Toasts to the lassies and laddies!

24 January 2020

Interview with 

Lewis Thompson, University of Cambridge; Jenny Gracie, University of Strathclyde

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Glasses clinking together for a toast.

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Traditionally at a Burns Supper, a male guest gives a special toast ‘to the lassies’ - thanking and praising the women around the table. Lewis Thompson is from the University of Cambridge, and a former Naked Scientist intern, so here’s his toast to the historical ‘lassies’ of Scottish science...

Lewis - Since the Scottish Science Hall of Fame features ten great male scientists, it seems that the lassies of Scottish Science are not oft discussed. But in the words of Robbie Burns himself:

Amid this mighty fuss just let me mention,
The Rights of Woman merit some attention

In the tradition of taking matters into their own hands, how have the lassies of Scottish Science done in maintaining Burns’s three “Rights of Women”, which he claimed were protection, decorum, and admiration?

Protection was the realm of Victoria Drummond, the first woman member of the Institute of Marine Engineers. Serving on the cargo ship Bonita during the Second World War, she improved the speed of the ship’s engines while under fire from the Nazis  to allow the ship to dodge the bombs.

Next on Burns’ list, decorum. As all scientists know, good scientific decorum is the correct classification of your observations so that others can easily understand your work. Williamina Fleming knew the importance of this, helping to create the Pickering-Fleming system for the classification of the thousands of stars whose light emission patterns she examined. And, she discovered the Horsehead Nebula in 1888!

Finally, Mary Somerville - the first woman to feature of Royal Bank of Scotland banks notes, apart from the Queen - has certainly had her fair share of admiration. Her writings on astronomy in the 19th century ultimately led to the discovery of Neptune, and her obituary in 1872 proclaimed “there could be no question whatever as to the queen of science”.

So, thinking of Victoria Drummond, Williamina Fleming and Marry Somerville, I invite all the gentlemen listening to please stand, and raise your test tubes in a toast “to the lassies”!

And now let’s go over to our female guest Jenny Gracie - a physical chemist at the University of Strathclyde, and another former Naked Scientists intern - who has the traditional response ‘to the laddies’...

Jenny - Thank you Lewis - and Scottish men are no slouches either. They have produced some of the most famous inventions in the world, where we have John Logie Baird and Alexander Graham Bell to thank for our TVs and phones. Perhaps it’s something in Scotland’s beautiful landscapes that ignite the ideas? Rabbie Burns himself once wrote,

Gie me ae spark o’ nature’s fire
That’s a’ the learning I desire

Alexander Fleming was inspired by nature and found that a certain type of mould had bacteria-fighting properties. This observation led to the discovery of penicillin, which has saved countless lives around the world.

Another Scotsman, John Napier made our mathematical lives easier by inventing logarithms to handle complex calculations that otherwise could take more than a day to solve! He invented an early version of a calculator, and popularised the decimal point.

Then there’s James Watt, a Scottish engineer who made ground-breaking improvements to the steam engine design - changes that helped power the industrial revolution. He developed the concept of ‘horsepower’ and also has a unit of power, the Watt, named after him.

To squeeze in one more bonnie Scotsman, we’ll mention James Clerk Maxwell. His connection between electricity, magnetism and light paved the way for today’s technology, and he figured out what makes up Saturn’s rings. He also demonstrated the first colour photograph. The item he photographed? Well it was a tartan ribbon of course!

Many people aspire to reach Rabbie’s great legacy, and the male scientists mentioned above have certainly made their mark on the world. With this thought, I invite all the ladies listening to please stand, and raise your conical flasks in a toast “to the laddies”!

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