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Mary Somerville, the woman for whom the word “scientist” was coined (2016) (brainpickings.org)
95 points by Hooke 3 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 39 comments



Her name might be best known from the eponymous college, perhaps without knowing the connexion: https://www.some.ox.ac.uk/about-somerville/history/

Its alumna Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin is particularly relevant in the context. (I recall when she died the obituary was quickly pushed off BBC news by the death of some actor/actress; sigh.) "... live simply and do serious things." https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothy_Hodgkin


I really like that quote "... live simply and do serious things.", what's the source on that? Thanks!


There doesn't appear to be a completely authentic source. It's cited to be part of a 1988 graduation speech at Bristol University, and appears to be more correctly "live modestly and do serious things". As far as I can tell, no printed copy of that speech exists, so it's all hearsay.

The closest I can get to an authentic citation is a quote of it by a colleague in an obituary published by the Royal Society[1]. It rings authentic, in that it seems like something that would be said in the context of a graduation speech, and as such it may not have left a written record.

[1] https://vdocuments.site/dorothy-mary-crowfoot-hodgkin-om-12-...


Hmm, yes, thanks. I know it as basically crystallographic lore from long ago, as in email sigs, but the only source I could find now is http://www.some.ox.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Dorothy-... I now find another familiar name from the past quoting the "modestly" version which I should use in future: https://sites.google.com/site/oxfordawisehome/elspeth-garman


Her most famous book On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences, which is mentioned in the article, is available in full on Archive.org and looks to be a rather interesting read [1].

[1] https://archive.org/details/onconnexionphys01somegoog


Here is the full text [1] of Whewell's review of this book, by the way, in which the term scientist appears to have first appeared in print [2,3]

[1] https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/sciencecomma/files/2015/04/whewell_...

[2] https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/sciencecomma/2015/04/09/whewell-and...

[3] https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/172698 (note: paywall, but generally the authoritative source)


The Cambridge Philosophical Society is actually a general science society, but being over 200 years old took its name from the era before "scientist" was an established term: https://www.cambridgephilosophicalsociety.org/our-society/ab...


Just read her Wikipedia page. Wow, what a person.



I don't see any attribution supporting the claim that "scientist" was coined for somerville.

"1834, a hybrid coined from Latin scientia (see science) by the Rev. William Whewell, English polymath, by analogy with artist, in the same paragraph in which he coined physicist"

Edit: I'm going to pretend you're being sincere dang ( even though you rate limited me ).

No. Scientist was not coined for somerville.

First 3 minutes, professor laura snyder explains where the word scientist came from.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jc_-Y9rDN2g

Second, your comment about "attribution" was rather misleading ( intentional or not ).

Thirdly, the only sources so far of whewell using the word scientist in a review of her book : "An English man of science who called himself a philosopher now did so rather self-consciously..."

He's complaining about "english man" of science having to be careful about how he refers to himself because philosophers don't like people like him claiming to be philosophers. Last I checked, somerville wasn't an "english man". But regardless, the review of her book comes after he coined the term scientist.

Edit2: Nobody is questioning the attribution of scientist to whewell dang. Most everyone agrees. The question is whether whewell coined the term after somerville. I've provided sources that he didn't. And nowhere in your pg 59 is there a mention of somerville.

I'm trying to give you the benefit of the doubt here but your comment seems very misleading for some reason.


I mean the attribution to Whewell. Turns out he coined many other words too: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Whewell

Since the coinage of "scientist" was in a review of Mary Somerville's work, that claim doesn't seem far-fetched. It's true that the OP should have quoted Whewell, though, and not only secondary sources with current agendas. Surely the original text is out there somewhere?

Edit: ah here it is https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/sciencecomma/files/2015/04/whewell_... - thanks to cbkeller (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=24863646).

The relevant part is on p. 59.

Edit 2: https://archive.org/details/bub_gb_uWsJAAAAQAAJ/page/n67/mod... is clearer, plus you can zoom. Thanks to bitdizzy (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=24863611).


In my reading of that text I note two things

1) Whewell is not coining the term, but claiming it was proposed by "some ingenious gentleman" during previous (1833 meeting?) discussion - was this perhaps sarcastic self-reference? More importantly he suggests it was discarded at the time.

2) More broadly while this comes up in the discussion of what exactly they should call what we now refer to as scientists, it is as an aside in discussion of Mary Somerville's work.

It seems then that the term was neither coined by Whewell, nor was it coined directly after Mary Somerville. Rather it was (first?) recorded in use here by Whewell, picked up again in explict discussion of Somerville as an exemplar.

If correct I guess this makes most arguments here sort-of right, unless there is an earlier written source?


The source that Wikipedia uses for the anonymous writer being Whewell is https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/0003379620020272... , which says:

>From Todhunter's biography [9] we learn that the reviewer was William Whewell, F.R.S.

[9] in turn is:

>9 I. Todhunter, "William Whewell, an account of his writings, with selections from his literary and scientific correspondence", London, 1876, vol. i., p. 92. The editor of the Quarterly Review, J. G. Loekhart, had prescribed 'a lightish paper' for the review of Mrs Somerville's book, and he commended Whewell for his 'spirited' contribution.

This book is https://archive.org/details/williamwhewelld01whewgoog but archive.org's search doesn't find any mention of "scientist" in it, and it's 900 pages long so I have no idea if it's in there. "artist", and "philosopher" and "Coleridge" have 35 search results between them, but none of them appear to be relevant.


I'm confused as to what you are responding to.

The reference we are talking about is above, and it is Whewell's review of Somerville's book (i.e. it is a scan of the text of the 1834 quarterly review you mention). So that attribution isn't in question. It does contain "scientist" (the text is searchable directly) but refers to someone else as having coined the term.

Unless I've misread something?


Err, my bad. I initially quoted a lot more and then trimmed it down, but deleted the wrong part. Let me try again:

>From Todhunter's biography [9] we learn that the reviewer was William Whewell, F.R.S. Whewell wrote:

>

>[...]

>

>/Philosophers/ was felt to be too wide and too lofty a term, and was very properly forbidden them by Mr. Coleridge, both in his capacity of philologer and metaphysician; /sarans/ was rather assuming, besides being French instead of English; some ingenious gentleman [Whewell himself] proposed that, by analogy with /artist/, they might form /scientist/ [...]

The "[Whewell himself]" is an interjection by Sydney Ross. As I said that entire section is cited to the Todhunter biography, so I assumed Ross had found something in the the biography that would verify that Whewell was referring to himself, but I couldn't find it myself.


Ah, gotcha. Above I wondered if it might be a self reference also but couldn't see from the text. Either way I think the rest stands.


For the curious, searching for `"whewell" "coleridge" "scientist"` does give a few results about the 1833 Coleridge exchange that user disown is referring to. (Though many of them source it to Snyder's 2011 book so they're not independent.)

Even the 1834 article we're all talking about says:

>Philosophers was felt to be too wide and too lofty a term, and was very properly forbidden them by Mr. Coleridge [..]

... which he presumably wrote specifically as a reference to that 1833 exchange. This article is anonymous, but see https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=24864582 for why it's attributed to Whewell.

So it's quite possible that he first spoke the word in the 1833 exchange with Coleridge, and first put it to paper in the 1834 review of Somerville's book.

Edit: See also https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=24864563 which has a link to the 1833 meeting's report, which does not appear to mention Coleridge or this exchange.


As far as I can tell after reading that review captured in the archive.org link, Bergland's quote in the brainpickings.org article is inaccurate.

1. Whewell did not coin the term "scientist" (an unnamed "ingenious gentleman" did, unless Whewell slyly intends this to refer to himself, which seems unlikely since he remarks "this was not generally palatable") EDIT: It seems Whewell probably did coin the word "scientist" and this was indeed a sly self-reference.

2. "Scientist" was not coined for Somerville, but instead likely predates Somerville's On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences. Whewell seems to suggest the term arose during one of the meetings of the British Association for the Advancement of Sciences "in the last three summers" (i.e. 1-3 years before the publication of Somerville's book).

3. Whewell, at least in this article, never refers to any single person as a "scientist" and in particular does not call Somerville a scientist.

4. "Scientist" was not coined for reasons of gender, but for unifying investigators of the various subdisciplines of the natural sciences under a single name.

The only thing I can tell that is true is that Whewell speaks very highly of Somerville and is clearly an admirer of her work, especially because Somerville is a woman, and so Whewell is certainly taking Somerville's gender into account in his overall review.

This it the full text of the relevant quote (and the only time the word "scientist" shows up in the review as far as I can tell), with the direct sentence broken out.

> A curious illustration of this result may be observed in the want of any name by which we can designate the students of the knowledge of the material world collectively. We are informed that this difficulty was felt very oppressively by the members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, at their meetings at York, Oxford, and Cambridge, in the last three summers. There was no general term by which these gentlemen could describe themselves with reference to their pursuits. Philosophers was felt to be too wide and too lofty a term, and was very properly forbidden to them by Mr. Coleridge, both in his capacity of philologer and metaphysician; savans was rather assuming, beseides being French instead of English;

> some ingenious gentlman proposed that, by analogy with artist, they might form scientist, and added that there could be no scruple in making free with this termination when we have such words as sciolist, economist, and atheist -- but this was not generally palatble;

> others attempted to translate the term by which the members of similar associations in Germany have described themselves, but it was not found easy to discover an English equivalent for natur-forscher.

EDIT: Apparently @ska has found the same thing.

EDIT 2: Looks like I was wrong about Whewell not coining "scientist." @disown refers to Snyder's TED talk where she mentions that Whewell did in fact coin the word "scientist" in response to Coleridge at the 1833 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

Snyder's book The Philosophical Breakfast Club makes reference to this event, but I cannot find the original source. A report on the 1833 meeting (https://archive.org/details/reportofthirdmee34lond) does not contain mention of this event. Perhaps someone else can track down the original account?


[flagged]


In this comment and also https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=24867774, you're misinterpreting HN moderation. If you look more closely you will see that it is different than you're imagining. For example, it's neither saying nor implying the things you're mentioning here.

(I'm not saying this to defend anything—I just thought you might be curious.)

In the current discourse there are only a few (if not merely two) squares that people are supposed to occupy, and the prevailing feeling is "you're either in my square or the enemy". But operating a community like HN requires not functioning that way, and we don't function that way. The goal is to open up space for something more interesting and complex than angry bashing. That's not so easy. This thread actually did a pretty good job of it, except where it got sucked into angry bashing.


This is probably one of the few communities where you could actually have a somewhat objective discussion of this.

disown 3 months ago [flagged]

According to philosopher/historian Laura Snyder, this claim is not true. The word scientist was coined over a debate on whether "natural philosophers" was accurate/narrow enough of a term to describe what they were doing. In answer to a challenge by poet coleridge, Whewell came up with the term scientist - 'If philosophers is too wide and lofty a term then, by analogy with artist, we may form scientist. In other words, snobbish philosophers who worked with their minds looked down on these "scientists" who worked with their hands and wanted to differentiate themselves from scientists.

Here is her wonderful TED talk describing the history of 'scientist'. It's interesting how since then, the reputation of scientist has risen and philosophers have dropped. Now philosophers and everyone else from economists and political 'scientists' want to be called scientists.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jc_-Y9rDN2g

We are told that in war, truth is the first casualty. Sadly this is true for the culture war as almost everything peddle during this war is half-truths or outright lies. The worrisome part is that so much of media and tech is involved in the disinformation. For anything remotely cultural, I know if it's in wikipedia, the nytimes or posted here, it's most likely bullshit. But nevertheless the bullshit must flow.

[from the article]

"That women should face such an Everestine climb toward inclusion and equality is a piece of curious and rather cruel cultural irony, for the very word “scientist” didn’t always have the overwhelmingly male connotations it has had in recent history. In fact, it was a coined for a woman — the Victorian polymath Mary Somerville"

The above is pretty much all cultural propaganda.

1. Women didn't face everestine climb. Especially privileged wealthy white women like somerville. Sure she had some hurdles, but nothing her privilege couldn't overcome. Somerville had it easier than 90% of men and 95% of women.

2. Scientist always had an overwhelmingly male connotation because scientists are/were overwhelmingly male. Not saying it should be this way or not, but just stating reality.

3. It was indeed not fact, that the term scientist, was coined for a woman.

I doubt the author or the site will correct their lies. I doubt wikipedia will fix their site. And I doubt this is the last we'll see of this here.

Edit: Of course these "warriors" are now distracting with straw man comments. The first 3 minutes of Laura Synder's ted talk explains the origins of scientist. It's not that long of a watch. If you think she's lying or mistaken, then feel free to comment on that. But I see no reason why she would lie and all the evidence, including the one's the naysayers are posting seems to show she is right.


Please don't take HN threads into gender flamewar. Your comment up to and including the YouTube link is great. After that it descends into flamewar boilerplate. We're trying to avoid that here–it's repetitive and therefore tedious and off-topic, plus it evokes nastiness.

https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html


When are you going to accept that these topics themselves are the flamebait? Stop accepting these stupid articles on a tech news site, and you'll stop the flamewars.


It's more complex than that. We as a community need to learn to stick to the interesting aspects and forego the flamewar aspects. This article is a good test case for that, since it clearly has both.

Please see https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=24871577 also. You spend enough time here that I think it's worth trying to explain that you're mis-assessing us a little. You'd find HN more interesting and less frustrating if you recalibrated.


There is nothing interesting here. It's just the same old female worship and man-bashing that gets posted just about every day on here.


The word does indeed seem to be attributable to Whewell, with the OED attributing the first printed use of the word to an 1834 article by Whewell in the Quarterly Review, in which the discussion you allude to regarding "philosophy" being too broad of a term, appears on page 59.

However, you seem to have neglected to mention that this 1934 article by Whewell was a review of Mary Somerville's book (On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences).

The full text of Whewell's 1834 article appears to be available [1] from a University of Kent blog post on the topic [2]

[1] https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/sciencecomma/files/2015/04/whewell_...

[2] https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/sciencecomma/2015/04/09/whewell-and...


> The word does indeed seem to be attributable to Whewell

I know. I said whewell coined the term. But as I noted, Laura Synder said that the term was coined by Whewell in 1833 in response to coleridge.

The point was that whewell coined the term to differentiate "scientist" from "natural philosopher", not for mary somerville.


I know.

The point is that you seem to have left out some rather relevant context. If that was an accident, no problem.

Some of your other comments in this thread indicate that it may be a good idea for you to review the hn guidelines

> Please don't use Hacker News for political or ideological battle. It tramples curiosity.

> Please don't comment on whether someone read an article. "Did you even read the article? It mentions that" can be shortened to "The article mentions that."

https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html


>The point is that you seem to have left out some rather relevant context.

FYI user disown is not using the 1834 article as their source. They're disagreeing that the 1834 article was when Whewell coined the word.


I suppose it depends whether we want to give more weight to the first use in conversation (1833 or before), or the first use in writing (the 1834 article).

The context of the first use in writing is relevant in either case.


To be fair the context of the first writing in 1834 is to directly reference its use in conversation in 1833.


Not to mention the whole crux of this discussion was whether he coined the word for Somerville or not. If he had coined the word in 1833 because Coleridge complained about what they called themselves, then presumably it was unrelated to Somerville.


Well, this is where it seems to get complicated.

There is an 1831 letter from Whewell to Somervilles' father, asking him to thank her for the advance copy of her book which she apparently sent him, and also on behalf of the Philosophical Society for the copy she sent them [1] -- so they would have at the very least been aware of her and her book by the time of the 1833 discussion.

It is definitely not clear to me that the assertion in the article is correct, but one thing they do appear to be correct about is that "man of science" appears to have attained substantial currency (or indeed dominance) as an alternative to "natural philosopher" by 1830 [2,3]. Why not keep using that? Perhaps just because it is unwieldy? On the other hand, this was 1830 -- people were not so adverse to verbosity back then.

In any case, the deeper questions of why the profession was thought to need a noun at all, and of Whewell's internal motivations, seem to me still rather unanswered.

[1] https://archive.org/details/b21960239/page/170/mode/2up?q=wh...

[2] https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/whewell/

[3] https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=man+of+science...


Ah I didn't know they corresponded before 1833! That's great to know.

On the other hand

> In any case, the deeper questions of why the profession was thought to need a noun at all, and of Whewell's internal motivations, seem to me still rather unanswered.

I mean Whewell answers this in detail. There's no ambiguity about why the profession was thought to need a noun at all. It's clear they were looking for a single noun, not a string of words. And it's clear that the purpose was an overarching word to promote the unification of the natural sciences. And it's moreover clear it has nothing to do with trying to be inclusive of females at all (I mean Whewell even explicitly uses the word "gentlemen" to refer to these "proto-scientists").

I will re-quote the relevant portion of Whewell's 1834 review (and the only mention of the word "scientist" in the entire review) from elsewhere in this thread.

> And thus science, even mere physical science, loses all traces of unity. A curious illustration of this result may be observed in the want of any name by which we can designate the students of the knowledge of the material world collectively. We are informed that this difficulty was felt very oppressively by the members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, at their meetings at York, Oxford, and Cambridge, in the last three summers. There was no general term by which these gentlemen could describe themselves with reference to their pursuits. Philosophers was felt to be too wide and too lofty a term, and was very properly forbidden to them by Mr. Coleridge, both in his capacity of philologer and metaphysician; savans was rather assuming, besides being French instead of English;

> some ingenious gentleman [this is Whewell referring to himself] proposed that, by analogy with artist, they might form scientist, and added that there could be no scruple in making free with this termination when we have such words as sciolist, economist, and atheist -- but this was not generally palatable;

> others attempted to translate the term by which the members of similar associations in Germany have described themselves, but it was not found easy to discover an English equivalent for natur-forscher.

It's hard to imagine a more direct exposition in 19th century English of Whewell's internal motivations.


By noun, I mean as opposed to phrase; i.e., unless I'm missing something this does not seem to touch particularly on why "man of science" [/ "men of science"] was not thought to be acceptable, given that it was apparently used about twice as frequently as "natural philosopher" in the surviving books of the time.

I also just noticed that in the 1831 letter, Whewell seems to have been sufficiently impressed by Somerville's book as to write her a poem about it. Such things were presumably more common at the time given that this was the Romantic era, but nonetheless would seem to sugesst that it made an impression on him.


It's pretty clear from all the rejected examples listed they're looking for specifically a one word noun (note they specifically don't mention "natural philosopher" either! Only philosopher). And it's moreover pretty clear that this is a group effort to come up with a word, not just something done by Whewell (he merely contributed the word "scientist").

Given the fact that Whewell uses the word "gentlemen" here, that other people are all doing the same task, and the fact that Whewell outright professes his reasoning for coming up with the word scientist, trying to pin this to Somerville just because the passage happens to be part of a review of her book is really really really stretching it.

As far as I can tell you're relying really really heavily on the coincidence that Whewell has an immense respect for Somerville and the fact that other people happened to use the term "man of science" to argue that he coined "scientist" after Somerville (or at the very least sow doubt in his own stated intentions). And that feels like you're taking Whewell way out of context.


I found Wikipedia's source on the matter. It is here: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/0003379620020272...

"With the new meaning of science the need to designate a man of science became more pressing. Hitherto philosopher had served, but, as I have said, philosophy had narrowed in meaning to exclude natural philosophy, except in the minds and mouths of an older generation. An English man of science who called himself a philosopher now did so rather self-consciously, or hastened to qualify the name with the adjectives ' experimental ' or ' natural. ' The French word philosophe was immedi- ately brought to mind, and those designated by that word were not men of science, besides having been notorious atheists. The name scientist was first propounded in the Quarterly Review for March, 1834. The anonymous reviewer made the suggestion, too jocularly, however, to be taken entirely in earnest, in the course of a review of Mrs Somerville's book On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences. From Todhunter's biography 9 we learn that the reviewer was William Whewell, F.R.S."

I cannot yet find a copy of the original review and am curious to find it. In any case I think you're a little weird for turning this into a soapbox for your views on a so-called culture war.

Edit:

Here it is: https://archive.org/details/bub_gb_uWsJAAAAQAAJ/page/n61/mod...

I invite people to examine the primary source and come to their own conclusions.


> I think you're a little weird

I agree with you that the turn into flamewar was not good, but please don't add personal swipes. That only makes the thread worse—and of course is certain to perpetuate the flamewar.

https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html


Oh, my mistake. I'll do better next time.




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