Monday, September 14, 2015

so long blues: an homage to marjorie thompson

The following tribute marks one year since the passing of
Marjorie Thompson, beloved biology professor, dean,
musician, and friend to thousands.

It was high noon on a picture-perfect Memorial Day, 1999, the unofficial beginning of summer and the official beginning of the rest of my life. As photons from our home star beamed down through gothic mullioned windows, I and several hundred biology concentrators — the lot of us clad in black from head to shin — lined the pews of the First Unitarian Church in Providence, Rhode Island, waiting to receive our undergraduate diplomas.

One by one, we made our way toward the moment many of us had been anticipating since the word "college" first crossed our synapses. As O's and P's yielded to V's and W's, my name finally rang out across the hall. With my family proudly looking on, I strode with purpose to the podium, toward a petite brunette with wavy, chin-length hair and thin, metallic spectacles. We exchanged knowing smiles, and I reached out my right hand. I was soon holding onto a small rectangular paper that read, in part, "et huic omnia privilegia lura honores us ad hunc gradum evectis pertinentia fruenda dedit" — "and to she has given to enjoy all the privileges, rights, honors, and symbols pertaining to those advanced to this degree." Thanks in no small part to the woman with the wire-rimmed glasses, Brown University was about to make its appearance in the rear-view mirror of my life.

Marge (right) with Jen, a fellow bio concentrator and my former roomie, at our graduation in 1999.

Now, 15 years, five months, and three weeks later, I am sitting in the same hallowed hall, once again dressed in black. The flood of brilliant sunlight from that memorable May day has given way to a smattering of amber-stained rays, soon to disappear behind our earthly orb. On this bitter-cold November afternoon, students, colleagues, family, and friends have come to say goodbye to Marjorie Thompson, the woman who helped me and thousands of others at Brown become who we are: scientists, doctors, engineers, writers — and much, much more.

It had been a shock to hear the news some two months prior that Marge, a two-time Brown graduate, longtime adjunct professor, and beloved dean, had died at the age of 60 from cancer. While I hadn't been in touch for quite a few years, Marge had always seemed so dynamic and vital — the kind of person you'd imagine would be doling out time-tested truisms well into her 80s or 90s. Tragically for her family and for everyone she touched, cancer took Marge at the pinnacle of life: In addition to her flourishing career, she'd found recent success outside of the university as a singer-songwriter; at home, her children were all thriving, the two youngest actively studying at Brown.

Her youngest son, Griffin, was, in fact, still a bun in the oven when I first met Marge in the summer of 1994, between my junior and senior years of high school. I'll never forget that muggy June morning when the dozen or so members of our histology class discovered that our petite 5'2" professor was very pregnant with her seventh — seventh! — child. The fact was incredible on several fronts: that such a small person could seemingly double her size while carrying a baby; that someone as young as she could have already birthed six other children; and that as a profoundly busy professor and dean she could have had much time for family at all, much less a fairly large one.

And yet, here she was, introducing us starry-eyed teenagers to the basics of cellular and tissue biology in what was, for most of us, our first academic venture away from home. I don't think I ever told Marge how much of an impact she had on my decision to apply to Brown and to ultimately matriculate, but for 10 weeks, she was my ambassador to a world where I could become whomever I wanted to become — even if I didn't know who that was quite yet.

It was during this time, for instance, that I first entertained the thought of combining art with a career in science. While I sometimes struggled to memorize the functional differences between fibroblasts and osteoblasts, I excelled in our labs, in which we were to draw and describe what we saw in stained tissue slides magnified by standard light microscopes. The positive feedback she gave upon seeing my lab work encouraged me at various points to consider a career as a scientific illustrator/designer, or to work in some way to bring science to life through art.

To be sure, Marge was also an excellent teacher of biology: Her analogies were always illuminating, and she mixed fact and humor in a way that made learning challenging material fun. But Marge made it clear to us in word and in deed that science could be interdisciplinary — and that we didn't have to abandon our multiple interests and passions as we came into our adult years. As someone who went on to take many science courses across a wide range of subject areas, I can say that few professors encouraged cross-disciplinary thinking the way Marge did. She was a proponent of STEAM — Arts in connection with Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math — before the term even existed.

​Cellular fun: Marge's handmade jewelry fused science and art.

And by the way, she really walked the walk. Well before Etsy, Marge was a budding crafts entrepreneur in her own right, with a line of biologically inspired jewelry she called Cellular Fun. She produced and sold vibrant pins, earrings, and necklaces of neurons, white blood cells, and skin cells made from colored polymer clay.

She also betrayed her love of music to us on more than one occasion — gushing in class, for example, over Lyle Lovett and the Beatles. Years later, well after I'd graduated from Brown, she followed her own advice and took her guitar-playing talents to the next level, becoming an accomplished singer-songwriter. "Time doesn't wait for you," she told Oprah Winfrey when interviewed about this mid-career shift on Winfrey's eponymous TV show. "I knew that it was now or never." In her 50s, Marge toured the country, playing in coffee shops and on stage; she produced five albums of original music as well as a series of instructional guitar videos. In short, she'd found a second calling, and instead of writing it off as too late to start anew, she'd embraced it with full force.

It was the kind of move that didn't surprise for one moment those who knew her. As associate dean of biology, Marge headed up the advisory system for one of Brown's most popular concentrations. Hundreds of students each year engaged directly with Marge, who made sure their academic requirements were on track, who gave advice regarding courses of study and career paths, and who organized and advertised events and opportunities encouraging them to follow their love of the sciences — or whatever it was they were passionate about.

Sitting now at the First Unitarian Church, I am moved by the stories spoken aloud by former students who have returned to Providence to pay their respects to Dean T (as Marge was known to many). One in particular brings the congregation to tears when he plays an original recording of her singing a song she'd written some years back. The words of colleagues and friends make plain the enormous impact Marge had on her family and her community.

That, of course, includes me. In addition to drawing me back to Brown for my undergraduate years, Marge helped me choose my major, an interdisciplinary concentration that drew from biology but also anthropology, psychology, and sociology to better understand human evolution. She also led me to my future concentration advisor, Anne Fausto-Sterling, a noted professor and science writer on topics relating to the sociology and biology of gender. Anne helped guide me toward a path where I could explore the STEM fields through writing — and, ultimately, the photography, animation, and design that gave it additional color through the popular science outlets I've worked for throughout my career. More recently, Marge has been in my thoughts as the public has started to know me as a "LEGO artist" for my photographic depictions of scientists and engineers in minifigure form. As she quipped in her interview with Oprah, "this is not how I imagined my life!" Yet I've enjoyed this new avenue of expressing appreciation for the work that scientists do, and these vignettes have become an project of which I'm extremely proud.

So thank you, Marge, for your insights, encouragement, and grace. In the lives that you have touched, you will live on for generations to come, once again and more.

Monday, September 01, 2014

labor day ode to "i.b.m. girls"

This Labor Day, I invite you to step into my Delorean time machine and travel with me back to 1937. Thanks to an eye-opening article in Ars Technica, I’ve recently learned this was an era where working for a corporation like IBM meant having to sing company songs that toed a delicate line between college-style fight song and war-era propaganda. You can actually listen to some of these ditties on IBM’s own website.

In reading the 50-plus-page songbook uncovered by Ars reporter Lee Hutchinson, I was particularly interested in how IBM handled the issue of women who worked for the company. At the time, females were employed at IBM, but they were fairly rare, and just about invisible in management and the more technical areas of the company. Not surprisingly, the few mentions of women in the songbook focus on their looks and how nurturing they were in their supportive roles.

The collection starts off with the patriotic “America” and the “Star-Spangled Banner,” followed by “Ever Onward,” an original song written explicitly for IBM. (Most of the other songs contain new IBM-themed lyrics but borrow melodies from popular songs of the day.) Despite it being the official company rally song, “Ever Onward” does not include women:
Our leaders we revere, and while we’re here
Let’s show the world just what we think of them!
So, let us sing, men. SING, MEN!
Once or twice, then sing again
For the ever onward I.B.M.”
Indeed, phrases like “In the glorious I.B.M. we are blest with mighty men” are littered throughout the songbook. Here’s a ditty hailing company president T.J. Watson to the tune of “Happy Days Are Here Again”:
“Happy days are here again!
Nine thousands hearts in I.B.M.,
All loyal T.J. Watson men,
Love our noble President.”
The “I.B.M. Hundred Percent Club No. 2” is even worded such that listeners might think IBM was a women-free zone (though the intended meaning was almost certainly that all employees were invested 100 percent in the company):
“O—h! It’s great to belong to the best of Clubs
In our glorious I.B.M.
We’re all one hundred per cent men in President Watson’s band.
We’re selling all our products in every clime and land.
O—h! It’s great to belong to the live-wire gang
In our world-famed I.B.M.”
To be sure, women do see a few mentions. But these hat tips reek of Mad Men-style condescension and a focus on the appearance and “sweetness” of the women in question. For starters, there’s “To Our I.B.M. Girls,” sung to the tune of “They’re Style All the While”:
“The office girls surely are always in style.
They greet you with smiles, their welcome’s worth while,
The best in the world are our girls, rank and file,
They’re style all the while—all the while.

They’ve made I.B.M. complete and worth while,
They work and they smile—so sweetly they smile;
Tall, short, thin and stout girls—they win by a mile—
With heavenly styles all the while.”
Here’s the slightly better “To Our I.B.M. Systems Service Girls,” to the tune of “Betty Co-ed”:
“To our Co-eds who spent their time at studies.
To our Co-eds from school of I.B.M.
To our Co-eds no finer group of ladies,
With faces shining bright as diadems;
Ever alert and eager in their duties,
To help our customers their problems shed,
Teaching the use and application of machines.
Yes, here’s to all our I.B.M. Co-eds.”
Finally, the songbook includes dozens of odes to individual employees — starting with corporate higher-ups, from Watson and various vice presidents, to managers and leaders of company divisions in the U.S. and around the world. The lone female IBM’er among these individual odes is Anne S. Van Vechten, the company’s secretary of women’s education:
“We admire Anne Van Vechten
She is tops as we all know
With her work in women’s education
That is helping I.B.M. to grow
Every day is working with a purpose
And we all can highly recommend
Anne Van Vechten yes we most sincerely
Our best wishes to you extend.”
On the one hand, I admire IBM’s willingness to arouse company spirit with these songs and give thanks to its employees. On the other, the songbook is a reminder of the deeply ingrained attitudes toward women in the workplace that continue to this day. Of course, our country’s laws and societal norms have evolved a great deal in the past three-quarters of a century since these lyrics were written. But female workers in the U.S. still face major obstacles including lower wages for the same jobs as their male counterparts; no guaranteed maternity leave; unchecked sexual harassment; the erosion of rights to effective family planning; and persistent bias in terms of attitudes toward hiring and evaluation. To me, the day when women are truly treated as equals in the workplace will be a day to sing about.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

happy birthday, amelia

Pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart was born 117 years ago today: July 24, 1897. To celebrate, I arranged for a brief visit with her papers, which are held by the Schlesigner Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in Cambridge, MA. I could have spent hours reading through her letters, school notes, and other memorabilia . . .

The following are snapshots of some of the unique objects in her file. (Click for larger versions.)

Baby book for Amelia and her sister, Muriel.

Notes from chemistry class.

Prep school grades.

1936 letter to a young woman who had asked Earhart for career advice. Choice line: "I warn you deans, teachers, and possible employers are likely to discourage you from so reasonable a line of thought, but I feel women must hold to it if they are to progress."

Holiday card.

U.S. postage stamp memorabilia.

Archival boxes containing Earhart's papers.

The Schlesinger is literally a treasure trove of hidden women's history, and I'm looking forward to spending more time there researching the lives of women in the STEM fields. In the meantime, many thanks to librarian Amanda Strauss, who meticulously prepared Earhart's files for me on short notice!

Top image: Portrait of Earhart in the Schlesigner Library conference room. Uncanny resemblance here to another aviation pioneer, Eileen Collins.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

women of the periodic table quilt

This article originally appeared on the Scientific American Guest Blog on April 25, 2014.

The Cambridge Science Festival (CSF) is an annual spectacle of more than 150 science-related events and activities taking place in and around Cambridge, Mass. during the month of April. This year, CSF organizers asked local artists, scientists, and science communicators to join forces for a STEAM project portraying “central elements” of science in an artistic light. Participating as a science writer who also dabbles in artistic projects, I teamed up with computer scientist and crafter Gillian Smith. Our common interest in women’s history made it easy to select a project that would highlight and commemorate women who contributed significantly to the discovery of elements of the periodic table. Our canvas would be cotton — colorful and queen sized.

A number of women have made seminal discoveries leading to a greater understanding of the nature of atoms and their properties. Most people, however, can barely name one. In part, this is because scientists in general fail to rank highly among the world’s recognizable boldfaced names. It is also due to the fact that many important discoveries by female scientists have been underplayed or overshadowed by accomplishments of male colleagues and rivals. This has been particularly true in the male-dominated fields of chemistry and physics, which experienced bursts of exponential growth in the 20th century. During this prolific era, mysteries behind the building blocks of the universe began to be solved in rapid succession. But the simultaneous lack of acceptance for women in research settings made it difficult for female scientists to gain widespread recognition, even when their work was exceptional.

For our quilt, Gillian and I chose to highlight five women whose scientific achievements include the discovery of an element or one of its isotopes. They are:

Marie Curie: World-famous Polish physicist who discovered radium (Ra) and polonium (Po) with her husband, Pierre; made history by winning two Nobel Prizes for her work on radiation; and became the namesake of curium (Cm), element 96.

Berta Karlik: Austrian physicist and contemporary of Curie’s who discovered astatine (At), a radioactive element most commonly used for cancer therapy.

Lise Meitner: Noted Austrian physicist and close friend of Karlik’s who discovered nuclear fission; identified an isotope of protactinium (Pa); and later became the namesake of element 109, meitnerium (Mt).

Ida Noddack: German physicist and chemist who discovered rhenium (Re) alongside her husband, Walter, and was nominated three times for a Nobel Prize, but never won.

Marguerite Perey: French physicist and student of Marie Curie’s who discovered francium (Fr), a highly unstable radioactive metal.

The quilt was designed with several goals in mind: to accentuate the women in question with photographs, so viewers would know instinctively that they were actual historical figures; to connect the scientists with a geometric thread representing the weaving of both academic knowledge and sisterhood; and to bring to life the colors of the Cambridge Science Festival.

While I contributed the general concept and led research and writing for the project, Gillian was the quilter extraordinaire who made the artwork come to life. I visited Gillian’s studio during a late stage of the project to capture her process and soak in her thoughts on the joys and challenges of quilting. The images below provide a snapshot of the quilt’s production; a more complete photo album is also available with additional views.

The final quilt will be on display at Cort Furniture on Massachusetts Avenue for the duration of the 2014 Cambridge Science Festival (April 18 – April 27). For anyone in the area who would like to stop by during the CSF Central Elements Open House, Gillian and I will be at Cort alongside our quilt on the afternoon of Sunday, April 27, to describe our project and the women it celebrates.

All photographs by Maia Weinstock.

15 works of art depicting women in science

This post originally appeared March 7, 2014 on Scientific American online.

Research into why women continue to drop out of the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) despite high aptitude in these areas at early ages increasingly points to factors that include the stereotypical treatment and unequal representation of females in popular culture. It is becoming clear that toys, visual media, and written media, from books to references such as Wikipedia, could do wonders to encourage girls and young women by adding more and better representations of females in STEM. Fortunately this is starting to happen, as evidenced by new offerings such as the latest LEGO scientist, whom I have written about at length on the heels of my own LEGO scientist minfigure project; by the runaway success of Gravity, a film with a medical engineer-astronaut as its protagonist and hero; and by the recent popularity of Wikipedia edit-a-thons, including several I have organized in the U.S. focusing on articles about women in STEM.

But there's another sea change taking place right now, and that is the morphing of STEM into STEAM, an acronym acknowledging that art and design have always been integral to the fields of science and technology. Scientific and mathematical crafts have become easier to find and purchase in recent years, thanks to the growth of online artist communities and marketplaces. And although depictions of scientists remain overwhelmingly male, an increasing number of artworks are beginning to highlight women as thinkers and creators. The artists in the following collection of works featuring women in science have contributed boldly to the dual goals of celebrating women in the STEM fields and portraying them positively through the lens of visual media. A selection of these will be featured at a women-in-STEM art exhibit that I will guest curate at the Art.Science.Gallery. in Austin, Texas, from September 13 through October 15, 2014.

"Marie Curie" - Jeff Fenwick
(goache and ink)

This provocative painting of renowned physicist Marie Curie gazing curiously at a serpent ghost appears at first glance to reference the fact that what Madam Curie became most famous for—her tireless work uncovering the mechanisms of radioactivity—was also what ended up killing her. But Jeff Fenwick, a Toronto-based illustrator and craftsman, describes a secondary symbolism to his work: The snake and vial, he says, were designed to evoke a Rod of Asclepius, the universal symbol of medicine. "The piece is meant to represent Curie's research being a miraculous breakthrough for medical science," Fenwick explains, "while also suggesting the immanent danger Curie was in while working with radioactive materials."

After learning of Curie's life story, and of the circumstances behind her death from overexposure to radiation, Fenwick decided she would make an ideal model for a painting. He began and finished the piece during his first year at OCAD University in Toronto, where he is pursuing a degree in illustration. "I chose Marie Curie because she has a very particular melancholy expression which I felt makes her portrait interesting to study."

Fenwick plans to focus on creating comics and other illustration works after he graduates. "I also see a future," he says, "in marrying my love of design and art with my professional career as a carpenter."

Image credit: © Jeff Fenwick. Used by permission.

"Lise Meitner and Nuclear Fission" - Orlando Leibovitz
(acrylic on jute)

Both Marie Curie and German-born physicist Lise Meitner were responsible for some of the most important physics of the 20th century. Meitner's contribution was the discovery of nuclear fission, the splitting of atoms that led to the development of nuclear energy and atomic weapons. Unlike Curie, who was showered with two Nobel Prizes, Meitner was snubbed when her collaborator, Otto Hahn, took home a solo Nobel in physics for their work. But Meitner's accomplishments eventually earned her something even more enduring: a place on the periodic table of elements. She is the namesake of meitnerium, element 109.

I was pleasantly surprised by the whimsy with which Orlando Leibovitz, a self-taught artist based in Santa Fe, N.M., represented Meitner's signature work. In stark contrast to Jeff Fenwick's cautionary vision of a transformational breakthrough, Leibovitz provides a simpler, more joyful look at an iconic scientist and her discovery. The portrait belongs to a 10-piece series called "Painted Physics," which also includes paintings of Richard Feynman dancing in front of a chalkboard filled with Feynman diagrams and Ernest Shroedinger juggling cats. "Since my teenage years," says Leibovitz, "I have been intrigued by the way theoretical physics explains our universe. Artists seek the same explanations. Art, of course, does not require the same rigorous verification. But creativity and the desire to penetrate the mysterious connect art and physics."

Leibovitz adds: "Lise Meitner's discoveries continue to have a monumental impact on our lives. The way she overcame the discrimination she faced as a woman, as a physicist, and as a Jew in Nazi Germany is a dramatic story. Meitner wrote, 'Science makes people reach selflessly for truth and objectivity. It teaches people to accept reality with wonder and admiration...' She lived that sentiment every day of her life. That is a story worth painting."

Image credit: © Orlando Leibovitz. Used by permission.

"Inge Lehmann and the Earth's Core" - Ele Willoughby
(ink on kozo paper)

Ele Willoughby is a marine geophysicist based in Toronto whose research focuses on gas hydrate deposits in underwater environments. She is also a highly accomplished printmaker who creates screen prints, etchings, and linocut prints on topics in science and the natural world. This wonderful piece depicting Danish seismologist Inge Lehmann, who in 1936 demonstrated that our planet contains a solid inner core, is part of Willoughby's linocut series on famous and lesser-known scientists. "I'm rather passionate about the history of science, particularly physics and geophysics," says Willoughby. "I am more than happy to be sharing it through art—especially under-appreciated female superstars like Inge Lehmann."

The print's geometric red figure is a representation of Earth in cross-section as depicted in Lehmann's seminal paper, "P'," one of the most succinctly titled articles in the history of science. "The three concentric spheres are the mantle, outer core, and inner core, which she postulated," Willoughby explains. "'E' marks the epicenter of a massive earthquake. The numbered rays from E show the waves we would expect to observe at various angular distances around the Earth, as time progresses and they propagate through the planet."

"I'm not sure when I realized," Willoughby adds, "that the Lehmann of the Lehmann discontinuity or the American Geophysical Union's Lehmann Medal recognized a woman whose career spanned a period when it would have been unusual for her to achieve what she did. The more I looked into her story, the more interesting she was. It was not only really clever to infer that what she was seeing in the data were earthquake waves that shouldn't have been there if the core was fluid as it was believed; it was really a paradigm shift. She decided that these needed a proper, systematic explanation, and her bold hypothesis fit. It isn't widely recognized—even among earth scientists—that this fundamental discovery about the structure of our planet was the work of a pioneering woman in the field."

Image credit: © Ele Willoughby. Used by permission.

"Portrait of Gabrielle-Émilie le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet" - Nicolas de Largillière
(oil on canvas)

The great 18th-century mathematician, physicist, and natural philosopher Émilie du Châtelet has been the subject of quite a few artistic renditions, but this radiant portrait by French painter Nicolas de Largillière is my favorite by far.

It dates to around 1735, a period in history when it was almost unheard of for a female scholar—particularly one who worked in the natural sciences—to be depicted by a master painter such as De Largillière. The work also dates, roughly, to the time when Du Châtelet reconnected with her childhood friend, Voltaire, the historian and philosopher who would become her lover, intellectual partner, and lifelong friend.

Paris-born Émilie du Châtelet was drawn to the sciences from an early age, and she benefited from the encouragement and tutoring of many fine academics. As an adult, she became particularly fascinated with the work of Isaac Newton, and she is considered to have been a leading driver of the move among French academics away from Cartesian physics and toward Newtonian physics. Near the end of her short life she contributed her most lasting work, a translation and commentary on Netwton's groundbreaking Principia. It is, to this day, the standard translation of the work into French. Du Châtelet died after the birth of her fourth child at the age of 42.

The symbols and gestures in De Largillière's portrait are chock-full of meaning. First, Du Châtelet is staring skyward, a likely nod to the fact that she was interested in astronomy and the cosmos. She grips with her right hand a gold compass, symbolizing her work in measuring and bringing order to the natural world and universe. Her left hand sits on a celestial globe, probably a cue to her reverence for Newton's theory of universal gravitation. Whether the positioning of this hand just above the constellation Scorpio was related to the fact that her beloved Voltaire was born under that particular sign is up for debate.

Incidentally, this artwork is likely the most valuable among those presented in this collection; the original sold at auction for $134,500 in 2010.

Image credit: Nicolas de Largillière.

"Kathleen Yardley Lonsdale," "Barbara McClintock," "Agnes Pockels," and "Maria Goeppert-Mayer" - Jennifer Mondfrans
(oil, acrylic, and wax pastel)

"I was having a conversation with a male acquaintance, and we were talking scientists," begins San Francisco artist Jennifer Mondfrans. "He thought the only historical woman scientist was Marie Curie. After asking many of my smart friends, I realized that this was a secret history that needed to be known."

Mondfrans's response was two spellbinding series of vivid portraits depicting notable, but not necessarily well-known, women in science and mathematics. One set, "At Least I Have You, To Remember Me," pairs portraits in wild, saturated colors with "autobiographies" in the form of letters to the viewer. These are meant to imprint a story along with Mondfrans's visual interpretation of the scientist in question. The other set, "Women Scientists in History," includes alternate interpretations for some of the same personalities, while introducing yet more individuals to her overall mix. "I chose women who had accomplished great work and who had been photographed," Mondfrans says.

The four women represented here are (clockwise from top left): Kathleen Lonsdale, the pioneering British crystallographer who proved that the benzene ring is a flat hexagon; Barbara McClintock, the American geneticist and Nobel Prize-winner who produced the first genetic map of maize; Agnes Pockels, an underappreciated German pioneer in the discipline of surface science; and German-American Maria Goeppert-Mayer, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist who proposed the nuclear shell model of the atomic nucleus.

Mondfrans plans to add even more portraits of women to her science collections, as time allows. High on her to-do list are chemist Irène Joliot-Curie and biologist Lynn Margulis. "I will continue to do scientists as they pass," she says, "to create an ongoing history."

Image credits (4): © Jennifer Mondfrans. Used by permission.

"Henrietta Swan Leavitt" - Raúl Colón
(colored pencil and lithographic crayon on paper)

I live in the same neighborhood where astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt spent a great deal of time, carefully analyzing the brightness of stars as they were observed around the turn of the 20th century. I often pass by her former office at the Harvard Observatory, and by the last apartment building she lived in before she died. I wonder how life might have been for her, walking these same streets.

Physically, much of the area remains unchanged, but in Leavitt's time, women couldn't even dream of matriculating at a university like Harvard. Nevertheless, she was one of a famous group of women who not only worked at the Harvard Observatory (earning next to nothing, I might add) but who also succeeded in making a number of major contributions to the field of astronomy.

Last summer, I came across a children's picture book about Leavitt, written by Robert Burleigh and illustrated by New York artist Raúl Colón. It details her life and greatest work: the discovery of an important relationship between the changing brightness of so-called variable stars and the duration, or period, of their light fluctuations. Leavitt gained little notoriety for it in her lifetime, but this observation proved so fundamental to later discoveries about our place in the cosmos that a number of scholars, including renowned astronomer Edwin Hubble, considered it worthy of a Nobel Prize. "I was impressed by her accomplishment—basically, finding a way to measure the distance of stars," says Colón. In his portrait, the top panel represents the varying brightness of a star, while the bottom is a recreation of how Henrietta and her fellow "computers" noted the changes on paper.

"When I visited Harvard, I saw the transparencies of different stars Henrietta and other astronomers studied," Colón explains. "I also read through some of the notebooks they used to annotate their observations concerning the degree of brightness in each star through a period of time. Having some of the equipment they used—like the glass device to place the transparencies—right there for me to study and sketch really connected me to the past and her story."

Image credit: © Raúl Colón. Used by permission. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

"Mae Jemison" - Muhammad Yungai
(oil on canvas)

You may know that Mae Jemison was the first African American woman in space, but did you have any idea that she's a serious dancer? That she spent two and a half years as a Peace Corps doctor in Africa? Or that she fulfilled a childhood dream by playing a small role on Star Trek: The Next Generation?

Mae Carol Jemison has become an inspiration to women and children everywhere, not only because she earned the call from NASA, but because she has, in her post-astronaut years, excelled as a multifaceted and highly successful businesswoman, tech developer, and social leader.

These credentials, plus her commitment to education, are just a few of the reasons why Atlanta-based artist and teacher Muhammad Yungai decided to create this expressive portrait of Jemison as part of his colorful "29 Black People You Should Know" series. "Mae Jemison is an amazing woman whose story should be known," he says.

Yungai is a self-taught painter who grew up in New Orleans with a passion for artistic expression. "After receiving praise and guidance at a very early age from my father, my fascination with art bloomed into an unquenchable thirst," he writes on his website.

Today, Yungai lives in Atlanta, where he teaches visual arts to children at the KIPP WAYS Academy. His portrait of Mae Jemison was created to honor Black History Month and to serve as a fundraiser for his students. Along with the other 28 paintings of historical black leaders from Langston Hughes to Whitney Houston, Jemison's portrait was auctioned off, with proceeds going toward materials to help Yungai instruct a new generation of artists.

Image credit: © Muhammad Yungai. Used by permission.

"Jane Goodall Darwin Day Portrait Project 2013" - Hayley Gillespie
(paper collage and acrylic on wood panel)

In 2012, ecologist, conservation biologist, and artist Hayley Gillespie began the Darwin Day Portrait Project, a community endeavor in Austin, TX, that celebrates great naturalists on Charles Darwin's birthday (February 12th). After crafting a collage of Darwin himself for the inaugural event, Gillespie decided to focus this year on primatologist Jane Goodall, a chimpanzee expert and one of the most celebrated scientists of the 20th century.

By happy coincidence, Gillespie learned she would have the opportunity to show her work to Goodall just a few months later, during a public lecture at Southwestern University, where Gillespie was a visiting professor. "I felt a lot of pressure to get the portrait just right because I knew she might see it," Gillespie admits. "'Very good likeness,' was her calm assessment, so I felt really good about that!"

The collage, now signed by Goodall (top right), is on display at the Texas Memorial Museum in Austin—not far from Art.Science.Gallery., another of Gillespie's creative endeavors. She began the project in response to her popular blog about science and art. "I met so many amazing artist-scientists through my blog who were searching for a place to exhibit their work," she explains. "I woke up one morning and said, 'Why not start a gallery specifically for science and nature-inspired work?'" Art.Science.Gallery. existed in pop-up mode for some time, but it now has a permanent space a few miles east of downtown Austin, where it not only showcases artworks but also provides a home for science communication activities.

"My mother, several aunts and grandmother are all artists, and my grandfathers were engineers, so art and science have just always been a part of my life," Gillespie says. "I think they were just as much a part of Darwin's life—who had to draw, sketch, etc.—or Earnst Haeckel's life, who became famous for his Art Forms in Nature. Somehow the two fields became more separated in the 20th century as science became more quantitative. But, I think we're on the verge of a major resurgence of integrating arts and sciences."

Image credit: © Hayley Gillespie. Used by permission.

"Rosalind Franklin" - Geoffrey Appleton
(acrylic on board)

This unique painting of renowned x-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin was commissioned in the late 1990s by the science department of Staffordshire University in England. "I wanted to show Franklin at work," says British artist Geoffrey Appleton, who was trained at St. Albans College and the Canterbury College of Art, now part of Kent University. "I knew more about her as a figure that had been sidelined in the DNA structure discovery, rather than as a committed crystallographer. But I got the impression from reading about her that she was very hard-working and thorough and solitary."

Appleton's intent was to portray Franklin "as an innocent in a dark, male-dominated world," with the feet of scientific rivals James Watson and Francis Crick "waiting in the wings." The figure before Franklin represents Photograph 51, her famous DNA x-ray image. Without her knowledge or permission, Franklin's colleague Maurice Wilkins showed Photo 51 to Watson and Crick shortly before they introduced the world to DNA's double helix structure in 1953. This photo led directly to Watson and Crick's discovery, and today Franklin is often credited as a co-discoverer of DNA's structure.

But only Watson, Crick, and Wilkins shared the Nobel Prize—and the early glory—for this achievement. Franklin died at age 37 from ovarian cancer, likely a result of her work with high-energy particles. This left her ineligible for a share of the Nobel, since the prizes may not be awarded posthumously. It also left her unable to defend herself when Watson and others publicly belittled her in books and interviews. In more recent years, Franklin has become a revered symbol of the history of discrimination against women in science.

Geoffrey Appleton has been a freelance illustrator since the 1980s. If you look closely, you can make out his likeness as a symbol of genetic inheritance on the bottom right of his Franklin portrait. "The picture is based on a family photo, showing my Mum and Dad with me as a baby," he says. "It's a sort of nod toward my identity."

Image credit: © Geoffrey Appleton; Staffordshire University. Used by permission.

"Rita Levi-Montalcini" - Francesca Mantuano

On the penultimate day of 2012, the world said goodbye to Rita Levi-Montalcini, a spirited and highly decorated Italian neurologist best known for her Nobel Prize-winning discovery of nerve growth factor. That same day, Italian artist Francesca Mantuano created this digital portrait of the esteemed scientist.

Levi-Montalcini was 103 years young when she died, and by all accounts she lived each of those years to the fullest. Born an identical twin in 1909, Levi-Montalcini's early career was colored by the dark cloud of World War II. After studying chicken embryos in hiding, she moved to the U.S., where she spent three decades on the faculty of Washington University in St. Louis, MO. There, she focused her work on a mysterious protein responsible for nerve growth and maintenance. She would eventually return to her homeland, first part-time and later for good. Levi-Montalcini never stopped working or supporting the causes that were important to her. A longtime champion of women in science, she was also, from 2001 until her death, a fiery member of the Italian senate. "I've always admired her for her work and contributions that she gave to science," says Mantuano, "but also for her personality and importance in the Italian social contest. I wanted to make a tribute because I think it's important to honor this kind of character, especially nowadays, when the Italian social-political-cultural situation is not the most prosperous and shiny."

Mantuano dabbles in various media, but her first love is comics. She has completed programs in comic, cartoon, and animation design, and she is soon to finish a program in Web design at the New Institute of Design in Perugia. Mantuano takes pride in the achievements of Levi-Montalcini and hopes the illustration of her fellow countrywoman might serve as an inspiration: "We must remember that we, as a nation and people, can do a lot and bring a lot of enrichment to others."

Image credit: © Francesca Mantuano. Used by permission.

"(Augusta) Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (1815-1852) Mathematician; Daughter of Lord Byron" - Margaret Sarah Carpenter
(oil on canvas)

Augusta Ada King, the 19th century Countess of Lovelace, is best known for her work on the Analytical Engine, an early computing machine devised by her mentor and friend, Charles Babbage. Her predictions on how this and other machines might one day move beyond simple arithmetic calculation were unique for her time, and for this reason she is considered a visionary in the field of computational technology. She is also said by many to be the first computer programmer for the notes she contributed to an Italian article about the Analytical Engine.

But Ada Lovelace is way more than the sum of her intellectual, mathematical achievements. She has become, especially in the last five years, an influential symbol of the celebration of women who have contributed significantly, oftentimes silently or without reward, to the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

This regal painting of Lady Lovelace was completed by British portraitist Margaret Carpenter in 1836. It was the same year that Lovelace gave birth to the first of three children with her husband William King, a.k.a. the Earl of Lovelace.

The piece was greeted with critical acclaim at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, but Lovelace herself was far from pleased with the likeness. In fact, she responded rather brusquely to it, and to Carpenter's effort. "I conclude she is bent on displaying the whole expanse of my capacious jaw bone," Lovelace wrote, "upon which I think the word Mathematics should be written."

Image credit: Margaret Carpenter.

"Sally Ride" - Andrea Del Rio
(mixed media)

It is fitting that astronaut, physicist, and science educator Sally Ride would strike a pose in this portrait so similar to that of her fellow pioneer, Ada Lovelace. Standing tall with her characteristic bright, inviting smile, Ride provides hope for the next generation of explorers, whether out in the cosmos or here on Earth.

In becoming the first American woman in space, Ride captured the world's attention when she flew on the shuttle Challenger in 1983. But in her post-NASA career, up until the day she died of pancreatic cancer in the summer of 2012, Ride made her living as a steadfast champion of STEM education. She particularly encouraged young girls to "reach for the stars."

Andrea Del Rio, a Peruvian art student at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, attempted to capture that inspiration in her unique artwork. To create Ride's likeness, Del Rio utilized a variety of media, including watercolor, charcoal, india ink, colored pencil, chalk pastels, and acrylic paint. "The pose is empowering," Del Rio says. "Her helmet represents what the world saw her accomplish, and her suit shows what perhaps she saw out there in space. Sally did great things that before her time were not possible. As she smiles and looks away, I believe she is thinking how everything turned out just fine. Nothing is impossible."

Del Rio's own aspirations include becoming a full-time portrait painter and textile designer. On this particular work, she adds: "I wanted to represent someone who had overcome many obstacles to achieve her dreams, to serve as inspiration for me and other people, to realize that the possibilities are endless. Like saying, 'Look at her! She did it. Now get to work!'"

Image credit: Andrea Del Rio. Used by permission.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

calling all astro dj's!

Do you love astronomy, space flight, and the beauty of the cosmos? When you hear these subjects explored in song does your inner nerd smile from ear to ear? Are you curious about the artists who choose to cover astro-related topics? If so, you should contribute to Astrotunes!

It's been two years since I began the Astrotunes blog on Tumblr, and I've thoroughly enjoyed writing about songs that cover all manner of topics in space and astronomy. Unfortunately, though, I haven't been able to keep the blog as current as I'd like, so I've decided to open it up to contributing writers.

Anyone can submit a post, and commitment level is entirely up to individual contributors. Need an idea for a song to write about? I've got tons. Posts don't have to be very long, but should convey something notable about the song, artist, video, or a related event in astro news or history. All authors will be credited on their posts, and regular contributors will be added to the "masthead" on Tumblr. Please note there will be no compensation, as Astrotunes is a labor of love :)

Interested in participating? Get in touch for more information.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

gone in 2013: a tribute to 10 remarkable women in science

This post originally appeared on the Scientific American Guest Blog on December 30, 2013.

Pioneering scientists and engineers are often overlooked in popular retrospectives commemorating the year’s departed. In particular, women in such fields tend to be given short shrift. To counter this regrettable circumstance, I present here a selection of 10 notable women in science who left us in 2013. Each of these individuals contributed greatly to her field and should be remembered for her exceptional accomplishments. This, of course, is not a comprehensive list; I’d welcome your thoughts, in the comments below, on any others who may also be deserving of recognition.

Eleanor Adair
A dual expert in physics and psychology, Eleanor Adair was a trailblazing American researcher in the field of microwave radiation safety. She carried out numerous controlled studies in which she exposed monkeys and human volunteers—including herself—with microwave radiation. Her conclusions were always the same: environmental microwaves such as those emitted by cell phones, microwave ovens, and power lines have no adverse effects on health. Adair’s work ultimately helped set international standards for microwave exposure. She died on April 20 at age 86.

Brigitte Askonas
Austrian-born British immunologist Brigitte “Ita” Askonas contributed many influential works on the nature of the human immune system. She is best known for her groundbreaking studies elucidating the behavior of antibody-producing B cells and determining the role of T lymphocytes in viral infections. Askonas served for 12 years as head of the Division of Immunology at the National Institute for Medical Research in London and was both a fellow of the UK’s Royal Society and a foreign associate of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Askonas was 89 when she died on Jan. 9, 2013.

Ruth Benerito
Holder of 55 patents and a 2008 inductee to the National Inventors Hall of Fame, Ruth R. Benerito was an American chemist best known for her invention of “easy-care” permanent press cotton, a staple of modern fabrics. Her work at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in New Orleans focused on chemically bonding cotton fibers in a way that would prevent wrinkling. Today, many think of her inventions as having saved the cotton industry. Benerito passed away at age 97 on Oct. 5, 2013.

Yvonne Brill
Yvonne Brill was a Canadian-born American aerospace engineer whose career focused on developments in rocket propulsion. Her most important contribution was the invention of a thrust mechanism that is now routinely used to help keep satellites in their proper orbits. Brill was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2010 and awarded the U.S. National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2011. Her death in March at age 88 led to a review of best practices for writing about notable women in history after The New York Times received criticism for citing in Brill’s obituary her ability to “make a mean Beef Stroganoff” before any mention of her professional accomplishments.

Katharine Giles
Katharine Giles, a British climate scientist studying the effects of global warming on sea ice, died suddenly on April 8 at age 35 after being hit by a truck while cycling to work in London. Giles’s most recent research focused on using radar data to monitor sea ice thickness in the Arctic and Antarctic. Giles had discovered that satellite altimeter observations between floes, or large chunks of sea ice, could illustrate to scientists how winds affect the Arctic Ocean in the wake of sea ice melting.

Margherita Hack
Known as the “lady of the stars,” Margherita Hack was a beloved Italian astrophysicist, science writer and public commentator. The first woman to lead an astronomical observatory in Italy, Hack taught astronomy at the University of Trieste. Some considered her an Italian Carl Sagan because of her enormous influence as a writer, teacher and public figure. Hack used her gift for communication to champion civil rights, rational thinking, vegetarianism and the wonders of astronomy. She died on June 29, 2013 at age 91.

Virginia Johnson
American sexologist Virginia E. Johnson was one of the first researchers to systematically investigate human sexuality. Together with her colleague and former husband, William H. Masters, Johnson made clinical observations of some 700 volunteer subjects to chronicle the physiology and psychology of human sexual behavior. This work led to their identification of four distinct stages of sexual behavior, or, what is now known as the human sexual response cycle. Johnson co-authored numerous papers and books detailing the duo’s findings and became a sought-after sex therapist as part of the Masters and Johnson Institute in St. Louis. Johnson passed away on July 24. She was 88.

Ruth Patrick
The field of limnology, or freshwater ecology, owes a great debt to American environmental scientist Ruth Patrick, a pioneer in the study of water pollution. Her work on single-celled algae known as diatoms led to a new understanding of the types of environmental stresses that can affect freshwater systems. A longtime environmental activist, Patrick authored more than 200 research articles and was honored in 2009 with the National Medal of Science. She died on Sept. 23, 2013 at the awe-inspiring age of 105.

Candace Pert
Candace Pert was an American neuroscientist and mind-body researcher who identified the first opiate receptor, or cellular binding site, in the brain. Her discovery laid the groundwork for future research in brain biochemistry and helped her graduate advisor—but not her—earn the prestigious Lasker Award, often referred to as the American Nobel. Pert, who died on Sept. 12 at the age of 67, also discovered the receptors for Valium and PCP but eventually shifted her career to focus on the application of scientific standards to questions of whether and how the brain may play a role in disease.

Janet Rowley
That cancer can have a genetic basis has only been known for about 40 years, and it was American physician and geneticist Janet Rowley who discovered the first evidence of such a connection. While working with leukemia in the early 1970s, Rowley found that chromosomal slip-ups known as translocations can lead to the development of cancerous cells. Her research on cancer genetics was far-reaching and laid the groundwork for a number of important therapies. Rowley, who died at age 88 on Dec. 17, was the recipient of countless awards for her outstanding work, most notably the National Medal of Science, the Lasker Award and the National Medal of Freedom, which is the United States’ highest civilian honor.

Individual photo credits, top to bottom: Courtesy of Michael R. Murphy; MRC National Institute for Medical Research; Mary Jackson, courtesy of the Lemelson-MIT Program; Wikimedia Commons; University College London; Wikimedia Commons; Courtesy of Becker Medical Library, Washington University School of Medicine; Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University ANSP Archives coll. 457; Press image - author unknown; Wikimedia Commons.