Week 5: Laura Bassi

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Tuesday, July 6, 2021


Maura Shapiro

This past week was fun because I was able to dive in fully to my Laura Bassi guide. Laura Bassi was born in 1711, Bologna, Italy, and went on to have a successful career as a physicist. She was the second woman to receive a degree from a European university and the first to be appointed a professorship. At the time, Italy had embraced the notion of the “exceptional woman,” a woman who had outstanding intellect, a quality they perceived to be masculine. Because of this (and because Bologna was desperate to restore its reputation as a scientific destination), Bassi was embraced and celebrated for her exceptional qualities. Intellectuals traveled from all across Europe to study with her and learn from her in the emerging field of experimental physics. 

I should note, celebrating a woman because she has qualities similar to a man is far from feminist, and there was still raging debate on whether women should receive education beyond home-related duties. Even Bassi struggled to combat limits placed on her because of gender. Her professorship was a largely honorific role that had her performing her brilliance to the public instead of teaching. Controversy and gossip surrounded her decision to marry because, at the time, learned women were supposed to remain pure and devoted to their studies. On the other hand, rumors spread about her attending all-male scientific gatherings as a single woman. She married another scientist and they often worked together on experiments. Through sheer will and perseverance, as well as the patronage of Bologna’s cardinal who later became Pope Benedict XIV, she was able to transform her role as she wanted. She started her own school and eventually was appointed the chair of the University of Bologna’s Experimental Physics Department. 

I am excited about my teaching guide! Not only is Laura Bassi such an interesting person, but the guide itself I think will be fun. The premise is to turn an elementary school classroom into Laura Bassi’s school and perform simple physics experiments that would be similar topics to those explored by Bassi and her students. At the end, students will receive a diploma from her school!


Maura Shapiro