Science

Saturday’s Google Doodle Celebrates Physicist Laura Bassi

Saturday’s Google Doodle honors physicist Laura Bassi, the first woman to earn a doctorate in science. Bassi spent much of her 46-year career exploring the physics of electricity and popularizing Isaac Newton’s ideas about motion and gravity. She also fought for decades to be allowed to teach, research, and publicly present her work on the same terms as her male colleagues.

Nerves Of Steel

24 years before Bassi was born, an English physicist and mathematician named Isaac Newton published a book explaining the physical laws that govern how objects move and how gravity influences them. Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (commonly known as Newton’s Principia, because he published it in Latin, as one did in the 1600s) is one of the foundations of modern physics. By the time Bassi was a teenager in Bologna, learning logic and natural philosophy from her family’s physician, Newton’s ideas were still pretty controversial in scientific circles – controversial enough, in fact, to drive a wedge between Bassi and her tutor by the time she was 20.

But by then, Bassi’s academic brilliance (combined, probably, with her family’s social and political connections) had attracted the attention of Prospero Lambertini, then the Archbishop of Bologna and eventually Pope Benedict XIV. In a period when women weren’t even admitted to most universities, Lambertini wielded enough power to make sure that Bassi got her chance at a doctorate.

That chance took the form of a public challenge. Lambertini arranged for Bassi to present 49 theses – essays proposing her ideas about science – and defend them in a debate against four professors of physics from the University of Bologna.

On April 17, 1732, Bassi defended her theses in the Palazzo Publico, one of Bologna’s most important government buildings, and the audience was packed with university professors, students, city officials, religious leaders, and assorted nobility. The university awarded Bassi a doctorate in physics less than a month later, making her the second woman to hold a doctorate – and the first to hold one in a science. Her predecessor, Elena Cornaro Piscopia, had earned a doctorate in philosophy in 1678.

It’s worth pausing to take note of a couple of things about that particular “first.” The most important is that obtaining a doctorate from a university was, at the time, a specifically European way of recognizing a person’s knowledge. The fact that Piscopia and Bassi were the first women to earn PhDs doesn’t mean they were the first women in the world to teach philosophy and science, or to engage in research or writing about those subjects. It just means that they were the first in Europe to have their knowledge and work recognized in a particular way.

Second, the average doctoral thesis in 1732 was a few orders of magnitude shorter than the average doctoral thesis in 2021, so we shouldn’t picture Bassi defending 49 modern-style dissertations, each with hundreds of pages of text and references. She probably presented roughly the same amount of work as a modern graduate student, or perhaps a bit more – although most modern graduate students don’t have to defend their research in front of the Senate of Bologna and a future Pope. Bassi didn’t just know her subjects and contribute original ideas to them; she apparently also had nerves of pure steel.

And she probably would have enjoyed that metaphor. Bassi’s research and teaching focused primarily on two things: Isaac Newton’s newfangled ideas about how objects moved, and the physics of electricity. The latter was a hot topic among scientists at the time, who were busy trying to figure out what, exactly, electricity actually was and how it related to the force that makes living things… well, live. Those questions preoccupied people like Alessandro Volta, Luigi Galvani, Benjamin Franklin, and Laura Bassi.

Prodigy At The Gates

It’s fun to imagine a young Laura Bassi storming the gates of academia, wielding her own brilliance and determination in one hand and Labertini’s influence in the other. A month after awarding her doctorate, the University of Bologna hired her as a lecturer. The job came with a salary, and a good one at that. Unlike generations of women after her, Bassi actually made more money than most of her male colleagues. But she was permitted to do much less.

In 18th century Europe, society expected men and women to occupy “separate spheres,” with men working, trading, and engaging in public life while women kept quietly at home. The University of Bologna had made an exception for Bassi, but it would only go so far; the university only rarely allowed her to give formal, public lectures – the kind that brought scientists fame, funding, and contacts – and didn’t give her any research funding.

Bassi wasn’t content to be a figurehead. She wanted to do scientific research, and she wanted to teach and lecture on the same terms as any other professor. With more than a decade of determined effort and the backing of the Pope himself (Lambertini became Pope Benedict XIV in 1740), she finally succeeded. The university finally agreed, in 1749, to fund Bassi’s research and allow her to teach private lessons.

The private lessons allowed Bassi the freedom to teach Newtonian physics, since it wasn’t on the university’s official curriculum. Her research focused mostly on electricity, although she wrote and lectured on a wide range of topics in physics, mathematics, and chemistry. In 1776, the University of Bologna appointed Bassi to the Chair of Experimental Physics, making her a full-fledged professor.

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