Thursday, October 16, 2008

Whatever Shines

Mary Rosse's darkroom, Birr Castle, late 1800's.

John McCain and Barack Obama squared off again last night in the last debate before our Presidential election, and many "sound bites" were spat out by both sides, and will be hashed over and analyzed ad nauseaum elsewhere.

One that didn't get (and won't get) much attention -- because it's so predictable and so pablum -- was McCain's touting of his running mate as what he might call a "feminist": someone who has accomplished hard stuff about 50 years after someone of the other gender could have accomplished it. Good for her. Really.

But wouldn't a real feminist superheroine be one who breaks a barrier before some dude cracks it? Like maybe the Irish gals whose audacity is recounted in Whatever Shines Should Be Observed, a slender tract by Susan M. P. McKenna-Lawlor.

Whatever Shines Should Be Observed, part of Kluwer Academic Publishers' Astrophysics and Space Science Library, tells the stories of five remarkable Irishwomen who were pioneers in a variety of modern sciences and technologies. From the introduction by Alison, Countess of Rosse (the current Lady Rosse of Birr Castle):
This book gives us the lives of these five exceptional, but little known, Irish women. They achieved high recognition in scientific subjects at a time when women in the propertied classes were hardly allowed out of the nursery before their marriage, and schooling for daughters was very much an afterthought behind the education of their brothers. These five ladies, due to their own persistence and high intelligence, taught themselves astronomy, microscopy and photography, an unusual achievement in itself. But more than theat, they were to become experts in their fields and successfully pursued these ambitions, indeed, followed their stars. Mary Rosse won the Dublin Silver Medal for Excellence for her photography. Mary Ward [a cousin of the time's Lord Rosse -- SH] published authoritative works on astronomical subjects and microscopy and, by 1903, Margaret Huggins and Agnes Clerke were invited to become honorary members of the Royal Astronomical Society.
(Mary Ward has another, sadder distinction: she was Ireland's first auto accident fatality, thrown from [and run over by] a Parsons invention, the "Road Locomotive," on the grounds of Birr Castle on August 31st, 1869.)

Diane and I will be going back to Birr Castle, the home of the remarkable Parsons family, in 2010, and will be combing the archives of these astonishing people and their friends and cohorts in the castle's archives room, which we had an all-too-brief look at in 2006. Look forward to more then here in SherWords... we sure do!

1 comment:

Brian Fies said...

I'll look forward to learning more. I keep telling you, you oughtta write a book ...