International Day of Women and Girls in Science, a global effort to promote gender parity across STEM education, research and professions, was established by UNESCO in 2015. This year, taking place on 11th February and supported by roughly 70 countries, the theme was ‘Investment in Women and Girls in Science for Inclusive Green Growth’. They propose that the “potential of the Fourth Industrial Revolution” lies in “harnessing the creativity and innovation” of all genders, and their event that took place over two days featured a myriad of experts discussing not only how sustainability can save the planet, but how women and girls can be empowered to be pioneers of this change.
Science has often been a place for the privileged, and climate science is no different; wealthy, white, male scientists dominate scientific history, but many brilliant minds have fought against these barriers to make their own contributions.
One such example is Eunice Foote, whose experimental work was the first to distinguish a link between Carbon Dioxide and increased warming.
Born in Connecticut in 1819, Foote was a longstanding campaigner for women’s rights throughout her life, even preparing the proceedings for the 1948 Seneca Falls Convention, the first known women’s rights convention. Educated at an all-female school, with limited STEM education, she was among some students fortunate enough to be invited to the nearby science college by Amos Eaton, a scientist and educator particularly interested in women’s education, where she learnt basic chemistry and experimental techniques.
Her elemental scientific experience paired with an avid interest in the world around her led her to carry out an experiment that would result in the first experimental connection between the gases in the atmosphere and its subsequent heating.
Assisted by her husband Elisha, who was a lawyer but also a keen amateur scientist, she removed gas from one glass cylinder and condensed it into another, and then she placed the cylinders in direct sunlight and monitored the temperatures of each. This was performed for common air, Hydrogen, and Carbon Dioxide, and the results of Foote’s experiment showed the highest temperatures occurring when Carbon Dioxide was the gas present. She theorised that “an atmosphere of that gas [Carbon Dioxide] would give our Earth a high temperature”, and this idea, that Carbon Dioxide increases the trapped heat in our atmosphere, is the basis of the Greenhouse Effect.
Her work was accepted at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in 1856 under the title ‘Circumstances affecting the heat of sun’s rays’, but as a woman, she was not permitted to present her own work. Professor John Henry presented it on her behalf, opening with the statement that “science was of no country and no sex.” This seems ironic considering that at the time, the AAAS would accept women to be members only as ‘scientific enthusiasts’, whilst men were fellows and professionals. Her findings were not published alongside the other papers from the meeting, instead printed in the ‘Scientific Ladies’ column in an issue of Scientific American later that year.
Overall, her work was fairly unacknowledged, apart from a feature in the American Journal of Arts and Science, alongside an article on colour blindness by the Irish physicist John Tyndall.
Three years later, Tyndall would report his own investigation to the Proceedings of the Royal Society concerning the effect of different gases on radiative heat, claiming that “with regard to the action of other gases upon heat, we are not, as far as I am aware, possessed of a single experiment.”
A well-educated man, Tyndall completed his graduate education in Germany and then went on to become a professor at the Royal Institute in London. He possessed rigorous scientific training, access to a very modern laboratory, and a huge amount more financial and scientific support than Eunice Foote ever did, and this is evident in their experiments: Foote’s apparatus did not allow her to distinguish between the direct effect of solar radiation and re-radiated infrared waves, whereas Tyndall’s could.
This distinction is integral to understanding whether the increase in heat was due to the Greenhouse Effect as we know it, and not just simply due to different gas densities. As a result of these complications, as well as certain other uncontrollable factors, Eunice Foote’s work was not especially scientifically sound, and thus Tyndall, sometimes referred to as the founder of climate science, achieved far more for the subject than Foote had the opportunity to.
Whilst it will never be known whether Tyndall was truly familiar with Foote’s work, or whether his oversight of her experiment was a genuine error, it is hard to believe that her gender did not play an important role here. Despite her lack of scientific training, she was asking the right questions, at a time when no one had thought to ask them before. Had she had the opportunities that Tyndall was afforded, she may have been able to answer more of those questions herself. It is not enough to just hope that one day STEM opportunities will be afforded to everyone. We must actively fight the stifling of minorities, whether regarding gender, ethnicity, religion, sexuality or class, that stunts the communal conversations so integral to science.
This post was written by Hollie Marks and edited by Karolina Zięba.
On February 11 the world celebrated the International Day of Women in Science. In honour of the holiday, EuSci is publishing articles about women in STEM. If you are interested in writing about your experience as a woman in STEM, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.