“Scientist” is a gender-neutral term

I’d already known that “scientist” coined by William Whewell in the 19th century, but only today did I learn the context. The first scientist by name was Mary Somerville, and Whewell had to invent the term to describe her!

Months after the publication of Somerville’s Connexion, the English polymath William Whewell — then master of Trinity College, where Newton had once been a fellow, and previously pivotal in making Somerville’s Laplace book a requirement of the university’s higher mathematics curriculum — wrote a laudatory review of her work, in which he coined the word scientist to refer to her. The commonly used term up to that point — “man of science” — clearly couldn’t apply to a woman, nor to what Whewell considered “the peculiar illumination” of the female mind: the ability to synthesize ideas and connect seemingly disparate disciplines into a clear lens on reality. Because he couldn’t call her a physicist, a geologist, or a chemist — she had written with deep knowledge of all these disciplines and more — Whewell unified them all into scientist. Some scholars have suggested that he coined the term a year earlier in his correspondence with Coleridge, but no clear evidence survives. What does survive is his incontrovertible regard for Somerville, which remains printed in plain sight — in his review, he praises her as a “person of true science.”

He still managed to squeeze in some sexist stereotyping, but that’s cool. Read the whole article to find out what remarkable person Somerville was.


  1. cartomancer says

    Somerville College, Oxford, was named in her honour. And it was going really well until they turned out one Margaret Hilda “Satan Herself” Roberts in the 1940s.

  2. lumipuna says

    In Finnish and (AFAIK) in Swedish we just talk about “researchers”, because there’s no commonly used direct equivalent for “scientist”. At least in Finnish, the formulation “man of science” remained in use rather long, and is still used informally in reference to specific persons (also sometimes “woman of science”).

  3. raven says

    Here is a thread where Dmitry Medvedev predicts the collapse of the West next year. Medvedev is the former head of Russia.
    He is also a bit of a loon.
    I keep saying that Russia is what you get when internet trolls run a country.

    And oh yeah, his first and main fan is Elon Musk.
    Elon Musk has tilted so far in favor of Russia that he has become a security threat to the USA.

    Thread See new Tweets
    Dmitry Medvedev @MedvedevRussiaE

    Russia government official
    On the New Year’s Eve, everybody’s into making predictions

    Many come up with futuristic hypotheses, as if competing to single out the wildest, and even the most absurd ones.

    Here’s our humble contribution.
    What can happen in 2023:
    1:23 PM · Dec 26, 2022

    Dmitry Medvedev
    Russia government official
    Replying to
    1. Oil price will rise to $150 a barrel, and gas price will top $5.000 per 1.000 cubic meters
    2. The UK will rejoin the EU
    3. The EU will collapse after the UK’s return; Euro will drop out of use as the former EU currency
    Dmitry Medvedev @MedvedevRussiaE
    4. Poland and Hungary will occupy western regions of the formerly existing Ukraine
    5. The Fourth Reich will be created, encompassing the territory of Germany and its satellites, i.e., Poland, the Baltic states, Czechia, Slovakia, the Kiev Republic, and other outcasts
    Dmitry Medvedev @MedvedevRussiaE
    6. War will break out between France and the Fourth Reich. Europe will be divided, Poland repartitioned in the process
    7. Northern Ireland will separate from the UK and join the Republic of Ireland
    Dmitry Medvedev @MedvedevRussiaE
    8. Civil war will break out in the US, California. and Texas becoming independent states as a result. Texas and Mexico will form an allied state. Elon Musk’ll win the presidential election in a number of states which, after the new Civil War’s end, will have been given to the GOP
    Dmitry Medvedev @MedvedevRussiaE
    9. All the largest stock markets and financial activity will leave the US and Europe and move to Asia
    Dmitry Medvedev@MedvedevRussiaE
    10. The Bretton Woods system of monetary management will collapse, leading to the IMF and World Bank crash. Euro and Dollar will stop circulating as the global reserve currencies. Digital fiat currencies will be actively used instead
    Dmitry Medvedev@MedvedevRussiaE

    Season greetings to you all, Anglo-Saxon friends, and their happily oinking piglets!
    Elon Musk@elonmusk
    Replying to
    Epic thread!!

    “Epic thread!” says the person they’ve cultivated as an asset

  4. raven says

    Well, my comment at #3 was meant for another thread.
    Whatever, it is off topic but still amusing in a warped sort of way.

  5. Paolo says

    In Italian we use the word “scienziato”, which was coined in the XIVth c. as an adjective and later became a noun; thus it could be used both for men and women since the beginning, although I don’t know when it was first used for a woman.

  6. ANB says

    Thank you for this post. I followed the links and learned a lot.
    We seem to have some of the same things we follow. (Surprise).

    Brain Picking Weekly? (I recommend this to all followers of this blog. It’s free (though I support her). Maria Popova.

  7. Rob Grigjanis says

    @8 and @9: Like many other people, Popova gets Emmy Noether wrong;

    As he was revolutionizing our understanding of reality, Albert Einstein kept stumbling over one monolith of mystery — why is it that while some things in physical systems change (and relativity is a theory of change: of how changes in coordinates give shape to spacetime), nature keeps other things immutable: things like energy, momentum, and electrical charge. And the crucial puzzle: Why we cannot destroy energy or create it out of nothing — we can only transform it from one form to another in ever-morphing symmetries. The revelation, which made Einstein’s general relativity possible, came from the mathematics of Emmy Noether (March 23, 1882–April 14, 1935)


    Noether’s work, while important, didn’t “make Einstein’s general relativity possible”.

    The actual story: In 1915, Einstein and David Hilbert were racing to complete their work on the gravitational field equations, using different approaches. Hilbert’s approach involved mathematics in which Noether was an expert, and he asked her to look into his conjecture that energy is not conserved in general relativity.

    The paper she wrote contains two theorems. The first is the one which has become known in theoretical physics as ‘Noether’s theorem’. For a wide class of theories (not including general relativity), it demonstrates a link between continuous symmetries and conservation laws. It took far too long for the importance of this theorem to be recognized.

    The second theorem gives the proof of Hilbert’s conjecture. But it is not any kind of sine qua non for general relativity.

    A translation of her paper can be found here;

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