Stealing Our Clothes


The feminist re-writing of history is a familiar phenomenon. The gross misrepresentation in the public mind of the history of universal suffrage  is an example. More generally, so is the preposterous fabrication of “centuries of oppression” of women by men. That society was based on rigid gender roles is indubitable. This involved limitations of freedom, but on both sides not just one. To interpret the gendered social structure of history as oppression of one sex by the other is to wilfully ignore half the story. More recently the tendency to distort the history of the genders has been amplified by the embedding of academic feminism within  postmodernism. A doctrine which denies the existence of truth is a great fillip to the propagandist. If there is merely my truth and your truth, and his truth and her truth, then what are we to believe? The answer is that might is right in this pernicious doctrine of the anti-rational. You will believe whoever gets to shout loudest; whoever has the most successful propaganda machine. One of the postmodernist-feminist deceits is to claim that the nearest woman was, in fact, the true author of – well, anything done by a famous man.

Twenty or thirty years ago there was vogue to claim that the first Mrs Einstein, Mileva (nee Maric), was, in fact, a contributor in the development of relativity. To any physicist this immediately seems crazy. The 1905 paper on special relativity is based on a single, blindingly brilliant,  insight. It’s the sort of thing that, by its nature, arises in one mind – not from a committee. I’m tempted to call it a quantum of perception. It would have been particularly remarkable if the idea for relativity had been Mileva’s – she wasn’t a physicist. Contrary to popular belief, she was not a mathematician either. She studied mathematics but failed her exams. In any case, the suggestion that Mileva “helped Einstein with his mathematics” is otiose because the mathematics of 1905 paper is pretty trivial (unlike the mind bending 1916 general theory). And, if the idea for relativity had been Mileva’s, isn’t it odd that she did nothing else in physics?

Who would you say was the most likely author of special relativity: the man who wrote two other epoch making papers that same year, one of which won the Nobel prize and kick started quantum theory, another of which finally clinched the issue of the existence of atoms; the man who successfully generalised relativity to include gravity, and who spent the next 50 years doing a remarkably good impression of being the greatest physicist since Newton – or the woman who appears never to have done any physics at all, even as a student? Tricky one, isn’t it? It shouldn’t be necessary to refute such silliness at all, but if you must try this.

Oh, and of course, it was the second Mrs Bach who wrote much of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music we are now told by the BBC (20th March 2015). You would be hard pressed to find another musicologist in the world that would agree with Martin Jarvis’s baseless assertions. Notwithstanding that, the BBC has seen fit to present the case for Anna Magdalena Bach with all the propagandist’s finesse. I was so impressed I watched it twice. It is an excellent study in how to con the public, leaving the viewer with the impression of a sound case when in truth there is nothing to it at all. In a programme lasting 56 minutes there were just 2 minutes of counter-argument, but they are the only 2 minutes that matter. The unwary would be bludgeoned by the preponderance of pro-Anna Magdalena polemic with its constant appeals to poor subjugated women.

The particular pieces which Anna Magdalena is supposed to have composed were: the cello suites, the aria from the Goldberg variations, the first (C major) prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier, the Credo from the B minor mass, and, in 1713, the Perpetual Canon for Four Voices as well as an aria for soprano. It seems not to bother the proponents of the Anna Magdalena thesis that she was only 12 in 1713. At that tender age she was apparently able to impersonate the work of the greatest musical genius of all time at the height of his powers. A cannon is not the easiest of musical forms. And the canon in question is a ‘puzzle canon’ in which only one voice is notated and the rules for determining the remaining parts and the time intervals of their entrances must be guessed. It is the sort of thing that a mature composer might do to challenge his players. But a 12 year old? Only if Anna Magdalena was another Mozart (or, rather, a pre-Mozart) – but a Mozart who sounded remarkably like J.S.Bach!

The greatest part of the “argument” for Anna Magdalena as a composer consists of manuscripts in her hand. This is built up in the programme as a matter of profound significance. They brought in a manuscript and handwriting expert to testify that certain pieces, either of text or musical score, were written by Anna Magdalena. The uncritical viewer can easily be taken in by the triumphal tone in which it is “proved” that various manuscripts were written by Anna Magdalena. It is easy to loose sight of the fact that this is neither disputed nor of any great significance. It has been known virtually forever that many Bach works are not in his hand, being either copied or scribed by another.

The only argument that Martin Jarvis has relates to a manuscript of the cello suites. At the end it states “written (ecrite) by Anna Magdalena Bach”. But Martin Jarvis chooses to be less impressed by what is written on the front page of the manuscript (twice) namely “composed by J.S.Bach”. The word ecrite, used of Mrs Bach’s contribution, would appear to mean that the manuscript was physically written or transcribed by her. This is the meaning of ecrite given in a contemporary dictionary. And we all surely know what is meant by “composed” – though Martin Jarvis insists that it means merely “compiled”, like an editor. Yes, we are meant to believe that the man whose name appears on the front page as “composer” was in fact merely the editor of his wife’s music. And this is all the “evidence” that Jarvis has.

Oh, and there is the fact – perhaps worth mentioning in passing – that the cello suites do sound so very much like Bach, don’t they? Just a thought.

Now I confess to being a cloth-eared musical moron, but surely to God the claim that someone else wrote one of the preludes of “the 48” (the Well-Tempered Clavier), and just one part of the B minor mass, is preposterous. The Well-Tempered Clavier consists of two sets of 24 preludes and fugues, one in each of the major and minor keys. The first pair is in C major, the second in C minor, the third in C-sharp major, the fourth in C-sharp minor, and so on, the rising chromatic pattern continuing until every key has been represented, finishing with a B-minor fugue. It is almost OCD in its mathematical precision. If you were intending to produce a work with this degree of rigorous structure, would you want just one part being composed by someone else?

The same obsessive mathematical completeness is seen in the Goldberg Variations. There are 30 variations. Every third variation in the series of 30 is a canon, following an ascending pattern of intervals. Thus, variation 3 is a canon at the unison, variation 6 is a canon at the second, variation 9 is a canon at the third, and so on until variation 27, which is a canon at the ninth. But we are to believe the Aria which opens and closes the piece and upon which all the Variations are based was written by Mrs Bach. It’s not impossible, and in fact this suggestion is less unlikely than the others. But the fact that the manuscript of the Aria is in her hand does not constitute evidence.

As for the B minor mass: just the Credo was written by someone other than JSB? Really? And managing to sound so integrated, and so – well, like Bach. In all seems most unlikely.

Martin Jarvis undermines his own credibility further in some arguments which are completely vapid. It is well known that Anna Magdalena was a singer of some note, and was hired as such at the court of Köthen. Jarvis attempts to make much of the fact that she was one of the highest paid musicians at court. “She must have been doing something other than copying“, he argues. Indeed she was. She was singing. Jarvis conveniently forgets that singers were frequently the most highly paid musicians, more so than mere composers. Another illustration of how tenuous is his reasoning is his argument that the first Mrs Bach committed suicide. There is no evidence for this whatsoever. His case is based entirely on the fact that Bach’s second marriage, to Anna Magdalena, did not take place in church. He claims that this indicates some scandal surrounding the first Mrs Bach’s death – obviously suicide through jealousy, he concludes, based on nothing. In truth, second marriages generally did not take place in church at that time, so he has no grounds for suspicion at all.

Why, you have to ask yourself, does the BBC see fit to screen a one-sided defence of Jarvis’s claims when they have been solidly refuted by the entire community of musicologists? Christoph Wolff has said “I am sick and tired of this stupid thesis. When I served as director of the Leipzig Bach Archive from 2001 to 2013, I and my colleagues there extensively refuted the basic premises of the thesis, on grounds of documents, manuscript sources, and musical grounds. There is not a shred of evidence, but Jarvis doesn’t give up despite the fact that several years ago, at a Bach conference in Oxford, a room full of serious Bach scholars gave him an embarrassing showdown”. Even The Guardian doesn’t believe it, cellist Steven Isserlis wrote there, “I’m afraid that his theory is pure rubbish. How can anybody take this shoddy material seriously?”

But that does not stop the BBC concluding that,

We will have to take a close look at female relatives of other composers.

Yes, I bet they will.

But let’s turn back to physics. I have been motivated to do so by a comment left on a recent Conservative Woman article by “Mez”. We can discern her position on gender politics from this comment,

Leadership corruption requires power and testosterone. Corruption around the world is one of the major contributors to poverty, and that it seems is connected to testosterone.

She then quotes at length from a 2002 article in Discover Magazine the burden of her message being that,

Relationships would be healthier all round if women were just accepted as equal partners rather than of lesser importance and value to society.

I do love it when someone opines that testosterone is the cause of all wickedness and then bangs on about equality. Nevertheless, I am happy to agree with this second opinion. The Discover Magazine article decries women’s lack of recognition in science, despite their sterling contribution. The quote from the article starts,

A woman physicist stopped light in her lab at Harvard. Another woman runs the linear accelerator at Stanford. A woman discovered the first evidence for dark matter. A woman found the top quark.

The magazine article, and commenter Mez, are claiming that women are doing all this great science but receiving no recognition for it. Really? Let’s examine the truth of the four statements made above and, if true, whether the women in question have received due recognition. Firstly, “a woman physicist stopped light in her lab at Harvard “.

The woman in question is Lene Hau. She led a Harvard University team who, by use of a Bose-Einstein condensate, succeeded in dramatically slowing a beam of light, ultimately in stopping it all together for a short period. Without doubt this is truly first rate physics. As is almost always the case, she did not do the work alone. In fact Lene Hau was the leader of a small research group. Her principal co-workers, who appear as co-authors on the relevant papers, were Naomi Ginsberg and Sean Garner.

This work was reported in the period 2001 – 2007. By that time Hau was already a tenured professor at Harvard and had been since 1999. It seems her academic standing was recognised even before she did her most ground breaking work, though undoubtedly she did much valuable work previously also. So there is no evidence whatsoever for any lack of recognition here. Quite the contrary, in fact. Just look at this woman’s accolades,

Honorary Alum 2011 from Aarhus University; the Carlsberg Foundation’s Research Award from the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, 2011, worth one  million kroner; she won a $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship; the H.C. Ørsted Lectureship 2010; recipient of World’s Best Dane award, 2010; selected National Security Science and Engineering Faculty Fellow by the United States Department of Defense in 2010; honorary appointment to the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters; made Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2009; ditto, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, April 20, 2009; foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, 2008; won the George Ledlie Prize in September 2008; won the Richtmyer Memorial Award, by the American Association of Physics Teachers, 2004; won the Ole Romer Medal, Danish Natural Science Research Council, 2001; awared an Honorary Degree in the presence of Her Majesty, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, 2001; as well as numerous prestigious public lectures and research grants.

Lene Hau, the invisible woman? I think not.

Now lets examine this quote: “a woman found the top quark“. You can read the true history of the hunt for the top quark here  and here. The last two quarks, the so-called “bottom” and “top” quarks, were predicted by two Japanese men, Makoto Kobayashi and Toshihide Maskawa, in 1973. They won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2008 when the existence of these quarks had been established. The experimental work which discovered the last quark, the “top” quark, was carried out at Fermilab in the USA by two separate teams of workers.

Experimental particle physics is notorious for involving massive teams of people. It is easy to see why. The vast accelerators need to be designed, built and operated. That takes large teams of civil, mechanical, electrical, and instrumentation engineers. The data produced by these machines is acquired at such a pace that no human could ever analyse it. It is analysed by computer. Cutting edge computational facilities are crucial. Enter teams of IT specialists. Oh, and then there’s the physicists who direct all the work, and who know what it’s all for and understand what the heck is going on (sometimes). That’s why you can immediately spot a publication on experimental particle physics without even reading the title: the list of authors often occupies the whole of the first page.

The two Fermilab papers published in 1995 and announcing the discovery of the top quark are a perfect example. The paper from the CDF collaboration had about 440 authors whilst the D0 collaboration’s paper had about 380 authors. So, in excess of 800 people discovered the top quark. I’ve no idea how many of them were women, though some certainly would be. The majority would certainly be men. Who cares? The salient point here is that the claim that “a woman found the top quark” is not merely wrong, it’s a profoundly stupid thing to say.

The only way in which you could accredit a single person with the discovery is if you (unjustly) gave all the credit to the Director of Fermilab. But at the time the discovery was announced the Director was John Peoples, not a woman. Moreover it was Peoples who presided over the development of the Tevatron, the machine in which the discovery was made. There has been no woman Director of Fermilab as yet. Unlike SLAC…

Which brings me to the next quote: “Another woman runs the linear accelerator at Stanford“. What image does this conjure? A lone woman, toiling away in her lab and wrestling unaided with the giant monster that is Stanford’s linear accelerator. Err, no. The Stanford Linear Accelerator Centre (SLAC) is another huge establishment, like Fermilab, and employs many hundreds of people. It is this team of many hundreds of people, of both sexes, which “runs the linear accelerator“. To claim that any single individual “runs the linear accelerator at Stanford” is as silly as claiming that the manager of a power station generates the electricity.

However….at the time the Discover Magazine article was written, in 2002, it was true that a woman, Persis Drell, was Director of Research at Stanford. It got better. In 2007 she was appointed Director of the whole lab and remained in that post until 2012. Recall that the magazine article was presenting us with a picture of a poor, but brilliant, woman scientist doing great scientific work but without recognition. How in God’s name is Persis Drell, Director at SLAC for 10 years, an example of lack of recognition? Do be aware that being Director of SLAC is a long way higher up the food chain than a mere professor. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of professors at SLAC.

So, Persis Drell – an example of a major woman player in science? Yes. An example of a woman not receiving recognition for her contribution? No.

Finally, the claim, “A woman discovered the first evidence for dark matter“. The woman in question can only be Vera Rubin. Without doubt Vera Rubin played a major role in providing evidence for dark matter from galactic rotation curves in the period from the mid-60s to the earlier 80s. In 1965 she was the first woman to observe at Mount Palomar. I have her book, Bright Galaxies, Dark Matters. It’s a good read, I recommend it.

However, many ideas in physics and astronomy cannot really be attributed to a single individual. Rather they emerge from scientific endeavour and gradually gain ground in terms of credibility. Many astronomers in the early twentieth century attempted to estimate the total mass in various regions of the cosmos from the motions of stars they could see. (Motion is related to gravity, and gravity is caused by mass, so measuring velocities tells you something about mass distributions). The possibility that there might be more mass than could be accounted for by visible stars was always recognised. Rubin cannot be credited with precedence for either the idea or the evidence for dark matter.

Probably the first person to publish evidence of a large discrepancy between visible and gravitational apparent mass was Fritz Zwicky. Zwicky was a difficult chap, he treated his assistants abominably. However, he was a good astronomer. In papers published in 1933 and  1937 he reported measurements of the velocities of galaxies in the Coma cluster of galaxies. Zwicky found that orbital velocities are almost a factor of ten larger than expected from the summed mass of all galaxies belonging to the cluster (e.g., “On the Masses of Nebulae and of Clusters of Nebulae”, 1937 ApJ 86, 217).

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s papers by many authors hinted at missing “dark” mass. In 1957 van de Hulst reported a high rotation curve for the Andromeda galaxy, a forerunner of the type of work to be done later by Rubin. Most significantly, though, was the 1959 paper by Kahn & Woltjer (ApJ 130, 705 “Intergalactic Matter and the Galaxy”). These authors found clear evidence for the presence of additional mass in the Local Group of galaxies.

This was the background which forms the context of Rubin’s work. So it is not true to assert that “a woman discovered the first evidence for dark matter“. Nevertheless in the 60s and 70s Rubin did some of the best work to consolidate knowledge of galactic rotation curves and related issues, thus providing a considerable enhancement to the credibility of the dark matter hypothesis.

She was not alone in working in this area at that time, though. Other notable authors who published observational evidence for missing mass in the 1970s included Ostriker & Peebles; Einasto, Kaasik, & Saar; Ostriker, Peebles & Yahil; Roberts; Bosma; Mathews; and Faber & Gallagher. And then there were a whole bunch of theoreticians working on the cosmological implications of dark matter, a truly stellar cast of names including Hawking, Rees, Guth, Peebles, Preskill, Wilczek and many others. It was hardly a one-woman party. You can read more of the history of dark matter here or here.

There is a spin to the Vera Rubin story of which I was unaware until I did a bit of background reading prior to penning this screed. All her major papers on the subject included the same co-author, one W Kent Ford. He appears as co-author on the 1970 paper (ApJ 159, 379) the 1978 paper (ApJ 225 L107-L111) and the 1980 paper (ApJ 238, 471). Rubin’s key observation is that galactic rotation curves are abnormally flat, a signature of excess mass. This is known in astronomical circles as the “Rubin-Ford” effect, and rightly so. Whilst Vera Rubin’s name has become associated with this area of work, that of her male colleague is not so visible – except perhaps to experts in the field. Curious. It’s an inversion of the “invisible woman” effect, showing it can cut both ways. Not that I would make a big deal about it. I doubt that either of the parties is in any way aggrieved, and nor am I.

(Kent Ford’s contribution included making the image-tube spectrograph. This was a state of the art instrument in the 1960s, which, like a prism, spread the light from the stars into their component colours which could then be analysed. The importance of this to the Rubin-Ford collaboration can hardly be overstated. The velocity of stars is measured by their red/blue-shift, the change in apparent colour caused by their motion. Hence a spectrograph was the key bit of kit required, without which no galactic rotation curves would have been possible).

So, the more balanced truth about Vera Rubin is that she made a major contribution to astronomy and has been widely recognised for it, both within the astronomy community and in the public more widely. Conclusive proof of the latter is that she has been on Desert Island Discs, proof positive of celebrity status, surely. Was she invited because of her astronomical work, or because she was a woman astronomer? Well, they didn’t have Kent Ford on, did they?

5 thoughts on “Stealing Our Clothes

  1. Pingback: Alessandro Strumia’s CERN Talk | The Illustrated Empathy Gap

  2. Javiroll

    This is a truly excellent piece of work. It highlights a deep malaise that is Orwellian in nature. Jo Public is living a life of ignorance and is thus open to the propaganda myths that will form their social conditioning of the future. We have not had an active TV in our home since Jan 2013. It is the favourite method of conditioning by the propagandists.

  3. Groan

    As always in awe of your powers. I didn’t see the Bach programme. I take that to be plain silliness and clearly the beeb trying it on.

  4. Toby Fryz

    Great article, but isnt it ridiculous that we live in an age where anything pro-female is instantly believed, and not questioned by the public, just as anything anti-male is also unquestioned and instantly believed and becomes part of the dominant narrative.

    Isnt it also ridiculous that one needs to research tirelessly and find evidence to refute such claims, only to have the population ignore it.
    People will believe what they want to believe according to how it suits their values…….as dictated by media and pro-female propaganda.


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