Stephen Payne reviews Mathematics for Ladies: Poems on Women in Science by Jessy Randall (Goldsmiths Press, 2022)
This is a book with a mission: to celebrate women scientists, and 73 famous women scientists in particular, whose names and dates provide the titles for the poems. It’s also a book with a position, which is that many of these scientists are not as famous as they should be, in part because of their gender.
The title is neat and educational, though it sits at a slightly oblique angle to the contents. We are told in the notes that ‘Mathematics for Ladies’ was a derogatory term for pure maths (i.e. maths with no immediate application) in the Soviet Union in the 1920s.
Some of the poems are monologues, in the voice of the scientist. Others are third-person miniature biographies. Some explicitly make a complaint about the scientist’s treatment by the establishment, or by male colleague; most do not. The style of the poems is remarkably uniform: plain-spoken, direct and spare. Few biographical facts are revealed; scientific contributions tend to be alluded to rather than described or elaborated. As biographies, though not at all formally, the poems remind me of clerihews, even if they’re longer, and seldom attempt to be funny.
As biographies, though not at all formally, the poems remind me of clerihews, even if they’re longer, and seldom attempt to be funny
The first poem is unique in that it is not about a particular scientist. It is titled ‘First Scientist (?-?)’ and imagines a girl asking a scientific question:
Is there something inside a stone
that doesn’t show
when it’s broken open?
Something holding the stone
Those of us who remember school physics would probably reply yes, and think vaguely about elementary particles and fundamental forces. Those of us who read contemporary poetry will perhaps be reminded of Charles Simic’s poem, ‘Stone’: “From the outside the stone is a riddle: / No one knows how to answer it.” Randall’s poem finishes with a different question, the driving question for a would-be woman scientist:
How could a girl even
try to find out?
I’m not sure what that ‘even’ is doing. It makes the poem more conversational in tone, which arguably matches the in-voice poems to come. Perhaps it recognises the uncertainty of all scientific investigations.
After this interesting precursor, the scientists are paraded in chronological order, from Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) to Maryam Mirazakhani (1977-2017). To illustrate my earlier characterisation of the poems (as plain, direct and spare), I’d like to quote in full the poem for the third protagonist, the mathematician and philosopher, Émilie du Châtelet (1706-1749):
I’m pregnant again, trying
to finish my book. To save time,
I stop lifting the pen between words.
I’m up until five in the morning.
I keep awake by plunging
my arms into icy water.
I have only a few months left.
This, for sure, is an extreme: it’s almost the shortest poem in the book. If it’s illustrative, as I intend, it illustrates by exaggeration of the general tendency. But I think it is fair to say that Randall writes about the scientists more than the science, which is one approach to the challenge she has set herself. This approach is welcoming to non-scientists, and it succeeds when the fragmentary details are sufficiently intriguing. But it can seem a little unambitious. I am indeed intrigued by du Châtelet’s dedication, but surely for her (and the poem is in her voice), the dedication is tied in with the particularities of mechanics that were engaging her, whereas this short monologue makes no allusion to this entanglement.
Du Châtelet is followed by Laura Bassi (1711-1778), whose poem is more modal in that it tells us something (though little) about the science, and is a touch more lyrical:
I pour mercury in the sun.
In the rain I pour it again.
I measure it in lines.
The lines do not add up.
Now I am more intrigued, both by Bassi’s procedure of pouring mercury and measuring it, and by what role she might have played in the development of thermometry. I’d like to understand why the lines don’t “add up”. Maybe it’s enough to have these questions raised, my interest piqued: I can search online for more information.
I personally find the poems most successful when they make space for the science to be more fully or more evocatively described and when the personality and the science are brought more closely together
I personally find the poems most successful when they make space for the science to be more fully or more evocatively described and when the personality and the science are brought more closely together. A highlight of the book, for me, is the poem for Elizabeth Cabot Agassiz (1822-1907), which weaves quotations from her Seaside Studies in Natural History into a monologue about her married life:
They say I came to science
As though I was dragged, by accident,
like a jellyfish caught in a net.
This is effective because it seems authentically (or plausibly) in the scientist’s words, using an image that reflects her life and enthusiasms. The poem moves on to become affective too, as Agassiz reminisces:
As I write these lines I remember
that day in the boat and how happy
we were. A person could measure
our happiness in oars. A person could
lay down oar after oar and still need
I should also comment on the good work of Goldsmith’s University Press. The book is a nice package. It has a foreword by Pippa Goldschmidt who is an astrophysicist-turned-writer, a small bibliography, and a short set of notes which give highly readable and useful background for a small subset of the poems. Also, and surprisingly, it contains attractive line-sketch portraits (by Kristin DiVona) of many of the scientists.
Stephen Payne is Professor Emeritus at the University of Bath, where until September 2020 he taught and conducted research in Cognitive Science. He lives in Penarth in the Vale of Glamorgan. His first full-length poetry collection, Pattern Beyond Chance, was published by HappenStance Press in 2015 and shortlisted for Wales Book of the Year. His second collection, The Windmill Proof (2021), and a pamphlet The Wax Argument & Other Thought Experiments (2022) were published by the same press.