What history's hidden grandmother of climate science teaches us today : Short Wave Today, most climate science is done with satellites, sensors and complicated computer models. But it all started with a pioneering female physicist and two glass tubes. Eunice Foote, the woman behind that glass tube experiment, has largely been left out of the history books. Until about 10 years ago, John Tyndall was seen as the grandfather of climate science for setting the foundation for the understanding of the greenhouse gas effect. But Eunice's experiment, done three years prior, showed that air with more "carbonic acid," or carbon dioxide, both heated up faster and cooled down slower than regular air.

What history's hidden grandmother of climate science teaches us today

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When we grow up, we hopefully have role models. Like, for baseball players, you might have had Ichiro Suzuki, one of the best hitters and outfieldsman in the game. I had Wolverine from "X-Men" hanging on my bedroom wall. But I can remember a couple female role models that I looked up to, like Dr. Mae Jemison, who was a physician, engineer and the first Black woman to travel to space. In college, I learned a little about Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu, who revolutionized particle physics during the World War II era. And recently, I just learned about another physicist who, over 150 years ago, was at the forefront of climate science. Her name was Eunice Newton Foote.

KATHARINE WILKINSON: So when I learned about Eunice - I feel maybe we're on a first-name basis at this point...

BARBER: You're best friends now.

WILKINSON: (Laughter) We're really good buddies.

BARBER: That's Dr. Katharine Wilkinson. She's a scientist and the editor of "All We Can Save," an anthology about prominent women in climate science. And she just learned about Eunice's story in 2018.

WILKINSON: I've been learning about climate change since high school, like a lot of people, which is not recent, I'll just say that (laughter).

BARBER: Me neither. It's OK. It was at the turn of the century.

WILKINSON: Yes. At the turn - it was at the turn of the century.

BARBER: One person she had heard of, though? John Tyndall.

WILKINSON: You hear about these formative figures like John Tyndall. I also did my graduate work in England where there's, like, the Tyndall this and the Tyndall that. And, you know, he's got research institutes and various things named after him. And I'd never heard of Eunice Newton Foote.

BARBER: After a series of complex experiments, John Tyndall is often credited with setting the foundation of how we understand the greenhouse gas effect - that idea that gases like carbon dioxide are trapped in our atmosphere and increase Earth's temperature. But...

WILKINSON: You know those moments of just sort of outrage where you realize that there's a critical part of the story that got left out? She actually did some really important work before John Tyndall even got going.

BARBER: Eunice was conducting straightforward experiments at her lab in her house, and she discovered that certain gases remain warmer longer via the sun's rays, specifically CO2 and water vapor. So she began to connect the dots with CO2 and a warming planet. That work culminated in a paper published years before John's famous paper.

WILKINSON: Why was there this grandmother of climate science that, you know, had essentially been written out of the history books and also some frustration that her story is still all too relevant today, that there are still far too many women doing really important work that flies under the radar or gets shoved under the radar?


BARBER: So today on the show, we highlight the somewhat forgotten grandmother of climate science, Eunice Newton Foote, what she discovered and how her legacy continues to resonate today. I'm Regina Barber. You're listening to SHORT WAVE, the science podcast from NPR.


BARBER: So to learn a little bit more about Eunice's life and to explain her experiments, we called up Annarita Mariotti, a climate scientist and science policy expert.

ANNARITA MARIOTTI: She got really interested in the absorption of sun radiation by gases in the atmosphere. And she actually started off with a question, which was what happens if the radiation of the sun is absorbed by air that's more or less dense? And that's because people at that time were trying to figure out why air in the bottom of valleys is warmer than the air at the top of mountains. And her setup was pretty basic. So she had two identical glass tubes with two thermometers in there, and she had an air pump. And she pumped out air from one of the tubes. Once they had reached the same temperature, she put them out in the sun and then watched them warm up. And then she noticed that the tube that had higher density of air in there warmed up faster, got warmer.

Before her, people were thinking maybe it's the angle at which the sun comes in the valley compared to the top of the mountain. So she proved with her experiment that actually had to do with the density of air. And then she addressed another question, which is, what happens if we have different kind of gases in these tubes compared to what she called common air? So first she used - she wanted to explore the impact of having more water vapor in one tube versus in the other. So she noticed that the one that had water vapor in there got warmer. And then she experimented with a number of gases, including carbonic acid gas, which we now call carbon dioxide, or CO2. And she concluded that the tube that had carbon dioxide in there got the warmest, compared to any other gases that she had experimented with.

BARBER: So was this groundbreaking at the time?

MARIOTTI: So we know now that the greenhouse gas effect is really the absorption of longwave infrared radiation from the Earth's surface into the atmosphere and then, you know, absorbed by carbon dioxide and water vapor and other gases. That's the greenhouse gas effect. What she observed actually was the absorption of sunlight - rays from the sun. Regardless, she was the first one to demonstrate that having more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and also more water vapor would warm up the atmosphere.

So after that, in 1856, somebody called John Tyndall - an Irish scientist, well-established person, had worked at the Royal Society in London - he went into the direction of what Eunice had done before. He actually did experimental work and looked at the absorption specifically of infrared radiation by carbon dioxide in water vapor. So he repeated that line of experimentation that Eunice had started but just with better equipment. And he nailed down, you know, the specific effect of infrared radiation. So that's, you know, much more precise than what Eunice had been able to do. You know, there is a debate whether John Tyndall knew about Eunice Newton Foote's experiment or not.

BARBER: Right. We heard about that.

MARIOTTI: Yeah, a lot of debate on that. Scholars are on different sides on this, whether, you know, John Tyndall built on her scientific experiments or not.

BARBER: Right.

MARIOTTI: So we can't say that, you know, without her experiment John Tyndall would not have discovered what he and others after him discovered what they did. However, she had the guts to go to the American Association for the Advancement of Science - that's the AAAS. And she wanted her results to be presented. She wanted to tell other scientists, mostly men - right? - about her results. She did not tell that story herself. We don't quite know why she didn't present herself, but it was the first time ever that a woman's paper was presented at the annual meeting of the AAAS.

BARBER: I'm a physicist, so I - there was only, you know, a handful - very, very few women in physics that I can, like, look up to past the '70s, right? And even then, it's hard. Do you think Eunice is kind of one of those people for climate science?

MARIOTTI: I would say that Eunice is really the founder of climate science, you know, broadly. And also, she was - again, she wrote the first two physics paper by a U.S. woman. Within the 1800s, a total of 16 papers in physics were written by women.


MARIOTTI: So she really pushed the envelope as a woman in science and specifically in physics in the U.S. So I think she opened a lot of doors for people like us. I'm also a physicist. We owe a lot to her as women in science.

BARBER: Building a better world and activism - that came up in both my interviews with Katharine and Annarita. They were clear that this was another key aspect of Eunice's legacy. Here's Katharine again.

WILKINSON: Eunice has this one part of her life - right? - where she's conducting scientific experiments. She has another part of her life where she's quite involved in the early movement for women's rights. So her name actually appears on the list of signatories to the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments. And I think this was 1848 - so a few years before she did her air experimentation. And, of course, the Seneca Falls Declaration was a manifesto that got created during the first women's rights convention here in the United States - right? - as folks are advocating for suffrage for women. And it's also interesting that Foote's husband is also a signatory to that declaration alongside Frederick Douglass.

And there's something, I think, about that pairing that is also incredibly relevant to the present, right? There was something sort of intersectional, perhaps, in her thinking and her life. Again, we don't know if she was connecting these dots, but I think that that is also really important to this moment - right? - that climate change is landing in a world that is already profoundly unequal in so many ways, right? If we are not bringing critical lenses to understand the root causes of the climate crisis, if we're not bringing critical lenses to understanding the need to embed equality and justice in the solutions so that as we try to solve for greenhouse gases, we are also, in the language of Dr. Beth Sawin, multisolving for these other related issues - because if we're just thinking myopically about the one piece, we're missing so much opportunity for building a world that is truly more aligned with life.


BARBER: Both Katharine and Annarita have written about Eunice's contributions, and you can find the links to their work in our show notes.

Today's episode was produced by Liz Metzger, edited by our managing producer Rebecca Ramirez and fact-checked by Anil Oza. Robert Rodriguez was the audio engineer. Brendan Crump is our podcast coordinator. Our senior director of programming is Beth Donovan, and our senior vice president of programming is Anya Grundmann. I'm Regina Barber. Thanks for listening to SHORTWAVE from NPR.


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