RECENTLY we had the bizarre story of an Italian physicist claiming that men were being ignored for top jobs in physics and, even more bizarrely, that physics was “invented” by men.

Professor Alessandro Strumia, a senior researcher at the National Institute of Chemical Physics and Biophysics (who, from his position and title doesn’t seem to have suffered much as an academic physicist) showed an immense degree of ignorance, not just of the history of science, but the contribution of women to science despite the odds being in favour of men.

Strumia claimed that “historically”, physics started “four centuries ago” with women only contributing “after around 1900”.

The claims, made during a talk he gave at CERN, the leading scientific centre of nuclear research based in Geneva, is an astounding simplification of the origin of the sciences and factually wrong.

The term physics comes from the Greek “phusis” and the Latin “physica” and it translates as “natural things”. Aristotle used the word as the title of a series of lectures describing the natural world. It was not, as we describe physics today, about the properties of matter and energy. Professor Strumia is right on at least one level, the term physics was first used by a man, Aristotle. But he is so wrong on so many other levels.

Science is the more common and relatively recent name for the study of natural phenomena. We often think of science as being either biology, chemistry or physics. These names all have relatively modern roots.

Charles Darwin, for example, wouldn’t have recognised himself as a “biologist”. The word only came into existence in the late 18th century. Commonly people who studied “science” were called “Natural Philosophers”.

The term “physicist” was first used by the philosopher William Whewell in 1840. He also invented the term “scientist” to describe people who studied natural phenomena.

Originally, Whewell wanted to use the term “physician” instead of scientist, but that had been taken by members of the medical profession.

The female Greek astronomer Aglaonice of Thessaly was observing the stars and planets, as well as predicting lunar eclipses more than 2,000 years ago. Her skill in astronomy was so good that many thought she was a witch who could make the moon disappear. History doesn’t fully record the achievements of many women in science, simply because those who record it are men.

In many, if not all ancient civilisations, the accomplishments of women are often disregarded, unrecorded or even appropriated by men. What fragments we do have of women in science from ancient times shows that their work and understanding of the natural world was often equal to or more accurate than many men of science.

The scientific revolution in the 16th century was driven by men, most notably the English philosopher Francis Bacon. But Hildegard of Bingen, also known as St Hildegard, is considered to be the founder of scientific natural history in what is now Germany. Men may have dominated science, but it was not an exclusive club. In part our science education has been to blame for this situation arising. Few women were routinely highlighted as role models in science education before the 1980s. If a woman was mentioned, it was invariably Marie Curie and her work on radioactivity. She was the first female recipient of a Nobel Prize in physics and the only female double recipient of a Nobel award. She was also the first to receive awards in two different scientific disciplines, her second was in chemistry.

Early science education had a habit of omitting the pioneers of science, be they men or women. In the pursuit of “objectivity” science was, and still is, taught as a body of knowledge; there are facts to be learned, equations to be memorised and concepts to be understood. Science as a human endeavour is not explored enough in my view and the people behind our scientific discoveries deserve more attention. If we ignore the human side of science, we alienate many people.

We are getting better at recognising the pioneering work of women in science and, at last we are more aware of women in science, technology, engineering and maths, the STEM subjects, as they penetrate all forms of media. Professor Strumia’s arrogant and ill-informed talk stirred many women working in physics to be more vocal. In that sense he did elicit a positive outcome – highlighting the fact that women in STEM subjects still face outdated, unacceptable hurdles in their career progression.