April 17 is now an unexpected milestone in my life as a historian. Just past midnight, my daughter Natalie pointed out that one of the very dead Italians I have written about for years, Laura Bassi—a physics professor and experimenter who lived and worked in eighteenth-century Bologna—was now a Google Doodle. CNN, Forbes, Newsweek, ABC News, and many local news outlets picked up the story; even YouTubers followed suit, creating a few shorts about her.

Google Doodles had whimsical origins, but they have grown into a strangely influential cultural archive. In 1998, on their way to the Burning Man Festival in Nevada, Sergey Brin and Larry Page modified a single O in the search engine’s now iconic logo to alert users that they would be out of the office, so to speak. But the shtick stuck, and the full set of some four thousand doodles now comprises a library of interesting people, events, scientific discoveries, and cultural artifacts, a sort of techno-cabinet of historical curiosities. The entries represent Google’s version of the past—the one that matters to them, at least, and thus to some degree to us.

What it really meant to be a woman of science three centuries ago is not so easily conscripted into contemporary narratives of feminist liberation.

Google’s effort at public commemoration joins others over the years—from Judy Chicago’s art installation The Dinner Party (1974–79), which features Bassi’s name among 999 women luminaries inscribed in the floor of this iconic installation, to Sharon Glassman’s 1990s monologue “Water Over Time,” which brought Bassi to life in contemporary New York City, translating the subway map into Latin for greater legibility and explaining why science mattered to a modern woman. Fame also comes in unexpected shapes and sizes. You can now buy a wall poster of Bassi on Amazon; undoubtedly T-shirts and coffee mugs are in the offing. And in May 2019, the Italian National Institute of Oceanography and Applied Geophysics gave Bassi’s name to a ship previously called the Polar Queen and the RRS Ernest Shackleton. She now clears a path through the chilly waters of the Arctic in the service of science.

These acts mean something—but who really was Laura Bassi? The recent stories have their answers but also their limitations. The pressure to commemorate singularly heroic individuals tends to obscure the social conditions in which they flourished (and in which others didn’t). What it really meant to be a woman of science three centuries ago is not so easily conscripted into contemporary narratives of feminist liberation. But the past is no less a resource for thinking about the present—and the futures we might aspire to—because of this complexity.

Bassi was born in Bologna in 1711 and died in 1778. As I have long argued, she was probably the first woman to have a paid scientific career and to be institutionally recognized for what she did. That is hardly the whole of her story, but it is certainly a reason to remember her.

1732 was her annus mirabilis, when a chain of unexpected events catapulted a studious lawyer’s daughter from utter obscurity into the public eye. Latin grammar lessons with a priestly cousin gave Bassi access to an entire library of learning. She slaked her curiosity and wanted more. No one objected to this uncommon desire. Bassi parlayed knowledge of an ancient language into a comprehensive education in philosophy and science with a medical professor who was the family physician tending her mother’s ailments. This was the age of Sir Isaac Newton, whose physics, optics, and mathematics redefined the very nature of science—or rather philosophy. We tend to forget that the full Latin title of Newton’s Principia (1687) means the Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. Bassi and her generation understood that science was a part of philosophy. On March 20, 1732, following private examinations at home by leading men of science, Bassi became the first woman admitted to the Bologna Academy of Sciences. Her membership in this academy was the first step on the road to a full-fledged career as a Newtonian physicist.

On April 17, the date of Google’s Doodle, Bassi publicly defended forty-nine philosophical theses. They were not dissertations in any modern sense, but short Latin statements, worthy of debate between professors and students, derived from reading the entire corpus of natural and philosophical knowledge since antiquity. It was a kind of super-comprehensive oral exam in an ancient language, a rite of passage for university students in times past to present themselves as degree candidates. Half the audience understood little or nothing of what she said in Latin, but experts ponderously certified the quality and content of this virtuoso performance. She already had the full support of the academy members. On May 12 she received her degree in philosophy, focusing especially on natural philosophy, which encompassed much of what we now call science. A silver medal was struck in commemoration.

Bassi is the second woman graduate we can document anywhere in the world. Her predecessor’s experience helped to define her possibilities. In 1678 the Venetian Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia received a philosophy degree from the University of Padua. Piscopia’s original request to be examined in theology outraged Padua’s local archbishop: he firmly invoked Saint Paul who admonished women neither to speak in church nor to teach. Since the apostle said nothing about whether women could philosophize, and everyone agreed that Piscopia was rather erudite, an interesting alternative emerged. Philosophy was a subject without a clear professional outcome, making it more open-ended than law, medicine, and especially theology, where Christian values and traditions further complicated the matter.

But the University of Padua did not want to open the floodgates. In February 1679, just months after joyously celebrating their first woman graduate, they resolved not to admit any more women as degree candidates—a promise they kept until the twentieth century. Piscopia remained the exception, and yet she inadvertently created the template for Bassi’s degree in a different city more than fifty years later.

Bologna was an even older university than Padua, and it had long debated the existence of its women graduates and professors, in law and possibly medicine, going as far back as the thirteenth century. Stories about these women were told and retold throughout the centuries. One even made its way into Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies around 1405, but no one thought to interrogate this tradition until the eighteenth century.

Bassi was no Olympe de Gouges manning the barricades during the French Revolution. She was first and foremost a physicist, who fought for opportunities to do something she loved.

The year 1722 inspired a failed effort to revive this medieval tradition. Maria Vittoria Delfini Dosi, the sixteen-year old daughter of a Bolognese aristocrat, became a candidate for a degree in civil and canon law. Her father and tutors assured everyone that she was well prepared. Plans were set in motion to have her publicly defend a series of legal conclusions at the Spanish College since the event was to honor the Queen of Spain and possibly secure Maria Vittoria a court position in Madrid. An emissary was sent to Padua to research how to give a woman a degree. Once again, naysayers worried about setting a bad precedent. They decided to do their own research in the Bolognese university archives. What evidence supported the stories of medieval women graduates and professors? Nothing in the institutional records confirmed the this tradition (though it must be fairly said that since administrative records did not exist that far back, when the university was basically a start-up, this was a foregone conclusion). Delfini Dosi presented her conclusions but received no degree.

A young law student who witnessed these debates, Alessandro Macchiavelli (not to be confused with the political theorist born almost two and half centuries earlier), was incensed by the decision. He published a lengthy defense of the female doctorate under his older brother’s name. Macchiavelli argued that memory and tradition were equally powerful in establishing precedents and supplied counter evidence to support the existence of the learned medieval women of Bologna. He invoked Christine de Pizan, and to solidify his position he supplemented his arguments with forged documentation. Ten years later Bassi became the first woman to enter the University of Bologna’s institutional record. Curious onlookers witnessed Bassi’s degree in a public event that seemed more like the Oscars than the scholastic rite of graduation. People dressed up and went to lavish after parties to celebrate their woman graduate. It was a terrific spectacle, but what did it mean for twenty-year old Bassi?

Bassi now had a degree—plus an ermine graduate’s cape and a silver crown of laurels (rather than the traditional beret that signified possession of a doctorate for men). Forty-five years later, she would be buried in them. At the time of her graduation, poets praised her as Bologna’s Minerva. They compared her to Petrarch’s Laura—suggesting that she combined the mind of this fourteenth-century poet-philosopher (who was awarded a crown of laurels for his eloquence and learning on the steps of the Capitoline in 1341) with the beauty of his famously unrequited love. This kind of allegorical praise put Bassi on a pedestal. She was more symbol than reality.

She had equaled Piscopia’s historical achievement, but what would come next? Soon a growing chorus of admirers was arguing that Bassi was well qualified to teach. With the support of the archbishop of Bologna Prospero Lambertini, the university awarded her a paid professorship in “universal philosophy” in October 1732. This subject encompassed most sciences as well as the modern discipline of philosophy. The salary, 500 lire, was significant: many male graduates taught gratis, hoping eventually to receive a paid position. The one other woman in Bologna famed for her scientific learning suggested that it was undignified for Bassi to accept a salary—but the Cartesian Laura Bentivoglio Davia was an aristocrat with an independent income. Money mattered if you were cut from more ordinary cloth.

Bassi gave her first public lecture on December 18. She occupied this university position for the rest of her life. Much later in her career, she held two other professorships at different institutions—the Collegio Montalto in 1766 and the Institute for Sciences in 1776—both awarded in recognition of her accomplishments in physics. Bassi’s desire to turn a largely honorific position into an opportunity and a career began almost immediately after the publicity surrounding her doctorate and professorship subsided. Her first step, in fact, was to recognize the limits of her education. In 1732 Bassi knew a great deal of natural philosophy but not much mathematics. Without this knowledge, it would be impossible to participate in expert conversations about Newtonian natural philosophy. Studying differential calculus with the best mathematics professor in the city, she delved further into Newton’s physics and began to experiment.

Gossiping tongues questioned her morals. A priest was sent all the way from Rome to offer his advice on how to handle her unusual position. Unsavory rumors circulated about her relations with the older men who were her mentors, teachers, and now her colleagues, some of them fueled by men who fell in love with her. While becoming more proficient in science in her early twenties, Bassi squarely confronted the problem of trying to do anything with her degree and professorship. She was a young single woman in a society that had no defined role for who she had become. How could she fully realize her ambitions?

The answer was to make the right marriage. Being single was a moral conundrum unless she became a nun, which would effectively curtail her aspirations. The eighteenth century was filled with unhappy marriages and misalliances; there was no divorce in Catholic lands. Sex, money, property, heirs, and conflicting values produced endless litigation and church-sanctioned separations.

In 1738, some months before her twenty-seventh birthday, Bassi married the young medical professor Giuseppe Veratti in the church of San Petronio. Not everyone applauded her decision. Placards criticized her decision to give up her celibacy. Carnal knowledge produced new gossip. When a friend joked that she probably met her spouse by replicating Newton’s prism experiments in the dark, Bassi, already pregnant, responded by discussing her choice of marriage partner. “I have chosen a person who walks the same path of learning,” she said, “and who, from long experience, I was certain would not dissuade me from it.” She married Veratti in no small part because he actively supported her desire to pursue science and shared her interests.

Together Bassi and Veratti established a home laboratory. Eight children were born amidst the prisms and Leiden jars, and five survived infancy. Bassi’s unusual partnership with Veratti made it possible to become an accomplished Newtonian physicist. At the height of her fame, she and her husband had one of the finest experimental physics cabinets in Italy. She had indeed found the right partner in life, love, and work and they had a long and fruitful marriage.

Unlike the Curies a century later, whose fame began with Pierre, Bassi was the one who provided opportunities for her husband and sons.

Initially, Bassi’s teaching was restricted to on-demand public lectures. No one thought a pregnant woman should teach young male students. Bassi began to offer private lessons at home while pursuing her research. In 1745 her domestic science became the basis of her request to Lambertini (who had graduated from bishop to pope four years earlier) to appoint her to a new elite category of researchers within the Bologna Academy of Sciences known as the Benedictines. She requested a special opportunity to avoid being perceived as competing directly with her male colleagues, and the position increased her status and her earnings. Benedictines were obligated to present their research annually in order to receive their stipend; as a result we have an institutional record of the evolution of Bassi’s research as a physicist. From 1745 until her death in 1778, Bassi was the twenty-fifth Benedictine—an extra position retired upon her death and only revived once, in March 1800, when the Bologna Academy of Sciences gave Maria Dalle Donne, the first woman to receive a medical degree in Bologna, the position of “the late great Dottoressa, Signora Laura Bassi.”

Bassi’s private course of experimental physics that she formally established in 1749, when all her children save for her youngest son Paolo had been born, became so valuable that it was the basis for numerous requests for raises—not only for herself but also her husband. Yes, it’s true: Veratti’s requests for salary increases were written by his wife. Bassi’s pragmatic attention to both of their careers, indeed the necessity of earning a living to support a growing family, is one of the quietly remarkable facts of her life. Her understanding of what it meant to modernize instruction in an emerging field rightfully earned her the admiration of a growing number of colleagues and students. Young men came from all over Italy, and beyond, to study with her. They fondly recalled going to “Signora Dottoressa Laura Bassi’s school.”

The thirty-one research papers that Bassi presented at the Bologna Academy of Sciences reflect a broad range of interests in the evolution of science during her century. Today most of them exist only as a list of topics. Ten of her papers dealt with mechanics, several with optics, including ongoing improvements to Newtonian telescopes; seven discussed electricity and others concerned the emerging sciences of physiology and chemistry, especially the nature of air. In broad strokes, Bassi followed the evolution of the Newtonian sciences by attending to the work of experimenters such as Benjamin Franklin, Stephen Hales, and Joseph Priestley—all avowed Newtonians. She kept up with her subject and, had more of her research survived, we might appreciate her thoughtful interventions in different problems along the lines of an early paper she published in the Bologna Academy’s Commentaries that discussed exceptions to Boyle’s law of gases. Having worked with her papers for many years, I can tell you that she was a careful, incisive, and well-informed researcher, which surely helps to explain why she was such a fine physics professor.

Science for Bassi was very much a family business. In 1778 Veratti succeeded his wife as professor of experimental physics at the Institute for Sciences (which housed the Bologna Academy of Sciences), after being her assistant. Their youngest son Paolo followed in his parents’ footsteps and eventually held this position, even though he struggled to earn a living after both of his parents were gone and eventually had to sell their scientific instruments. A century later the Curies became a family dynasty of scientists, the women—wife Marie and daughter Irène—winning attention thanks in part to the limelight of the famous Pierre. In Bassi’s case it was the other way around: she was the one who provided opportunities for her husband and sons (the oldest Giovanni became a theology professor, Ciro a lawyer, and Giacomo an Oratorian priest). She also educated many male scientists who shaped the institutional landscape of science.

Bassi spent the final years of her life asking to be considered for a position in the very field she defined for her city: experimental physics. We forget how novel such research was in the eighteenth century. The university had no professorship in this area; it offered only a very traditional curriculum. The Institute for Sciences specifically offered instruction in subjects not taught at the university; its bequest sponsored endowed professorships in modern disciplines, including experimental physics. Bassi’s male colleague who held the position was not especially well qualified for the job, and by the mid-1770s his health was failing. No one was better qualified for the Institute professorship than Bassi. For one thing, her private laboratory was filled with state-of-the-art instruments superior to those of the Institute, and even her critics could not deny her abilities in her chosen subject. Bassi hoped that her time had come.

A culture that prizes the exception provides opportunities for individual recognition, but it is not very good at fostering a sense of shared belonging.

In May 1776 a difficult conversation occurred behind closed doors. Everyone agreed that Bassi had “no right to be admitted among the Institute professors.” Some still considered her demands excessive and immodest. In the end, however, her colleagues offered her this professorship, realizing they could take advantage of her talent, knowledge, resources, and fame to revive the Institute’s reputation in physics. That summer found Bassi hard at work with a colleague, completing an inventory of the Institute laboratory, throwing out old and broken machines, repairing others, and preparing a budget to modernize the equipment to meet the standard she had set in her home. She was quite aware that her colleagues had put aside their enduring sense of the impropriety of appointing a woman.

People talked about Bassi a great deal in life as well as in death. Articles appeared in international journals reaching across Europe and all the way to North America. Her admirers were legion. “There is no Bassi in London,” Voltaire famously declared in 1744, “and I would be much happier to be added to your Academy of Bologna than to that of the English, even though it has produced a Newton.” Travelers described hearing her lectures and seeing her experiments. Among them was Franklin’s colleague John Morgan, just after he finished his medical degree at Edinburgh and shortly before he helped to found the American Philosophical Society and the Medical College of Pennsylvania. On his Grand Tour, James Boswell introduced himself by writing sycophantic fan mail in his stilted Latin, declaring that Bassi was known as far as the Hebrides. Bassi maintained an active correspondence with many leading scientists of her generation, allowing us to see her as a scientist at work—in the laboratory and on paper, discussing experiments, testing equipment, and debating new ideas. She fully participated in a world in love with science and was the subject of several biographies during her lifetime.

But fame is mercurial at best, and her celebrity receded not long after death. She gradually became a modest footnote to the history of women in science. Bologna named a street and a school after her, though few who pass by them know who she was. Her personal archive remained in Bologna, though the majority of her research papers disappeared. Her elaborate funerary monument in Corpus Domini disappeared, reduced to a faintly legible marble epitaph in the floor. At the 900th anniversary of the alleged founding of the University of Bologna, she was featured in a book on women and the university that I discovered in a bookstore on Via Zamboni in 1988, while doing research on an entirely different subject for my own dissertation. She has always been there for us to rediscover.

Historical fame produces different kinds of commemoration, all of which reflect our desire to engage the past. As the recent array of popular engagements with Bassi might suggest, rediscoveries are increasingly taking novel forms. Three years ago a friend emailed me about a Laura Bassi Scholarship sponsored by Editing Press in the United Kingdom, designed to support early career scholars doing “work undertaken against the grain of the disciplinary fashions of academia.” Bassi was famously reluctant to publish her research. Only two of her many scientific papers appeared in her lifetime, and two others came posthumously. When asked after Bassi’s death why his wife did not publish more, Veratti replied that she was cautious about sharing her work in print. I delight in the irony that she is now enthusiastically encouraging doctoral students and recent PhDs to publish, lest they perish.

At the same time, it appears we are gradually entering a less ephemeral phase of historical consciousness that can transform a barely visible subject into a truly well-known figure from the past. In 2011, the three hundredth anniversary of her birth, Bassi became the subject of a short film, Enza Negroni and Valeria Consolo’s Laura Bassi una vita straordinaria—O de l’aurata luce settemplice, and an artfully produced children’s book in Italian, Laura Bassi: Minerva Bolognese. The deus ex machina of these projects and the temporary exhibits devoted to Bassi throughout her native city that year is my dear friend, Professor Marta Cavazza of the University of Bologna. Not long afterward, my own university library at Stanford collaborated with the Biblioteca Comunale dell’Archiginnasio of Bologna to make her family papers available online. A Canadian biomedical engineer, Professor Monique Frize, became so intrigued by Bassi that she wrote a textbook account of Bassi in 2013. Just last year she was the subject of an RAI documentary, Una cattedra per Laura Bassi. Bologna 1732 (2020), directed by Alessandro Scillitani and based on the scholarship many of us have produced. Seeing the archival research a group of us have done for years have a second life on screen is gratifying, yet it raises questions about how best to convey the meaning of her life for a broader audience.

Bassi is also on the cusp of engaging still other publics by emerging as a character ripe for fiction. Jule Selbo’s young adult novel Breaking Barriers, also published last year,fills in the gaps in historical evidence (and the less visible gaps produced when the evidence has yet to exit the archive and become accessible to a general audience). Selbo does everything with Bassi I cannot do as a historian constrained by evidence, though her fictional Bassi will surely inspire some interest in the historical Bassi, as all imaginative historical writing should do. For now, anyone who wants a very deeply researched account of Bassi’s life will need to read in another language. Those with Italian should find a copy of Cavazza’s Laura Bassi: Women, Gender, and Science in Eighteenth-Century Italy, an excellent collection of her essays published last year; Beate Ceranski’s published doctoral dissertation is an excellent choice for readers of German. Otherwise there are a good number of articles and an edited volume in English, mine among them, and there will surely be more.

But it was Google’s discovery of my favorite woman scientist of times past, in particular, that has led me to reflect on the problem of writing history only for the present. Hindsight offers perspective, but it can also produce a false clarity. The history we want to have is not always what the past offers.

The pressure to commemorate singularly heroic individuals tends to obscure the social conditions in which they flourished (and in which others didn’t).

The recent spate of stories about Bassi offers many examples of historical distortion, overemphasis, and exaggeration, but perhaps the most significant comes from the high note on which her Google biography ends. “Bassi continually fought for gender equality in education throughout trailblazing career,” we read. What are we to make of this statement? Was Bassi Gloria Steinem avant la lettre? We have just celebrated a century of woman’s suffrage in the United States, a stark reminder of what Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others like her wanted and that is still a work in progress—the full exercise of rights and citizenship for all women on parity with men. Some of the news articles that expanded upon Google’s biography present Bassi as “pushing the cause of women in academia” and “enhancing the status of women in academic circles.” Selbo’s Breaking Barriers also works hard to present her as a twenty-first century feminist in an eighteenth-century gown. But did this eighteenth-century woman physicist see herself as role model and champion for women?

Definitely not. Anyone envisioning a glorious feminist genealogy of science emanating from Bassi will be sadly disappointed. Contemporaries frequently described her as a woman always among men, underscoring her singularity and exceptionality; they eulogized her as a model Catholic wife and mother whose love of science did not come at the expense of faith and family.

We also have no record of her solidarity with other women because they were women. When Faustina Pignatelli, acclaimed for her knowledge of mathematical physics including an anonymous publication in a leading international journal, became the second female academician in 1732, Bassi did not rush to congratulate her. Perhaps it was inappropriate. Pignatelli was the princess of Colubrano from an illustrious Neapolitan family; Bassi was profoundly middle class. Bassi never directly educated another woman either, save possibly her daughter Caterina, who ultimately chose (or had chosen for her) the convent over the university and sadly died at age twenty-two as she was about to take her vows at Corpus Domini. Even Cristina Roccati—a young woman from the Venetian town of Rovigo, who received her 1751 degree from the University of Bologna in the exact same subject as Bassi and left behind over one thousand pages of unpublished physics lectures from teaching at a local academy—did not study with her. Nor did Bassi ever publicly acknowledge the presence of her talented contemporary Anna Morandi Manzolini, who also spent her entire life in Bologna becoming internationally renowned for her ability to vividly render the complexities of human anatomy in wax sculpture. The archive produces a vast and conspicuous silence.

I do not mean to suggest that Bassi was oblivious to the problem of being recognized as an accomplished woman scientist. Quite the contrary: she was surely acutely aware of her difference and the limitations it imposed upon her. She constantly presented her credentials to those who determined professors’ salaries and appointments. She never felt that her positions should be ceremonial, fighting long and hard to receive the full privileges that came with membership in the Bologna Academy of Sciences. At the same time, she always understood that part of her job was not to set a worrisome precedent.

These aspects of Bassi’s life—and the uses to which it has been put—help to illustrate the perils of historical canonization. The pressure to seek an exceptional role model, the historical heroine who broke the mold, distracts us from the social conditions that shape the lives not of the few but the many. It makes us oblivious to context, including Google’s $310 million settlement in September 2020 over mishandling allegations of sexual harassment.

The search for exceptional role models distracts us from the social conditions that shape the lives of the many.

By the mid-eighteenth century, Bassi’s presence in Bologna inspired an imagined community of women scientists that emerged on paper if not in reality, since most of them never visited the city. Bassi participated in the celebration of the other women who became members of the Bologna Academy of Sciences in her lifetime. She was present at the April 1, 1746, meeting that resulted in the election of the French physicist and translator of Newton Émilie du Châtelet. Bassi and Châtelet never corresponded directly, though both were aware of each other. In June 1749 Bassi wrote a letter to the Milanese mathematician Maria Gaetana Agnesi after she became a member and published an important book, but they never met or corresponded again. A culture that prizes the exception provides opportunities for individual recognition, but it is not very good at fostering a sense of shared belonging. That is a problem we still grapple with today, whose resolution lay in a future not yet on the horizon.

In the end, Bassi and her contemporaries fail the test of modern feminism. Bassi was no Olympe de Gouges manning the barricades during the French Revolution. Nor was she Mary Wollstonecraft composing A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792. She was first and foremost a passionate experimenter and devoted teacher of physics who fought for her own opportunities to do something she loved. She did not yet inhabit a world in which it was possible to imagine advocating change for all women or encouraging them to follow in her footsteps. She did not see herself as setting a precedent. Nonetheless in 1777, one year before her death, she took note of the fact that Maria Pellegrina Amoretti received a law degree at Pavia, in a letter to her cousin Spallanzani who taught there. Her weak feminist bona fides by modern standards do not imply a lack of consciousness about the circumstances and constraints of other women. In this, Bassi embodies all the paradoxes and possibilities of the Enlightenment.

I can’t take credit for Laura Bassi’s appearance as a Google Doodle. I didn’t submit her story for consideration, any more than I championed naming a 31-kilometer crater on Venus after her in 1991. When NASA’s Magellan Project advertised christening opportunities for the planet, I posted the call for the names of famous women on my office door out of sheer irony: Why should women’s history in science be commemorated solely on a celestial body named after the goddess of love? I considered writing the Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature of the International Astronomical Union to encourage them to scatter interesting women throughout the cosmos.

Bassi is now eternally part of Venus’s molten pockmarked landscape, just as she is crashing into polar ice on a grand voyage of scientific exploration and commingling with other luminaries in Google’s archive. If she were alive today, she might observe that by associating her with Venus, we have inadvertently replicated the eroticized treatment of women scientists immortalized in a bestselling book written by her contemporary Francesco Algarotti. In 1737 his Newtonianism for Ladies presented knowledge as a form of perpetual seduction between men and women. The book’s male philosopher wittily explains optics to an intensely curious aristocratic woman, who considers geometry a dense and impenetrable forest. They skip all the calculations while experimenting with Newton’s famous prisms (surely the source of the joke about how she met her husband), and Algarotti cleverly compares Newton’s second law to the effect of distance on two lovers’ attractions. Algarotti set his dialogue in 1732, at the height of the publicity surrounding Bassi’s degree, making the curious fact of a woman pursuing science the entire premise of the conversation. This was the kind of book that inspired Voltaire to tell Bassi, after he and Châtelet became members of the Bologna Academy, that he hoped they would one day forge a ménage à trois.

The past cannot be perfectly moulded to fit our demands of it, but it can teach us how we might aspire to shape the future.

The past cannot be perfectly moulded to fit our demands of it, but it can teach us how we might aspire to shape the future. I have no doubt that Bassi loved living in an enlightened age, yet she recognized its limits even while reaping its possibilities. Today she would likely rejoice that she no longer has to be the exception, but she might also envision a future in which a woman’s desire to pursue science was utterly ordinary and unremarkable. Then her work would truly be done.