Peake and the Women that Science Forgot

01/01/2016 21:00
  • Rowan Douglas Feminist, consent campaigner, student and linguist

In 1989, Helen Sharman, a research chemist from Yorkshire, answered a radio advert. The advert said, "Astronaut wanted, no experience necessary." After beating 13,000 other applicants for a place on Project Juno, Sharman blasted off in 1991 to visit the Mir space station. She was the first Briton in space.

Over the last few weeks, the British public has gone wild for Tim Peake. Understandably so. Space travel is exciting and it is unfamiliar. As technology advances, scientists are coming to understand more and more about our universe, but space remains a mystery for most of us. The colossal blackness seems impossible to comprehend, and as such, any foray into its darkness is fascinating and compelling. Peake's achievements are impressive and deserve to be noted. He beat over 8,000 other applicants for his place on the expedition and underwent rigorous training. As the seventh British born person in space, and the sixth British born person to visit the International Space Station, he remains a rare breed.

But not quite as rare as some may lead us to believe. Tim Peake is not the first Briton in space. He is the first publicly funded Brit, which I guess is quite exciting, but I think the reason for his popularity lies elsewhere. Peake is the first British space traveller in the social media era. He tweets, he sends funny videos, he tells us about his bacon sandwich and cups of tea. He slides neatly into the superficial paradigm of what it means to be British, and so we glorify in both his Britishness and his accessibility. His mission, Principia, has a website with easily downloadable branding and logos (in a number of different colours and formats as I discovered). Thus any space-mad child can have the Principia logo emblazoned across their bedroom walls and windows.

I would like to ascribe our fascination with Peake, and disregard of Sharman's shattered glass-ceiling simply to the era we live in. To the internet. To twitter. To cups of tea and bacon sandwiches. Unfortunately, I don't think this is quite true. Forgetting Sharman's achievements is uncomfortably reminiscent of science's propensity to forget other women. Women who changed the face of science as we know it, yet whose work went largely unrecognised until very recently. Over time, we have developed a disturbing trait of writing women out of our history. In most cases, the odds they faced were significantly greater than their male counterparts, however they were overlooked, disregarded, forgotten.

Perhaps the most famous of these women is Rosalind Franklin, the British chemist whose X-ray techniques were essential for Watson and Crick's understanding of the structure of DNA. She is not alone. Consider Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who discovered pulsars in 1967. In order to make her discovery, she had to analyse the data printed on three miles of paper from a radio telescope which she had helped to make. Her discoveries resulted in a Nobel prize, which inexplicably went to two of her colleagues. Two of her male colleagues.

When we do accept the importance of women's contributions to science, we strive to make them palatable. To squeeze their achievements into the confined space that women have eked out for themselves in the scientific narrative. Florence Nightingale is remembered solely on the basis of her nursing achievements. On her ability to hold a lamp, to nurse the wounded and to maintain cleanliness. In fact, she was an impressive mathematician, and an early pioneer in the graphical representation of statistics.

The odds really were stacked impossibly high for these women, yet they all succeeded in one way or another. Given this historical context, our attitude to Helen Sharman, in that she's basically unknown, takes a more sinister turn. The speed with which we forget women's achievements, particularly in science is shameful and part of a wider reluctance to accept that women can be successful in the STEM subjects. The situation is improving, yet women remain underrepresented in the sciences at all levels of the education system and into the workforce.

So, when you get excited about Tim Peake over the next six months, remember who came before him and what she represents. Sharman was the first Briton in space, and one of the youngest out of the 545 people who have got up there. She underwent 18 months of gruelling training for just seven days in space and conducted a number of important experiments in that time.

If we have forgotten her, who else are we yet to remember?