Friday, October 21, 2011

interweb shoutout: take back halloween!

Welcome to late October, the time of year when folks begin to seriously consider their Halloween duds. Halloween is one of my favorite holidays, but as I've noted previously here on Annals of Spacetime, there's one thing about it that irks me to no end: the part where women and girls often have a hard time finding non-slutty, non-sexist costumes.

Enter my new favorite project, Take Back Halloween! Launched in 2010, the site offers concrete ideas and instructions for making costumes of notable historical and mythological women.

"This is not your typical Halloween costume thing,” says Suzanne Scoggins of the Real History Project, which sponsors the site. “We’re pushing back against the rule that women have to dress up as sex kittens. That shouldn’t be the only option for Halloween, much less a requirement. We’re trying to reclaim some space for a different vision of the holiday, where women can use Halloween to explore history and celebrate their heritage."

So, want to go as a notable scientist this year? Try dressing as physicist Lise Meitner (above, left) or computer science pioneer Ada Lovelace (above, center). If ruling nations is more your thing, you can be Jezebel, former queen of Israel; Hatshepsut (above, right), the Egyptian pharaoh; or Himiko, the first recorded ruler of Japan. Prefer to be a glamorous star of song or stage? Turn yourself into Diana Ross, Audrey Hepburn, or Josephine Baker! There are also designs for women's suffrage champion Susan B. Anthony; artist Frida Kahlo; Greek goddess Demeter; and lots more. One thing I really love about the offerings—and there are about 60 costume ideas currently available—is that they include impressive female figures from all over the world. Case in point: Ix Chel (below), a Mayan goddess of the moon, medicine, water and weaving. Nicknamed the "Lady of the Rainbow," she was apparently known for wearing bold, bright colors, jaguar pelts, and a coiled snake on her head. Sign me up!

If there's one down side to the site it's that it currently only offers instructions rather than an opportunity to purchase actual costumes. It would of course be wonderful if someone took this idea and ran with it as a business venture... In the meantime, if you don't have the sewing gene but would like to have one of the Take Back Halloween costumes made for you, I suggest joining Etsy and posting a request for the costume through Etsy's custom order team. How it works: Buyers post requests for custom-made items, and sellers contact buyers with proposals for making those requests come to life. You have to jump through a few hoops to be able to leave a request comment, but I tried it recently and it does work quite well.

Anyway, a ginormous thank you to the folks at Take Back Halloween for getting this idea out've just made Halloween a whole lot cooler!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

lady laureates, revisited

Curt Rice, Vice President for R&D at the University of Tromsø in Norway, has a smart post on his blog today regarding the Nobel Peace Prize committee's embarrassing track record for recognizing women. As I noted recently, the number of all-time female Peace Prize laureates jumped up from 12 to 15 this year—that's an increase of 25 percent with just one award! Unfortunately it still means that 85 percent of Peace Prize recipients have been male. As Rice rightly asks, does this mean that only 85 percent of men have done valuable work for peace?

In one sense, it's laudable that the Nobel Peace Prize committee appears to be trying to make up for past omissions by giving three women the prize in one year. At the same time, it's hard to disagree with Rice's assertion that in so doing, the committee devalues the impact of the award, not only because it forces three people to share the prize money but because this award seems to throw together three women working in three different arenas just for the sake of numbers. Peace Prizes have been split before, but that's only happened when awardees were co-recipients with organizations or when they were working together toward the same specific goal. One might counter the notion that this year's three-way-split is unfair by arguing that giving the prize to three unrelated people—regardless of gender—spreads the wealth, if not literally then figuratively, by drawing attention to three causes rather than just one. And I have no doubt that if you ask any of this year's recipients they'd say they're thrilled simply to be awarded, jointly or no. But Rice's point here is a valid and important one: The vast majority of the time, individual men have taken home the gold and the glory, so lumping three women together under the banner of advancing women's struggle for peace makes it seem like the work of each individual recipient isn't worthy of the award on its own.

Rice further suggests that to improve the situation, the Nobel Peace Prize committee might consider adding a quota system by which they force themselves to award women a certain percentage of prizes from year to year. The idea of gender quotas may be controversial, but it's one I've come to favor in recent years, not necessarily in the realm of international awards but in response to the deplorable percentage of women we see in government, particularly here in the United States. To wit, according to the fascinating quotaProject, a database of quotas for women in government around the world, countries as diverse as Albania, Honduras, Rwanda, and Sweden have achieved success in implementing gender quotas in some part of their election structure. And as Rice points out, "Research shows that gender balance enhances quality. Quotas have not reduced the quality of corporate Boards, and there is no reason to expect they will reduce the quality of Peace Prize recipients, either."

Of course, for me this discussion only begs the question, Why stop at the Peace Prize? As I've written previously, the total number of Nobel Prizes awarded to women has been nothing short of pitiful. At the top of this post you'll see the latest version of the chart I created showing all female Nobel Laureates. To date, women have still only received 8 percent of all Nobels given to individuals. You think 15 percent of Peace Prizes going to women is bad? Try 11 percent for literature; 5 percent for physiology or medicine; 2 percent for chemistry; 1 percent for physics; and 1 percent for the Prize for Economic Sciences.

Admittedly, the candidate pool of women for some of the science prizes is, at least for now, smaller than for the peace prize; in the areas of physics and chemistry in particular, there have simply been significantly fewer women than men producing paradigm-shifting research. But that doesn't mean they don't exist and couldn't be expressly sought out for recognition now and again. Furthermore, the numbers argument doesn't really fly for an area like literature; there are plenty of deserving female authors out there. So the question is: If the Nobel organizers begin to consider whether to actively consider gender in rewarding seminal work in the field of peace then shouldn't they do the same for the other awards? To be sure, each Nobel and the Prize in Economic Sciences is awarded by a different committee, using different rules, but for the sake of argument I'll suggest this rule change should be considered wholesale.

My vote would be to give the various committees a probationary period of 10 years or so to self-correct, but then after that, if no significant improvement in female representation is seen, then yes, some sort of weighted quota system should be implemented. Of course, it's certainly possible that this issue will someday be moot—one look at the winners of this year's Google Science Fair has to bring hope for that. But the Nobels are in many ways an important tool for promoting continued excellence in science and the humanities, and there's no reason the world shouldn't hear the message now that women are just as capable and valued as are men in the Nobel disciplines.

Friday, October 07, 2011

channeling ada: maria klawe, computer science cheerleader, champion, and sage

It is Ada Lovelace Day once again, the day on which bloggers around the world write about inspiring women in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines. Ada Lovelace Day has become a wonderful tradition, and I’ve been proud to participate for all three years of its existence. (If you care to step into my DeLorean, you’ll find my ALD posts from 2009 and 2010.) This year, I will begin with a little drama...

This past April at the Ensemble Studio Theater in Manhattan, I attended the reading of a most impressive opera titled, simply, ADA. Written by Kim Sherman and Margaret Vandenburg, it depicts the brief, wondrous, but also tortured life of Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace. Ada Lovelace is considered by many to have been the first computer programmer for her ideas concerning early calculating machines. She was born in 1815 to parents whose tumultuous marriage was fractured by irreconcilably disparate worldviews: her father, the poet Lord Byron, was a free-spirited dreamer whose livelihood involved dancing with words, while her mother, Anna Milbanke, was stoic, rational, and much more interested in practical pursuits like science and mathematics. Based in large part on historical events, the opera follows young Ada as she struggles with the clash between her mother’s insistence on strict dedication to academic studies and the flights of fancy she’s clearly inherited from the father she would never meet.

As much as I appreciated the opera's focus on Ada's internal conflicts, I thought the work shed fascinating light on Ada’s mother, who in real life was both remarkably talented and burdened in her own right. Unlike most girls in 18th-century England, Anna Milbanke was introduced to academics at a young age. She was raised as a boy of privilege would have been, with private tutors who immersed the young Anna in lessons of philosophy, science, literature, and—her favorite—mathematics. These lessons helped her blossom into an intelligent young woman and would color her personality for the rest of her days; even her future husband would one day come to call her “Princess of Parallelograms.”

Years later, though, when the Don Juan author began acting out and Lady Byron ultimately asked for divorce, things began to take a turn for the worse. In raising the couple’s daughter alone, Lady Byron feared her former husband’s wild influence so much that she became unwavering in—one might say obsessed with—her goal of steering Ada into scholarly work. In the dramatized version of events, although Ada displayed immense scholastic aptitude and an innate curiosity about a great many things—most notably, in the ability of machines to one day perform unimaginably complex algorithms—she suffered irrevocably from the stifling condemnation of her true passions by her mother and by society at large. In the end, we’re led to conclude that if her mother had been different, had not only wanted for her daughter to appreciate the magic of math and science but also the creativity and whimsy that shows up in everyday life, then Lovelace may not have died, broken, at the age of 36.

Whether this version of events bears any resemblance to the actual reasons for Lovelace’s fall from grace and ultimate premature demise is anyone’s guess. (For the record, her proximate causes of death were uterine cancer and bloodletting, though by the end of her life she clearly suffered mentally as well, as she had become addicted to painkillers and gambling.) Yet in pondering how things might have turned out differently, one can't help but wonder whether being nurtured by someone else, the Enchantress of Numbers might have been saved . . .

* * *

Most people outside the computing world have probably never heard of Maria Klawe. To briefly summarize, Klawe (pronounced CLAW-vey) is the current president of Harvey Mudd College, an accomplished computer scientist, and an overall inspiring human being. I decided to profile her this year for her enormous contributions to technology, not only in her own research, but in her steadfast dedication to the cultivation of aspiring computer scientists—especially those who are women.

Klawe’s biography reads like a laundry list of gold star achievements. A native of Canada, she received a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Alberta before launching a career that has spanned both industry and academia. During eight years at the IBM Almaden Research Center in San Jose, CA, Klawe rose to the rank of department chair before moving on to the University of British Columbia, where she spent 15 years building up the computer science department and serving as its head. She was eventually wooed by Princeton, and in 2003 she relocated to New Jersey to become a rock star dean of the university's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Three years later, Klawe accepted an offer from Harvey Mudd, a small university in Claremont, CA that specializes in the STEM areas, to become its first female president. In 2009, she was invited to serve on the board of directors at Microsoft, becoming only the second woman to do so. Not too shabby a CV, eh?

Truth is, though, it’s the little things about Klawe’s studies, passions, and overall attitude that have really impressed the dickens out of me. Her research has focused on some interesting problems in computational geometry, like the so-called art gallery problem, which aims to determine the minimum number of guards needed to observe an entire gallery with a set architecture. She’s also spent a lot of time studying how gender plays a role in video game performance and development. In a paper from 1995, for instance, she concluded that when girls play a video game together, they do significantly better than if they play apart.

That idea mirrors one that’s gotten a heavy share of attention in the blogosphere recently; namely, that one of the reasons women shy away from computer science is its reputation for being über competitive. I was surprised to learn that back in the 1960s and 70s, the percentage of CS majors in the U.S. who were women was much higher than it is now—it peaked at about 30 percent. But the following decades brought a shift in attitude toward computing as a career, and today only about 15 percent of all CS majors in the U.S. are female. To challenge this paradigm, Klawe and her colleagues have attempted to morph the prevailing computer science culture into one that fosters support and inclusion, especially for women who may simply need a little nudge to help their talent shine through. “The imposter syndrome is something that many people suffer from, [but] it’s persistence and hard work that will make the difference,” she said in a recent interview. “If you just keep pushing on it and get encouragement and help from others, you’re going to do just fine.” Their efforts seem to be paying off in spades: Since Klawe’s tenure at Harvey Mudd began, the percentage of female computer science majors there has more than tripled, to 42 percent.

So how does she do it? By all accounts Klawe is warm, energetic, and enthusiastic about just about everything and everyone she encounters, and she strives to bring harmony and creativity into each endeavor she undertakes. Case in point: she loves to paint watercolors, and she’s been known to whip out her brushes during meetings to help her focus on the discussion at hand. She’s also encouraged young children to explore mathematics with hands-on activities that demonstrate the wonders of math in ways not often taught in schools. "The thing that scares me the most is that we would think it was amazingly bad for an educated person to not be able to read, but for some reason we think it's okay for an educated person to say, 'I'm not good at math,'" Klawe has said. "I really want our culture to value having our students learning math and science in high school and continuing [the subjects] in college."

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Klawe’s penchant for skateboarding around campus, which is totally awesome! When I first saw the photo of her goofy-footing it with black helmet, fuscia jacket, and multicolored kicks, I knew I had to find out about this woman. Turns out, it’s not just a hobby; Klawe’s boarding doubles as a way to get students to feel comfortable approaching her and opening up about their lives and their passions. How rad is that?!

Indeed, throughout her life, Klawe has—not unlike the mother of a certain historical computing visionary—encouraged youngsters, and women in particular, to be independent thinkers; to seek out solutions to problems that don’t have easy answers. But she also espouses something that Lady Byron apparently did not: an attitude that attending to the whole person is a huge part of education, and that young learners shouldn’t be afraid to be themselves, to embrace their passions, be they in the classroom, the art room, a ballfield or stage. I’m eternally grateful for Maria Klawe’s spirit and efforts to make science and math more appealing to students of all backgrounds. In that, she truly epitomizes the many heroines of Ada Lovelace Day.

women for peace

It's been an exciting week for Nobel Prizes, but I have to say I was getting a little disappointed to think we might go another year without any ladies being recognized for their contributions to society. Women had a record haul in 2009—five Nobel Prizes in four different categories—but 2010 was the 77th year in which all men and no women were awarded Nobels. What a pleasure, then, to wake up to the news that Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gwobee, and Tawakul Karman had been awarded the Peace Prize for their work on the "non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work."

Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia, is the first and, currently, only female head of state in Africa. A former banker, she left the corporate world to participate in government in the mid-80s and has been fighting for peace ever since. Gbowee may be best known in the Western world as the woman who organized a sex strike against the men of Liberia during that country's brutal civil war, but she's also been a longtime leader of Women of Liberia Mass Action For Peace, which aims to unite females from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds in the common cause of ending violence and promoting women's participation in government. Karman is a human rights activist, member of Al-Islah (the Yemeni Congregation for Reform), and head of the group Women Journalists Without Chains. Among other accomplishments, Karman has played a significant role in organizing rallies and protests during this year's uprising in her native Yemen.

In case you were keeping score, Karman, Gbowee and Johnshon Sirleaf are the 99th, 100th, and 101st individuals to receive the Nobel Peace Prize—though only the 13th, 14th, and 15th women to be so honored. (I've just added them to my chart of all women who have ever received Nobels.) With today's announcement, I am hopeful that we'll continue to see more women—AND men—recognized for their efforts to promote the equal treatment of females around the world. Congrats to these remarkable ladies, and to all of this year's Nobel recipients!

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

i can haz nobel pryz?

It's Nobel Prize time once again, and I couldn't be happier to see everyone getting a little giddy over science. It shouldn't go unmentioned, however, that with Nobel season comes a little silliness, too. Last week, the 21st First Annual igNobel Prizes were awarded in grand fashion here in Cambridge, and there were some truly juicy papers among the winners. I had the pleasure of seeing the prize lectures in person a couple of days later, and let me just say that I haven't laughed that hard in quite some time. Kudos to Marc Abrahams and the rest of the igNobel crew for making us laugh, think...and giggle uncontrollably about the numbers 1 and 2.

Also on the topic of science silliness this week, I was highly amused to stumble upon a brand new blog . . . the kind of blog that makes you go: Why hasn't this been around for ages? Epochs? Eons, even?! It is GeoKittehs, a joint venture from geologists Evelyn Mervine and Dana Hunter that aims to vault earth-science-lovin' kitties onto a national stage. Looking to find some crust-cat-al accretion? Why yes, they've got that. Need an example of normal cat faulting? Look no further. Of course, my own feline had to join the party with a powerful demonstration of catslides. Needless to say, I have high hopes for the GeoKittehs, and I implore those of you with geology-minded fuzzballs to participate.

Continuing with the silly, in the spirit of this week's Nobels, and with GeoKittehs and the fantastic Particle Zoo Physics LOLcats in mind, I hereby announce the winners of the LOLcat Nobel Pryzes, 2011:

•In Physiology or Medicine, for revealing fundamental truths about the nature of biomedical research:

•In Chemistry, for discovering heretofore unknown properties of inert gases:

•In Physics, for demonstrating that the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics was right all along:

•In Literature, for lifetime contributions to cat prose and feline linguistics, including the development of a promising alternative to lolspeak:

•In Economic Sciences, for significant advances in decision theory:

•And in Peace, for proving once and for all that inner strength and a pink nose can conquer all: