I’m Isobel Falconer, and I’m a historian of mathematics and physics at St Andrews University. I am interested in the relations between maths and physics in the nineteenth century, and the interaction of both with the cultural context. I’ve recently been exploring some of these as cases of epistemic injustice, and I am leading a collaborative project with the University of Bonn on how we came to believe in a universal gravitational constant. Another current project examines the ‘career’ opportunities provided by astronomy for women in the early modern period.
Many of my project and MLitt students work on topics in Scottish mathematics. I encourage undergraduate research, especially in projects relating to the history of women, and ethnic minorities, in mathematics: two current projects are particularly interesting. The first began when Emma Baxter used University records to get details of any students from outside Britain who studied maths at St Andrews prior to 1939. This summer a team of students are trying to find out more about these alumni and create posters about them. The second traces the social backgrounds and careers of early female maths students who studied at St Andrews around 1900. Previous projects have looked at women’s access to mathematics in Scotland during the Enlightenment, the experiences of the female ‘computers’ employed by the Royal Observatory Edinburgh from 1909-1939, and have started to compile a database of the experiences and reactions of people (not mathematicians) when encountering mathematical ideas in the period 1750-1850.
I support my colleagues, Edmund Robertson and John O’Connor, the originators and authors of the well-known MacTutor biographical website of mathematicians. In 2019 I obtained funding to move the site onto an up-to-date and sustainable platform, and in 2022 for a further project to develop a team editing interface that will enable MacTutor to broaden its group of contributors, bringing in expertise in other areas of mathematics/statistics/astronomy and in international perspectives. I have also promoted the growth of MacTutor’s coverage of female and non-Western mathematicians, especially the inclusion of details of 600 African men and women with PhDs in mathematics.
Much of my work builds on my time as curator of the museum at the Cavendish Laboratory of the University of Cambridge. The museum I created has survived virtually unchanged for 40 years, and has been an attraction both for visiting scientists and for donors. I am now working with Professor Malcolm Longair on its replacement in the new Ray Dolby Centre, the focus of ‘Cavendish 3’. A strong theme in the new museum will be ‘unsung heroes’ – technicians, research assistants, students, teachers – who never hit the headlines but upon whom the Cavendish depended. I have also collaborated with Malcolm to select, digitise, and describe, 406 historic images from the Cavendish and made them publicly available at https://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/collections/cavendish/; many of these chronicle everyday life in the Cavendish. I’ve published extensively on J.J. Thomson and the discovery of the electron, recently on James Clerk Maxwell, and also on Poynting, Faraday, Cavendish and Coulomb. Over the last few years I have been scoping and advising Lord Rayleigh on cataloguing and preservation of the Rayleigh archives.
In 2018 I was elected as an IMU representative on the International Commission for the History of Mathematics, and I have been nominated again, with elections in July 2022. I serve on the Council of the British Society for the History of Mathematics, where I am meetings coordinator, book reviews editor, and a member of the Accessibility and Diversity Working Group. I am on the organising committee of meetings such as ‘Mathematics: Inclusive or Exclusive’ and ‘Women in Astronomy’. I am on the London Mathematical Society Library Committee, with particular responsibility for their Fawcett Collection of books by or relating to female mathematicians. I am a trustee of the James Clerk Maxwell Foundation. I am a Research Associate of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, having written, or undertaken major revisions of, biographies of 32 scientists, and was for five years editor of the British Society for the History of Science’s Education Newsletter.
For 32 years, I was an Associate Lecturer with the UK Open University, teaching the History MA (A825 & A826), for which I wrote the unit on Scottish history, and previously modules in maths, physics, and history of science. A favourite module was AT308: Cities and Technology, which looked at the interactions between culture and the developing technological infrastructure all across the world and from the earliest proto-cities such as the neolithic Çatalhöyük in modern-day Turkey to 20th-century Singapore. I supported the module team in their efforts to introduce new learning technologies, moderating forums and developing a collaborative timeline tool in the days before web2.0 was a thing. In April 2006 I received two Open University teaching awards for exploring and supporting innovative ways of meeting a diversity of student needs; and my contribution to the SOS (Scottish Online Support) team which provided professional development and seeds communities of practice for tutors focussed around using distance technologies in learning and teaching.
From 2007-2010 I was honorary Chair of the Open University’s Associate Lecturers Committee, responsible for the work of 150 representatives (representing 8000 Associate Lecturers) who fed their knowledge of teaching and OU students into the University’s governance committees. I successfully led a complete re-structuring of this representative system, which had remained virtually unchanged for the previous 40 years; the result was a vibrant system that carries far more weight with the University. I also negotiated payment for Associate Lecturers attending meetings, opening representation roles up to those who hitherto had not been able to afford to take part. On standing down from this role, I was elected to serve on Council (2010-2014), the University’s top governing body, and I was a member of Senate (2005-2014).
I used to juggle history of mathematics and science with consultancy and a lectureship in learning technology in higher education, at Glasgow Caledonian University. I am committed to open education both in research and practice. My research interests are in open educational practices, and in representation of teaching practice. I was an expert advisor on the OECD-CERI project on Open Educational Resources. In 2014 I led GCU’s successful bid on the EC-funded ExplOERer project. In 2012-13 I led the EC-funded OER4Adults project, which broke new ground in looking at the experiences of those providing open educational resources for adults in non-formal as well as formal settings. Previously I was a member of the JISC-funded Open Educational Resources Evaluation and Synthesis team, a consultant on the NTFS-funded SHARE project, and co-investigator on the Mod4L project which investigated representational models of teaching practice.
I live in Fife (UK) with Ken, and occasionally Ben and Jennifer. I was a parent member of Madras College School Board (now the Parent Council) for four years and set up the school board website. For seven years I ran a highly successful science club at Lawhead Primary School which won the International Lunch Box Derby in Washington in 1999 (bringing $1000 to the school) and were runners up in New York in 2000. Science club was based on my experience working at the first hands on science centre in the UK, The Exploratory, in Bristol where I was honorary convenor of the “kit committee” producing low cost science kits for visitors to take home.
History of science/maths publications
Teaching and learning publications
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