  • on the dynamics of Saturn’s rings
  • and on elliptic integrals.

With the invaluable support of Karl Weierstrass, this earned her a doctorate in mathematics summa cum laude, bypassing the usual required lectures and examinations. She became the first woman in Europe to hold that degree.

Sadly, Sofia and Vladimir now developed financial problems. Sofia wanted to work as a lecturer at the university; however, she was not allowed to because she was a woman, and this was despite volunteering to provide free lectures as proof of her abilities. At this point, her relationship with Vladimir changed. They had a daughter together. However, Sofia was not happy as a wife and mother, so she left Vladimir, and arranged for her sister to care for their daughter while she returned to her first love, Mathematics.

Alas, Vladimir, never the strongest of personalities, beset with financial woes, and now separated from Sofia for two years and bereft of her emotional support, committed suicide. He had made some sound contributions to science, supporting and translating Darwin’s works, as well as supporting Sofia’s battles to get an education. Sofia was saddened his death. She went on to have a relationship with her late husband’s cousin, Maksim Maksimovich Kovalevsky, a socialologist; they never formalised the relationship but they remained lovers for the rest of Sofia’s life. Some historians have suggested she also had a romantic relationship with her friend, Anne Charlotte Edgren-Leffler. Sofia did not live a life without love.

Anne Charlotte Edgren-Leffler and Sofia

After Vladamir’s death, Sofia Kovalevskaya accepted Magnus Gösta Mittag-Leffler’s invitation to become a lecturer in mathematics at the University of Stockholm (he was Anne’s brother). She was promoted to full professor in 1889. In 1884 she joined the editorial board of the mathematical journal Acta Mathematica, and in 1888 she became the first woman to be elected a corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences. In 1888, she was awarded the Prix Bordin of the French Academy of Sciences for a paper on the rotation of a solid body around a fixed point. And then, in 1889, she was appointed Professor Ordinarius at Stockholm University, the first woman to hold such a position at a northern European university. After much lobbying on her behalf (and a change in the Academy’s rules) she was granted a Chair in the Russian Academy of Sciences, but was never offered a professorship in Russia.

During this latter period of her life, Sofia gained a reputation as a writer, an advocate of women’s rights, and a champion of radical political causes. She composed novels, plays, and essays, including the autobiographical Memories of Childhood and The Nihilist Woman, a depiction of her life in Russia. She had only managed to publish ten scientific papers before her death from influenza, complicated with pneumonia, after a trip to Paris to see Maksim. She was only forty-one, but she had packed a lot of living into her short life.

Maksim

Sofia didn’t let anything discourage her from her goals. Imagine what she might have achieved if she had lived to be eighty.

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Historical Personage, History, Science, Steampunk Feminist, Steampunk Genre, Uncategorized, Women in Science