Science, Science & Society

Women in Science in Europe’s Age of Enlightenment

The “Age of Enlightenment” began in late-17th Century Europe. It was a far-reaching cultural movement and a revolution in human thought that emphasized reason and individualism over tradition. The intellectuals behind the Enlightenment hoped to reform the then-current society via reason, challenge widely-held ideas based in faith and tradition, and advance knowledge via scientific method.

“Enlightened” Yet Exclusionary

Despite the supposedly forward-thinking spirit of the era, women were still excluded from science at every turn. Scientific universities, professions, and societies uniformly refrained from accepting women into their ranks. Women’s only options for scientific learning were self-study, paid tutors, or, occasionally, instruction from their fathers. The few learned women of the time were primarily found among the elite of society.

Restrictions against female involvement in science were equal parts severe and ridiculous. Women were denied access to even the simplest scientific instruments; midwives were forbidden to use forceps. Scientifically-inclined women, as well as any women interested in higher education, were often ridiculed for neglecting their “domestic roles.”

Got a real sausage-fest going there, fellas.

Got a real sausage-fest going there, fellas.

Exceptional Women

Though this exclusionary attitude toward women in science was nearly universal, some women did manage to make significant scientific contributions during the 18th century.

Laura Bassi received a PhD in physics from Italy’s University of Bologna, and became a professor at the school in 1732.

For her contributions to agronomy, and specifically her discovery of methods for making flour and alcohol from potatoes, Eva Ekeblad was the first woman inducted into the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1748.

Through a personal relationship with Empress Catherine the Great, Russian Princess Yekaterina Dashvoka was named director of the Russian Imperial Academy of Sciences of St. Petersburg in 1783. This marked the first time in history that a woman served as the head of a scientific institution.

After serving as an assistant to her brother, William, Germany’s Caroline Herschel became a noted astronomer in her own right. She is best known for her discovery of eight individual comets, the first of which she identified on 1 August 1786, as well as for creating the Index to Flamsteed’s Observations of the Fixed Stars in 1798.

In addition to collaborating with her husband, Antoine, in his laboratory research, Marie-Anne Pierette Paulze of France translated numerous texts on chemistry from English to French. She also illustrated a number of her husband’s books, including his famous Treatise on Chemistry from 1789.

Photo credit: Foter / Public Domain Mark 1.0

Historical Science & Technology, Science

Instruments & Observatories of Medieval Islamic Astronomy

Medieval Islamic astronomy was an amalgamation and extension of foreign influences, including Greek and Indian astronomy. Islamic astronomy itself went on to influence later discoveries, especially those in Europe and China. Numerous star names (Aldebaran, for example) and astronomical terms (such as azimuth) still in use today are of Islamic origin.

The peak of medieval Islamic astronomy came between the 8th and 15th Centuries CE. Developments took place throughout Islam’s sphere of influence, from the Middle East and Central Asia to North Africa, India, and the Far East. Roughly 10,000 medieval Islamic manuscripts on astronomy still exist today.

Inventions & Advances in Astronomy Instruments

Though the astrolabe was an ancient Greek invention for charting the stars, Islamic astronomer Fazari is credited with vastly improving the device. Examples of these improved astrolabes date back as far as 315 CE. During the Abbasid caliphate, Muslim scientists perfected the astrolabe to help chart the official beginning of Ramadan, the hours of prayer, and the relative direction of Mecca. A variation of the astrolabe, called the saphea, was devised by al-Zargali of Andalusia—this device could be used anywhere, independent of the user’s latitude.

Celestial globes, similar to standard globes but showing the apparent positions of stars in the sky, were first developed by Islamic astronomers and date back to at least the 11th Century. A related device, called the armillary sphere, consisting of a spherical framework of rings which represent lines of celestial longitude and latitude, the ecliptic, and other important astronomical features, was also a medieval Islamic invention.

A modern armillary sphere.

A modern armillary sphere.

The equatorium, a mechanical device that helps plot the positions of the moon, sun, and planets without calculation, was invented in roughly 1015 by astronomers in Al-Andalus (modern Spain, Portugal, Andorra, and southern France).

Medieval Islamic astronomers also invented numerous quadrants, including the sine quadrant (used for astronomical calculations) and several variations of the horary quadrant (used to determine time by observations of the sun or stars).

Major Observatories

In the medieval Islamic world, a number of private observatories existed in Baghdad, Damascus, and elsewhere. A number of astronomical advances were made from findings at these observatories, including the measurement of meridian degrees and solar parameters.

The first major observatory in the region was built in Isfahan (in modern Iran) in the 11th Century. From this observatory, Omar Khayyám and other scientists formulated the Persian Solar Calendar, a modernized version of which is still in use in Iran today.

The largest and most significant observatory was created in Maragha (also in modern Iran) in the 13th Century. The Mongol ruler Hulagu Khan kept a home there, and the structure also housed a mosque and library. Numerous leading astronomers of the time worked there, and over the course of a half-century, developed a number of key modifications to the Ptolemaic system.

Another major observatory, now known as the Istanbul Observatory of Taqi ad-Din, was built in 1577. It lasted three years later, however. A large, long-tailed comet was observed and prognosticated to be a sign of coming good fortune; instead, a plague followed, after which spiritually-minded opponents of science and prognostication from the heavens called for the observatory’s destruction.

Photo credit: francisco.j.gonzalez / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)


Glassblowing: Art & Science in One

The aptly named art/science of glassblowing is a glass forming method that involves blowing molten glass into a bubble (using a blowpipe). From this bubble form, the glass can be further worked into a vast spectrum of different shapes, encompassing everything from artistic works to functional devices.

Inflation & Material Refinement

Glassblowing was first developed in the 1st century BCE in ancient Syria. The technique employs what had previously been an unknown property of glass—inflation. This property is made possible by the liquid structure of glass, in which the material’s atoms are held together by powerful chemical bonds in a random configuration. This makes glass viscous enough to be systematically expanded via the introduction of a small amount of blown air.

To better accommodate this glass working method, minor changes were made to the composition of glass itself. Ancient examples of blown glass have been found to contain slightly lower concentrations of natron, a mineral mixture which acts as flux in glass. With lower natron content, glass is stiffer and more easily worked via blowing.

A modern glassblower at work.

A modern glassblower at work.


The first known examples of blown glass date as far back as 37 BCE. Fragments of blown glass tubes, rods, and bottles were discovered in Jerusalem.

Glassblowing grew increasingly common during the early Roman Empire. The technique was used throughout the Roman world, with the first glass workshops created by the Phoenicians in what is now Lebanon, Israel, and Cyprus.

Roman glassblowing methods had spread to Egypt by the 3rd century CE, and later into the northern Alpine regions and Europe, in what is now France and Belgium.

Medieval and Renaissance Europe saw vast improvements in both glassblowing techniques and the quality of glass materials. By the late 17th century, glassblowing was being used to manufacture glass for window panes.

Free-Blowing vs. Mold Blowing

The first glassblowing method was free-blowing; this method is still commonly used, particularly for artistic work. Free-blowing involves blowing short puffs of air into a “gather”—a ball of molten glass that has been spooled at one end of the blowpipe. Glassworkers can quickly inflate the molten glass into first a round bulb, and then work it into the desired shape.

The Portland Vase

The Portland Vase

The Portland Vase, a Roman cameo glass vase dated roughly 25 CE, is an early example of the art and science of free-blowing. Skilled free-blowers can create nearly any shape by variably rotating the blowpipe, swinging it, and carefully controlling the temperature of the glass itself.

Mold-blowing was invented in the early 1st century CE. In mold-blowing, the gather is inflated into a wooden or metal mold, providing a predetermined shape and texture. Single-piece molds are used to produce drinking glasses and other practical storage and transportation vessels. Multi-piece molds are used to create more elaborate pieces with sophisticated surface modeling and texturing.

The Roman Leaf Beaker, a famous historical example of glassblowing art, was created in a three-part mold.

Glass Blower Photo credit: Argonne National Laboratory / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Portland Vase Photo credit: Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic (CC BY 2.5)