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.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

smiling for cassini

Remember when we all smiled and waved at Saturn back in July, while the Cassini spacecraft snapped our photo? Well, the full mosaic from that magical day has finally been processed by Cassini's imaging team, and boy, is it a stunner. I'm not at all embarrassed to admit that it brought a tear to my eye the moment I saw it in full size...

Like a lens that might be utilized to view either the incredibly small or the incredibly distant, this mosaic compels us both to look inward, at how we might improve ourselves and the health of our only home, and to keep dreaming, about what else awaits us so long as we continue on in our quest to explore the solar system and beyond. (Indeed, if ever an image were appropriate to use as a call to action for those deciding the budgetary fates of our national space program, this one would be it.)

The timing of today's release coincides with the ceremonial hand-off of the late Carl Sagan's papers to the Library of Congress, where they have recently been archived for future generations to examine. We can all be sure that Sagan would have been quite pleased with this most magnificent interplanetary portrait... It is, of course, not only a thing of beauty, perfectly planned to take advantage of a breathtaking alignment of the sun, Saturn, and Earth. The image also reminds us just how tiny we are in the grand scheme of the cosmos—and how important it is to connect regularly with our fellow human beings so that we may reflect on our shared place in the universe.

I'm proud to have played a minor role in the planning of the #DayEarthSmiled and will remember these past months, and those 15 peaceful minutes in July, for many moons to come. For further insight, I highly recommend the latest Captain's Log from Cassini's imaging leader, Carolyn Porco, which beautifully summarizes her intent for the project and describes the many hidden treats you'll find if you take a closer look at the final mosaic.

Even if you missed the big event this past summer, take heart in knowing that your essence was captured in time and in space in this spectacular image in the year 2013.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

ada lovelace wikipedia edit-a-thon at brown: a recap

Ada Lovelace Day 2013 has come and gone. I'm proud to have co-organized an extremely successful Wikipedia edit-a-thon this year at my alma mater, Brown University, on October 15th. As with the similar event I led at Harvard last year, the aim was to increase the participation of female editors on Wikipedia while simultaneously giving new visibility to important women in the STEM fields on one of the most popular encyclopedias in the world. I dare say we achieved these goals, and then some.

All told, about 40 people attended in person, while another 25-30 participants contributed remotely via the Web. We began accepting contributions a week prior to the event and allowed folks to add their final edits through the 18th. In total, we added 20 new Wikipedia articles, mostly biographies on individual women in the STEM fields. These included mathematician and computer scientist Sibyl Rock, archaeologist Blanche Wheeler Williams, electrical engineer Ingeborg Hochmair, and neuropathologist Ann McKee. Nearly 70 additional articles—again, mainly bios—were also added to, cleaned up, or otherwise improved. Three of the new articles (Hochmair, Rock, and Williams) were accepted to Wikipedia's front-page "Did You Know?" area. This is a phenomenal result for a single edit-a-thon! (Full list of articles created/improved.)

This year's event was co-organized by my friend and former undergraduate advisor, Anne-Fausto Sterling, whom I had the pleasure of teaching how to edit Wikipedia earlier this summer. Through her efforts, and the efforts of Brown's Science and Technology Studies Program; Science Center; and Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women, we were able to round up some impressive national and international press prior to and after the event. This couldn't have happened without the assistance of the Brown University news office, and especially David Orenstein. Thanks to their press release, dozens of media outlets featured our edit-a-thon as part of Ada Lovelace Day. We also garnered thousands of tweets, posts, and comments through social media. For a visual summary, including photos, tweets, and write-ups, check out our colorful Storify recap. Here, also, is a representative list of some original articles that covered our event:

Al Jazeera America | A Mighty Girl | Associated Press | The Atlantic | BoingBoing | Boston Globe | Business Week | Brown Daily Herald | Bust | Chronicle of Higher Education | Campus Technology | CJAD 800 News Radio (Montreal) | Daily Dot | Fast Company | FayerWayer (Spanish) | Feministing | Geek Exchange | Il Fatto Quotidiano (Italian) | Jezebel | Linkiesta (Italian) | LiveScience | The Mary Sue | New York | New Yorker | New York Times | PBS | Policy Mic | The Scientist | Silicon Angle | Slate | Southern California Public Radio (@ 1:29:40) | Slate | Slate France (French) | Washington Post | World Science Festival

The edit-a-thon itself went off without a hitch, and it was truly incredible to see so many students, faculty, staff, and even a few out-of-town visitors who made the trek to join us in Pembroke Hall. Many folks came in knowing not a lick of Wikipedia markup language. Others were experienced Wikimedians who worked on their own articles but also helped others through the afternoon and evening. In addition to presentations from Anne and myself, we were fortunate to have Michael Umbricht, the curator at Brown's historic Ladd Observatory, speak to the group about Wikipedia's GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, and museums) efforts, including a project he spearheaded at the Ladd very recently.

I'm honestly not sure what I could possibly do to top the outcome of this edit-a-thon for next year's Ada Lovelace Day... That is a huge testament to everyone who helped out! Thank you again to all who spread the word about the importance of recognizing women's contributions to the STEM fields; who volunteered to do the gritty work of adding and improving Wikipedia articles; or who played a role behind the scenes. That includes, I might add, folks like Suw Charman-Anderson, who began Ada Lovelace Day, and Sarah Stierch, Emily Temple-Wood, and Gobonobo, who have done so much in recent years to promote women on the pages of Wikipedia. You all made this edit-a-thon a gargantuan success!

Friday, October 18, 2013

channeling ada: chien-shiung wu, courageous hero of physics

This post originally appeared on the Scientific American Guest Blog on October 15, 2013.

Today marks the 5th Ada Lovelace Day, an annual celebration of women who have made important contributions to the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The event is named for Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, who is often credited as the first computer programmer. Since its inception in 2009, Ada Lovelace Day has grown from a purely blog-based affair to one marked by worldwide events including public lectures and Wikipedia edit-a-thons. This year, the Ada Lovelace Day organizers have also published a book of essays celebrating women in STEM entitled, A Passion For Science: Stories of Discovery and Invention. This blog post presents my chapter of that book. It describes the life and work of Chien-Shiung Wu, one of the most important physicists of the 20th century. Few outside of physics have ever heard of Wu, nor could they name any of her considerable contributions to science. I hope this essay will change that in some small way. –MW

It is the afternoon of May 31, 2012, and the skies above Liuhe in the Chinese province of Jiangsu are overcast but resplendent in silver and grey. A late-spring chill fills the air as a crowd of expectant locals and distinguished guests, including a number of representatives from the People’s Government, gathers in a circular stone-walled courtyard to honor a hometown legend. Scores of women, men and children who have made the journey here huddle in their well-worn jackets and coats as they wait for the memorial ceremony to begin.

Over the next two hours, attendees of this spirited congregation will take turns paying their respects with flowers, speeches, and songs to one of the most decorated and esteemed scientists of the 20th century. She has been dubbed the "First Lady of Physics" and the "Chinese Marie Curie" for her groundbreaking work in nuclear science—some of which, controversially, helped earn her male colleagues, but not her, a Nobel Prize. But here in Liuhe, where she was born exactly 100 years ago (and where she was buried after her death in 1997) she is known simply as Chien-Shiung: "Courageous Hero".

For one who faced so many uphill battles on the road to worldwide recognition and acclaim, physicist Chien-Shiung Wu more than lived up to the moniker her parents conferred upon her the day she came into the world in Liuhe, some 30 miles northwest of the port city of Shanghai. To begin with, Wu was born at a time when her homeland forbade girls from going to school. This was still an era when Chinese girls were expected to bind their feet and grow up to serve their male compatriots.

And yet, only a year before Wu’s birth, the Xinhai Revolution had overthrown the last Chinese dynasty and established the new Republic of China. With that massive uprising came a sea change of attitudes and a new generation of leaders eager to overturn the status quo. One of those leaders was Wu’s father, Zhongyi Wu. An engineer by training who believed strongly in equal rights for women, Zhongyi felt that the best thing he could do to help his daughter and her peers was to start a school for girls — the region’s first. With the aid of his wife, Fan Fuhua, who persuaded other families to let their young ones enroll, Zhongyi Wu opened the Mingde School for Girls and became its principal. And so, young Chien-Shiung, an inquisitive child from the get-go, was one of the first girls to obtain formal education in China.

But her father’s school could only take Wu so far. To continue learning, her only option was to join a girls' boarding facility 50 miles from home. She was all of 10 years old when she began classes at the Suzhou Girls' School, where she quickly came to discover the beauty and intrigue of physical science. It was, of course, not easy for a child so young to be away from her family, but her parents gave her strength. "Ignore the obstacles," her father told her. "Just put your head down and keep walking forward."

With such encouragement, Wu dedicated herself to the goal of studying math and science at the university level. She practically lived at school for seven full years, during which time she worked twice as hard as many of her peers so that she would have the skills required to earn a place in the physics department at the National Central University in Nanjing. Her commitment paid off: In 1930, she completed high school and began at NCU as a math major, transferring later into physics.

Wu graduated from NCU in 1934 as the school’s undisputed top student. But she once again found herself up against a wall: While the world was beginning to unravel the mysteries of the atom, a topic that intrigued her immensely, China had no graduate programs in physics. And so, at the suggestion of a mentor and with the financial backing of an uncle, Wu left for the United States on what she thought would be a brief detour in her journey to a scientific career in China. Little did she know that the course of her life would take a dramatic turn almost as soon as she landed on the California coast — nor that she would never again set eyes on the family she was leaving behind.

A life atomic

The United States of the 1930s saw the dawn of a new era in scientific inquiry. Atomic physics in particular took a major step forward in 1931, when future Nobel Prize-winner Ernest Lawrence, with the help of graduate student M Stanley Livingston, built the first cyclotron, a particle accelerator that uses magnetic fields to speed up and smash together atomic bits so that their interactions can be studied precisely.

Lawrence and his cyclotron were based at the University of California at Berkeley, which was fast becoming the world’s leading hotspot for the study of the atom. It was also a stone’s throw from San Francisco, the city where Chien-Shiung Wu landed in the late summer of 1936 after her ship had crossed the vast and turbulent Pacific on her way to graduate school. Wu’s ultimate destination was the University of Michigan, where she planned to study for her PhD, but with some down time before classes began, she decided to pay a visit to the Berkeley campus and its world-class physics department.

Only a few days into her California sojourn, Wu’s plans changed completely. For starters, she made the acquaintance of a fellow Chinese physics student named Luke Yuan, who would go on to become a permanent fixture in her life. Furthermore, after meeting with an obviously impressed Professor Lawrence, she was invited to pursue her graduate work at Berkeley. An opportunity to study under some of the legends of nuclear physics — which included not only Lawrence but also future Manhattan Project director Robert Oppenheimer — was a dream come true for Wu, who desperately wanted to learn as much as she could about the fundamental nature of matter. In an abrupt and daring move, she abandoned her plans to enroll at Michigan.

As a graduate student, "Miss Wu" was quite popular with her peers. She also became notorious for an unwavering work ethic that saw her toiling in the lab well into the small hours of morning on many a night. It was a reputation that would follow her for her entire professional career. "I have always felt," she later explained, "that in physics, and probably in other endeavors, too, you must have total commitment. It is not just a job, it is a way of life."

The truth is, however, that Wu had something of a difficult time adapting to American culture. English was a tricky language to master, and she would spend her adult life fumbling with certain pronunciations and grammatical rules. What’s more, she missed Chinese food and preferred the Chinese style of dress — so much so that she would continue to wear traditional high-necked qipao dresses well into her old age, oftentimes underneath a white lab coat.

Not quite a year after Wu’s arrival in California, international headlines reported devastating news: Japan had invaded China. Since landing in the U.S., Wu had remained in close contact with her parents, brothers and sister, but after the invasion, she wouldn’t hear another word from her family for eight long years. It was a trying time, as horrific updates from the front trickled overseas: By the end of 1937, some 42,000 civilians in her home province of Nanjing alone had been raped or murdered by Japanese troops. Four years later, the conflict would officially merge with World War II after Japan surprised the United States with its attack on Pearl Harbor.

With nothing she could do to help her loved ones, Wu attempted to tune out the war and focus instead on her work. She pursued her thesis under Lawrence and his assistant, another future Nobelist, Emilio Segrè. By 1940, Wu had completed her PhD and was considered an expert — "the authority," according to Robert Oppenheimer — in the new science of nuclear fission, the splitting of large atomic nuclei either by an induced nuclear reaction or by natural radioactive decay.

Ask Miss Wu

Wu stayed on at Berkeley as a research assistant for two years, solidifying her reputation as one of the most capable experimental physicists in the country. It was during this time that scientists led by physics icon Enrico Fermi were attempting, unsuccessfully, to produce the first large-scale, self-sustaining plutonium chain reaction at a research facility in Hanford, Washington. Fermi’s reactions to that point would run for a few hours but then sputter out without explanation.

Legend has it that someone suggested to Fermi that he "ask Miss Wu" for advice. He did, and Wu swiftly deduced that the problem was the buildup of xenon, a plutonium fission by-product. Xenon is an inert noble gas, but it turned out that the particular isotope produced in Fermi’s chain reaction had a tendency to capture stray neutrons.

Wu knew that the more xenon built up in the reaction chamber, the more neutrons would be captured, and the fewer neutrons would be available to induce future reactions. She was right, and Fermi’s team corrected the glitch in short order. Just like that, Wu had solved one of the trickiest problems in all of experimental physics.

In 1942, Wu and her new husband, Luke Yuan, moved to the East Coast. While many of her colleagues at Berkeley had been recruited for the war effort, Wu was not asked to join, despite her considerable knowledge of atomic physics. Neither was she asked to remain on at Berkeley in a more permanent role. It was an unfortunate reality that Wu encountered discrimination for being female at a time when most of the top American universities still refused to accept women, either as students or professors. During wartime, she also faced significant ethnic racism.

When Yuan obtained a position at RCA Laboratories in Princeton, New Jersey to work on the development of radar, Wu accepted an assistant professorship at Smith College, a women’s school in Northampton, Massachusetts. The scenario was far from ideal. The newlyweds, living 200 miles apart, only saw each other on weekends in New York City. And while Wu enjoyed teaching upstart female scientists like she had once been, she had very few opportunities to do what she relished most: solve problems in the lab.

It wasn’t long before Wu began to feel unhappy at Smith. When she vented her frustrations to her former advisor, Ernest Lawrence, he recommended her to a number of institutions in need of professors to pick up the slack while many of their staff members were on leave to help with the war. In short order, Wu was offered positions at eight prestigious universities, three of which still barred women from matriculating. She chose Princeton to be near Yuan and, in so doing, became that institution’s first female professor.

The Manhattan Project

Within a few months, Wu was recruited to join the Manhattan Project, the United States' cloak-and-dagger war research and development program. Many of her former professors and colleagues had already spent years working in secret to develop an atomic bomb. Now, Wu would apply her expertise in support of this goal at a New York City warehouse owned by Columbia University.

Contrary to public perception, a fair number of women — many hundreds, certainly, and possibly thousands — were involved in the technical reaches of the Manhattan Project. They were chemists, technicians, doctors, mathematicians, and more. But Wu was one of the very few women who contributed at the highest levels of physics research for this critical war effort.

Aside from her earlier help on Fermi’s plutonium problem, Wu’s work dealt mainly with the enrichment of uranium, the conversion of that element’s most abundant isotope, 238U, which is not fissionable, into the much rarer 235U, which is. In addition, she made major improvements to the Geiger counter, a device that any student of high school physics will recognize today as a common radiation detector.

On August 6, 1945, the work of Wu and thousands of others became known to the world when a uranium bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, with devastating results. The use of nuclear power, both for international arsenals and for peaceful electricity production, was only getting started. But World War II was about to become history.

The end of the war brought happy news and the turning of several new leaves, both professional and personal, for Chien-Shiung Wu. For starters, after not hearing from her family for eight agonizing years, she finally received word that everyone back home in China was well. Her father was even regarded as a war hero: He had engineered the Burma Road, a crucial transportation route used by the Allies to send supplies to Chinese troops.

Wu was also thrilled to learn that Columbia University wanted her to stay on as a senior researcher. The Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan would in fact become her professional home for the next quarter of a century. It would soon become her personal home as well. After the birth of their son, Vincent, in 1947, Wu and Yuan moved to an apartment just a few blocks from Columbia’s physics building, Pupin Hall.

Beta decay

By this point in her career, Wu had earned a solid reputation as a highly skilled experimental physicist. With the war behind her, she needed a new problem to focus on. Wu chose wisely: Her investigations of beta decay — a mysterious type of radioactivity in which a large atomic nucleus emits energy and morphs into a new element — would help her reshape the world’s understanding of several fundamental atomic processes.

At the time, no one really understood how beta decay worked. Back in 1933, Enrico Fermi had devised what seemed like a viable theory for how an atom’s nucleus, composed of protons and neutrons, could shoot off an electron along with a neutrino and change into a completely different element in the process. But a number of physicists had tried to support Fermi’s theory with experimental data, and their results were muddled at best.

If there was one thing for which Chien-Shiung Wu was known, it was going the extra mile to design experiments in a way that unequivocally elucidated the mechanisms of a system. "She had a very, very strong sense that things had to be done right," Wu’s former graduate student, Leon Lidofsky, told author Sharon McGrayne. "If it was done sloppily, it wasn’t worth doing because the results weren’t reliable."

Wu was really a master engineer as much as she was a physicist. And, much like Star Trek’s Lieutenant Commander Montgomery "Scotty" Scott, she was considered a "miracle worker". In the case of beta decay, by carefully deconstructing what other physicists had done in their experiments, she noted a critical fact: The radiation sources they had worked with were of different thicknesses. This turned out to be the key problem with previous tests of Fermi’s decade-old theory. As soon as Wu controlled for the source thickness, her and others' results beautifully matched Fermi’s predictions, proving him right once and for all.

Wu continued to work on beta decay and related problems for the next decade. Somewhat incredulously, she was overlooked year after year for membership to the Columbia faculty because she hadn’t been assigned to teach. It wasn’t until 1952, eight years after she began her research for the Manhattan Project, that she was asked to join officially.

Two years later, following a lengthy naturalization process, Wu and Yuan became U.S. citizens. It was a decision they’d made after China had become a Communist state in 1949. Unfortunately, due to ongoing tensions between the U.S. and Chinese governments during the Cold War, Wu would not be able to visit her homeland again until the 1970s, by which time most of her immediate family members had died.

Meanwhile, her son, Vincent, was growing up fast. As in her Berkeley days, Wu continued to be a workaholic, so she relied heavily on a nanny for childcare needs. "If my mother was overly busy in her lab, I didn’t feel deprived," said Vincent, who went on to become a successful atomic physicist himself. "I spent most of my time in the company of friends, on school work, or interests that lots of kids of school age have. I always like to figure things out for myself, so it wasn’t like I needed my parents to do my homework for me."

Conservation of parity

In 1956, Wu would once again demonstrate her experimental mojo by achieving something very few people ever have: She disproved a fundamental "law" of nature. Many in the physics community believe she should have shared in the Nobel Prize that was later given for this most significant result of her career, but it did not play out that way.

The law in question is known as the conservation of parity, and it held sway in the physics community for nearly 40 years. Simply put, parity states that nature does not favor right or left. If you watch a girl throw a baseball through a mirror, the laws of physics will be the same both for the girl and for her mirror image.

As physicists in the mid-20th century began to discover a zoo of new subatomic particles, two of these, the theta meson and the tau meson, gave them fits. The theta and the tau shared a number of the same properties, including mass — a result that suggested they might actually be two forms of the same particle. But measurements also showed them decaying into two different parity states, one positive and one negative. If they were in fact the same particle, this would have to mean conservation of parity is not upheld in all cases. It was a troubling concept. At the time, parity was a bedrock law of physics; based on mathematical proofs, it was as well accepted as the laws of gravity. But had it really been proven?

At a scientific conference in April, 1956, renowned theoretical physicist Richard Feynman floated the idea to his colleagues: What if the parity rule were wrong? Fellow theoreticians Tsung Dao Lee of Columbia and Chen Ning Yang of the Advanced Institute for Study in Princeton began to wrestle with this problem. They soon came to believe it possible that parity might not be conserved in some nuclear reactions—specifically, those involving beta decay. But how to test it?

Lee approached Wu, an expert in beta decay, for advice. She suggested a specific approach using an isotope of the element cobalt as the best choice to test the hypothesis. After scouring the literature further, Lee and Yang published a paper stating that conservation of parity had not actually been proven in all cases, and suggesting some experiments to see what was really going on.

Wu immediately got to work. She was uniquely qualified to design and carry out this test, and she wanted to be the first to do it. "Nobody believed it would happen and, because it was so difficult, they wouldn’t tackle it," Yang later told McGrayne. "Wu had the perception that right-left symmetry was so basic and fundamental that it should be tested."

Wu dropped everything for six months — including sleep, meals, and a long-planned trip to China with her husband — to pursue the parity experiment. Even before Lee and Yang’s article was published, she had lined up a team of physicists to assist in carrying it out using special, super-cooling equipment at the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) in Washington, DC. Wu began commuting back and forth between New York and Washington to check on the experiment, while the NBS team worked around the clock to prepare it for its first trials.

Finally, two days after Christmas, the team was ready. Whatever the outcome, Wu and her colleagues knew their results would mark an important moment in the history of nuclear physics. They flipped a few switches, and the experiment was officially underway.

The key factor the team was looking for was the direction in which electrons flung themselves from cobalt nuclei as the nuclei went through beta decay. If conservation of parity were conserved, they would see electrons ejected symmetrically in multiple directions. But if parity were not conserved, the electrons would fly off primarily in one direction. The team’s first results were clear: Electrons were not ejecting symmetrically. In the top left corner of the notepad where they’d jotted their data, team member Ralph Hudson wrote, with triumphant emphasis, "PARITY NOT CONSERVED!"

Wu and her colleagues checked and re-checked their results many times over the next fortnight. At last, around 2 a.m. on January 9, 1957, the team broke out a bottle of champagne. The tau meson and the theta meson were the same particle — now known as the K meson — after all. As Wu later told McGrayne, "These are moments of exaltation and ecstasy. A glimpse of this wonder can be the reward of a lifetime."

The next day, The New York Times heralded the "shattering of a fundamental concept of nuclear physics" on its front page. It was an unforgettable moment for Wu, but also a stark reminder that what we consider "laws" of nature are not necessarily irrefutable in the eyes of science. As fellow physicist Richard Feynman once famously quipped, "If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science."

Many honors, but no Nobel

The parity results were so spectacular that they garnered a Nobel Prize that very same year, but not for Wu. In October 1957, the Nobel Committee announced that Lee and Yang had won the physics prize "for their penetrating investigation of the so-called parity laws which has led to important discoveries regarding the elementary particles."

Wu was bitterly disappointed. It was not the first time theorists would win a Nobel while a key experimentalist who did the crucial work to back them up did not. When Wu’s own thesis advisor, Ernest Lawrence, won in 1939 for the invention of the cyclotron, his graduate student, M Stanley Livingston, who did much of the labor translating Lawrence’s vision into a physical, working machine, got nothing.

"As an experimentalist, my natural tendency is to think it a shame that the experimental team was not included in the prize," Wu’s son, whose work at the Los Alamos National Laboratory focuses on neutron physics, admitted recently. "Beyond that, it would be presumptive to have a specific reaction without knowing the internal reasoning of the award committee. I personally think that if she had been included, it wouldn’t have been undeserved. But I don’t harbor any resentment, as she won many other awards for her work."

Wu did indeed rack up an enviable list of honors, awards, and firsts, even before her official retirement from Columbia in 1981. Perhaps this was because she did not slow down after her momentous feat on conservation of parity. Quite to the contrary, over the following two decades, she would carry out many additional ground-breaking investigations, not only in the area of beta decay but also in the fields of short-lived "exotic" atoms and even the biophysics of sickle cell anemia.

Among Wu’s most distinguished honors were: The Comstock Award of the National Academy of Sciences in 1964; the Tom Bonner Prize of the American Physical Society in 1974 (the same year she was named the society’s first female president); the U.S. National Medal of Science in 1975; the Wolf Prize in Physics in 1978; selection as Italy’s Woman of the Year in 1981; and induction into the United States' National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1998. In 1990 she even became the first living scientist to have an asteroid named after her: Asteroid 2752 Wu Chien-Shiung.

Wu’s final lasting contribution came about after her retirement, when she took time to travel the world and speak to audiences of her successes in the lab and of being a woman in a male-dominated field. Just as her father had been many years before, Wu was a champion of women through-and-through. She was not afraid to speak her mind about the miles yet to go before women would achieve any semblance of equal representation in math and the physical sciences. And she fervently hoped that the impressionable girls and young women she spoke to on her travels might take inspiration from her life story and go on to pursue careers in the STEM fields.

That remarkable story came to an end on February 16, 1997, when Wu died of a stroke at the age of 84. In addition to her husband, her son, and a granddaughter, she left behind an enormous legacy. William Havens, a longtime colleague at Columbia, remarked: "She was the world’s distinguished woman physicist of her time." Tsung-Dao Lee, with whom she remained friendly until the end, spelled it plainly: "CS Wu was one of the giants of physics."

Legacy of a courageous hero

Chien-Shiung Wu made a life and a name and for herself in the United States, but it is here, in her hometown of Liuhe, that Wu chose to be buried alongside her husband, Luke, who died in 2003. The circular courtyard where their remains now rest is part of the Mingde School that Wu’s father began nearly a century ago so that his daughter could begin a proper education. It is heart-warming to imagine how proud he would have been to witness the rows and rows of children who now stand in silence, a single yellow flower in hand, as they honor Madame Wu, one of the most influential nuclear physicists of the 20th century, on what would have been her 100th birthday.

Some 160 miles west of here, on the campus of Nanjing University (formerly National Central University), a wonderful museum invites visitors to learn about the incomparable Chien-Shiung Wu. Lining the walls are annotated framed photos of Wu with dignitaries, with colleagues in the lab, and joking around with friends. Thanks to the careful planning of Luke Yuan, who donated many of his wife’s possessions after her death, the gallery feels like a presidential library, with physical awards, honorary degrees, and even a re-created office space with Wu’s books giving visitors a genuine feel for her life and accomplishments.

In a quiet corner of the museum, the words of one Courageous Hero appear as a final remembrance of her lasting legacy: "Science is not static but is dynamic and ever-improving. It is the courage to doubt what has long been believed and the incessant search for verification and proof that pushes the wheels of science forward."

Images: Linocut of Chien-Shiung Wu by Ele Willoughby (used with permission). LEGO minifigure and photo by the author. All other photos are in the public domain, as posted by The Smithsonian on Flickr.

Further reading:

Benczer-Koller, N (2009), Chien-Shiung Wu 1912 – 1997, National Academy of Sciences.

Cooperman, SH (2004), Chien-Shiung Wu: Pioneering Physicist and Atomic Researcher, New York, NY: Rosen Central.

Hammond, R (2010), Chien-Shiung Wu: Pioneering Nuclear Physicist, New York, NY: Chelsea House.

McGrayne, SB (1998), Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles, and Momentous Discoveries, Washington, DC: Joseph Henry Press.

Take a virtual tour of the Wu museum at Nanjing University.

Monday, September 09, 2013

professor bodin makes her bow

It's been a remarkable week. Eight days ago, an excursion to a local LEGO store yielded my first brush with the company's newest minifigure, the Scientist, who had long been anticipated on the pages of this blog. Upon returning home, I sat down and wrote about the experience, adding a brief history of LEGO, gender, and minifigs in the STEM fields for a guest post on the Scientific American blog network. The piece went live the next day.

By Tuesday, it had become the most read article on the SciAm blogs, and it remains in that position as I write this nearly a week later. The post spread like wildfire via social media, and before long, other outlets began covering it on their own sites. News of Professor C. Bodin, LEGO's first female lab scientist minifig, had clearly captivated scores of people around the globe who, like me, were surprised at just how few female STEM minifigures LEGO has produced in 35 years.

Smithsonian, CNET, Gizmodo, and The Mary Sue were the first major outlets to piggyback on the post, followed by LiveScience, Fast Company, the Christian Science Monitor, and A Mighty Girl, among others. TODAY, The Huffington Post, Think Progress, and The Washington Post joined in toward the end of the week. On Friday, my day was made when The Onion cracked wise with their tongue-in-cheek American Voices spoof, which asked three supposed "men on the street" their opinions about the minifig's debut. It was also fun to see articles from other countries, including the UK, France, and Hungary. Even Planned Parenthood named my original post their "Friday feminist moment of awesome"!

My only lament about whole thing is that the actual news became distorted rather quickly. Many outlets claimed this was the first female scientist for LEGO, when I had taken pains to point out in my post that this was not actually the case. Others reported incorrectly that a proposed all-female minifig set had also been released as an official product.

It's been a pleasure, however, to read so many tweets and comments on this story. Most have been positive, although many readers have been flabbergasted at the fact that this could be news in the year 2013. To that end, I hold that there is much yet that can and should be done to increase the representation of women and minorities in all facets of history and popular culture, including toys. I would love, for instance, to see more brown LEGO minifigures representing people of color. It would also be nice to see more minifigs—and LEGO Friends—in other areas of science and technology. This is not just ho-hum wishful thinking; the way people have embraced the news of this particular minifig strongly suggests that toy companies can still make a profit with products that defy the pink-blue, girly-macho gender dichotomy.

Lastly, a wee bit of trivia that didn't make the SciAm post, since I only discovered it later in the week... Just who is this C. Bodin, after whom the new LEGO scientist is named? Some have wondered whether the fig was made in the likeness of Joanne Manaster, a.k.a. the Science Goddess, who was actually one of my first LEGO Scitweeps. But no, it would appear that the real namesake is one Cynthia Bodin, Concept and Product Designer for the LEGO Group, who looks quite like the minifig in real life. It's interesting to note that Bodin's past product concepts include some of the girliest, blingiest, pink-and-purpliest LEGO stuff I've ever seen. These designs were part of the now-defunct Clickits theme that preceded Friends in attempting to woo girls. More recently, Bodin has led efforts to test LEGO products with parents in Denmark, where the company's headquarters are located. I reached out to her for comment, but she could neither confirm nor deny her connection with the new scientist minifig: "I’m not able to provide any detail on my work," she wrote via email, "given that it’s primarily rooted in research and design, which we don’t routinely discuss publicly."

In any case, I am, of course, very happy with Bodin's little plastic doppelganger, and I can only hope the LEGO team decides to produce more like it.

Photo: The minifig that launched a thousand tweets, purchased at LEGO Natick on Series 11 release day.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

southwest snapshots

I spent 10 days in Arizona and New Mexico this summer, camera and tripod in hand. Here are a dozen of my favorite shots. (Click to enlarge. For more, see my Flickr sets, Tucson 13 and New Mexico 13.)

Undead nuclear missile. Titan Missile Museum. Green Valley, AZ.

Use caution. Tucson Missile Museum. Green Valley, AZ.

Saguaros. Tucson, AZ.

Snack time. Reid Park Zoo. Tucson, AZ.

Bookstore mural. Las Cruces, NM.

Slumps. White Sands National Monument. Alamogordo, NM.

Tethered. Space Murals Museum. Organ, NM.

Next stop: up. Spaceport. Sierra, NM.

Open pit. Chino Mine. Santa Rita, NM.

Communing with the radio 'scopes. VLA. Socorro, NM.

Church. Santa Fe, NM.

Masks. Santa Fe, NM.

Monday, August 12, 2013

victory! lady scientist lego minifig arrives

After the pleas (1, 2, 3) and the tease, we will finally have, beginning next month, an official female scientist LEGO minifigure! The "Scientist" fig will appear as part of Series 11, which is set to hit shelves on September 1st in the United States.

Here is the description from the LEGO website:
SCIENTIST: I wonder what will happen if I put THIS together with THAT... The brilliant Scientist’s specialty is finding new and interesting ways to combine things together. She’ll spend all night in her lab analyzing how to connect bricks of different sizes and shapes (she won the coveted Nobrick Prize for her discovery of the theoretical System/DUPLO® Interface!), or how to mix two colors in one element. Thanks to the Scientist’s tireless research, Minifigures that have misplaced their legs can now attach new pieces to let them swim like fish, slither like snakes, and stomp around like robots. Her studies of a certain outer dimension have even perfected a method for swapping body parts at will!

Kudos to LEGO for making her official name "Scientist" instead of adding "Lady" or "Woman" as it has done for certain other female figures (for example, "Lady Robot" in the same series). I must admit, I'm a little disappointed with the stereotypical glasses... But suffice it to say, this fig is a major step in the right direction.

In other female scientist minifig news, the CUUSOO Female Minifigure Set petition has racked up the requisite 10,000 upvotes for an official review by the folks at LEGO. Fingers crossed that these mini-sets will also eventually see the light of day!

Photo by hermipad on Flickr

Thursday, August 08, 2013

rapping rosalind franklin

Love, love, love this new music video by 7th grade students in Oakland, who have crafted and played out a genius rap battle to illustrate a bit of science history. In one corner: James Watson and Francis Crick. In the other: Rosalind Franklin. Can you guess who wins??

"You showed my data behind my back.
So it’s not just gonna happen like that.
Let’s recognize Rosalind Franklin
Nobel Prize for Rosalind Franklin.

Oooh ooh... that’s my pic. That’s my pic.
Oooh ooh... that’s my pic. That’s my pic.

I heard that you were shown my pic
And you didn’t think that I would find out.
Then you wrote this nice little book getting everyone fired up.
Well I’m back from the dead and I read what you said,
And I’m here to set the record straight now.
Now when you learn about the double he- you better also learn about me."

Kudos to educator Tom McFadden, the mastermind behind the project, who hopes that teachers and students will "utilize, remix, and reinvent these videos while I teach 8th grade biology at The Nueva School next year."

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

lady minifigs need your vote

As readers of this blog are well aware, I've been pushing for LEGO to ramp up its offerings of female minifigures in sets and the official minifig series. Last year, after the brouhaha surrounding the introduction of LEGO's Friends series, I noted the clear divide in male-female representation within the company and gave some concrete suggestions for the addition of female figures in stereotype-breaking careers. More recently, I lamented LEGO's changing course on apparent plans for a female scientist fig (though the librarian that came out in the end is actually quite nice).

I now want to share a wonderful proposal I discovered recently that conveys my vision completely—and which needs your support. The minifigures above and below were mocked up by Alatariel, a Dutch geochemist and LEGO fan, for Cuusoo, an officially-sanctioned LEGO crowdsourcing project. Users on Cuusoo (which means "wish" in Japanese) submit their ideas and solicit upvotes for their projects. Proposals with more than 10,000 votes are reviewed by a team at LEGO and may ultimately be created for sale in limited editions. (Examples of winning designs so far include the Hayabusa spacecraft and a Back to the Future set featuring Marty, Doc, and the DeLorean.)

Alatariel's full Female Minifigure Set is beautiful, and exactly what the doctor ordered. It features 13 new minifigures, plus accessories, in roles that include engineer, court judge, chemist, firefighter, astronomer, and paleontologist. Explaining her motivation, Alatariel writes:
Although recently LEGO® has started to design and add more female figures to their sets, they are still a minority. A small set of minifigures, which LEGO® has made in the past for different themes, would provide a great opportunity to add women to our LEGO® town or city communities. I have designed some professional female minifigures that also show that girls can become anything they want, including a fire fighter or a paleontologist (main picture). Being a geochemist myself the geologist and chemist figures are based on me:-) Due to the limitations of LDD the heads and hairstyles I used here are a bit limited. Ideally, Lego would produce some new face and hair designs, but at least I would like to see some 'rare' ones included.
So far the minifig set is about a quarter of the way toward its 10,000-vote goal. Please add your support!

Post was corrected to fix the spelling of "Alatariel" and the fact that she is Dutch, not Swedish.

Monday, April 15, 2013

women in stem @ science online teen

On Saturday I attended the inaugural Science Online Teen (#scioteen) unconference in New York City. An offshoot of the popular Science Online, the event’s aim was to get local teens talking about STEM education, STEM careers, and the ways in which STEM topics are communicated online.

The women-in-STEM session I led was packed with teens and teachers wanting to learn more about pursuing science as a female. Joining me on our panel were six STEM professionals: Hilda Bastian (epidemiology); Krystal D’Costa (anthropology); Cynthia Duggan (neuroscience); Julie Hecht (ethology); Gabrielle Rabinowitz (molecular biology); and Jayne Raper (parasitology). (Mathematician and computer scientist Delaram Kahrobaei was also slated to attend, but had to bow out due to illness.)

You can check out a full suite of tweets, posts, and photos from the session via Storify.

It was wonderful to see the enthusiasm in the room, and to hear not only from our distinguished panelists but from students and teachers who contributed their own unique experiences and questions, on topics ranging from single-sex education to STEM hiring biases to female representation at professional conferences.

I also borrowed an activity that I’d seen at AdaCamp last year, in which participants wrote about positive and negative experiences related to being a female in science/tech. At ScioTeen, I asked session attendees to recount on sticky notes one experience in which they were discouraged from following some STEM-related activity, and one in which they were encouraged. We then posted the results on a board, noting the ages at which the experiences took place. Here’s a sampling of the results:


Mom and Dad told me never to “stop asking questions.” Age: 8

Math/science teacher made it fun and applicable, assisted in tutoring for [state exams]. Age: ~12

Teacher/mentor told me, “You’ve got what it takes.” Said I could be any kind of scientist I wanted to be. Age: 12

In 9th grade my biology teacher encouraged me to join a STEM group at school. Age: 15

Approached by math teacher junior year and asked to take a computer science class. Age: ~16

Teacher said I was the best student he’d ever had, that I was very good at science. Age: 17

Female physics teacher taught me calculus after class so I could take advanced physics. Age: 17

“Follow your dreams and prove to yourself and to everyone that doesn’t bet on you that you can do it.” Age: 18


Someone told me it’s going to be hard to get a job in the science field because I’m a girl. Age: 12

A male teacher told me I was smart but could never be a doctor because I’m a girl. Age: 13

A female relative told me: “It’s okay if you’re struggling with math. Girls aren’t good at that.” Age 13

Tech teacher had lower standards for girls and made it clear that he had lower expectations. Age 15

Bio teacher from other class told me my dissection was bad and I should not be a doctor... Ended [doctor] plans immediately. Age: 15

“You are a woman. You aren’t good enough.” 16 years old

Seeing all the men in my college physics classes. Age: 19

Female physics professor I admired and sought out as a mentor told me there is no glass ceiling and implied I was whining by bringing up gender. I left her office feeling discouraged instead of inspired. Related or not, I did end up leaving physics for biology. Age: 20

Discouraged in graduate school in bio class by professor because I was struggling. Age: ~22

"You’re pregnant? You just sabotaged your career!" Age: 27

::Sigh:: To me, the negative comments outweigh the positive ones here, simply because, while we all appreciate praise and encouragement, discouragement based solely on gender can be an extremely powerful disincentive for those who don't want to “buck the system” or engage in a prolonged struggle against social norms. Of course there’s no formula for this, but I would argue that even one discouraging experience can cancel out any number of encouraging ones.

I should also mention that while our session was a great success, not one of the 30 or so self-selected participants was a male. Certainly we need to educate girls about what a future in STEM might look like, but we also need boys to understand and appreciate the discrimination that still exists on the road to a STEM career.

To that end, it’s worth noting that STEM is a massive buzzword these days, and it might seem with a quick glance through the blogosphere and twitterverse that challenges related to women in these fields are all too well covered. The reality is, however, that the individuals most affected by recent studies and reports on these issues—i.e. teenage and pre-teen girls, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds—may not be plugged in to what’s going on. And so, it’s important to see physical gatherings like Science Online reaching out to the STEM professionals of tomorrow and helping to bring some of the hurdles they may face into direct focus. Let’s hope we can continue the conversation with more teens, in more places, in the months and years ahead.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

do the right thing

My Dear Lego,

Now you're just messing with me. A few months ago, prototype designs for the upcoming Series 10 minifigures were released leaked to the public. I was happy as a clam to find out there would not only be a Maia-the-Bee lookalike but we'd also finally get a female scientist! All was right in Lego-land.

In the end, however, you turned the scientist into a librarian. To be sure, librarians are awesome. But............

You *might* be able to redeem yourselves. Numerous sources suggest you will be releasing a scientist, for real, in Series 11. (Gender as yet unspecified.)

For the love of the FSM, please do the right thing.

yours very truly,

Sunday, March 31, 2013

happy birthday, joan feynman

Today is the 85th 86th birthday of astrophysicist Joan Feynman.* If her name sounds familiar, it's because she has a very famous brother, the late Nobel prize-winning, Manhattan-project-building, quantum-electrodynamics-defining, O-ring-demonstrating, bongo-drum-playing physicist, Richard Feynman. Until this week, I had not known that Richard had a sister, nor that she was an accomplished physicist in her own right. I learned a bit about her, though, as I read the fantastic graphic novel, Feynman, which beautifully illustrates Richard's life and work. In the book, we meet Joan as a young girl in the early 1940s who revels in the scientific magic her older brother deftly demonstrates for her at home. We also learn, however, that Joan is actively discouraged from pursuing her scientific passions because her mother feels "women's brains are psychologically incapable of doing science."

As you might imagine, my interest at this point was indubitably piqued. So I ambled on over to Wikipedia to see what it would tell me about Ms. Joan Feynman. There was a loud sigh of frustration as I discovered her article was but a stub, just a few sentences long with barely any detail about her life and accomplishments.

After a little digging, I found that Feynman had indeed gone on to become a well-respected astrophysicist specializing in interactions between Earth and the solar wind. Among her biggest contributions to her field were key studies on the nature of coronal mass ejections, auroras, solar storms, and effects of the sun on climate change. Make sure to check out the wonderful clip above, by the way, of Joan explaining how she originally came to marvel at auroras...

Joan and Richard at the beach

I also read a compelling tale of how young Feynman drew strength from an astronomy book she'd received from her big brother. She could barely understand it at first, but with Richard's encouragement, she eventually made her way through. And when Feynman realized that one of the graphs in a later chapter was based on the work of pioneering astronomer Cecilia Payne-Gaposhkin, she gained new resolve in her dream of becoming a scientist herself.

Feynman would go on to face plenty of discrimination on her way toward becoming a senior scientist at the Jet Propulsion Lab in California, from where she retired a decade ago. But she displayed steadfast determination, and in so doing, carved out an important spot in the history of astrophysics.

After learning all of this, I decided a few days ago to beef up Joan Feynman's Wikipedia article. After all, just as she was once inspired by Cecilia Payne, so some other young budding scientist might be inspired by her story... After considerable expansion, the article has now been nominated for inclusion in the "Did You Know?" section on Wikipedia's main front page. So on this special occasion, I suggest you head on over to Feynman's shiny new Wiki and read all about her!

Happy birthday, Joan, and thanks so much for all you've done for science and for humanity.

*UPDATE: Since publishing this piece last night, I've traded a few emails with the lovely Dr. Feynman, who is doing well. She was delighted about the new Wikipedia page, but also informed me that her birth date was a year off! And so, both the Wiki page and this here post are now up to speed. (Fear not, my fellow Wikimedians, I found a citation!)

Saturday, February 23, 2013

oscar doc picks

It's time once again for my annual foray into the world of Oscar. This year, I'm sad to say, I've missed out on many of the main live-action nominees. But I was able to catch most of the documentaries with a major assist from Netflix. Without further ado, I present my 2013 Oscar prognostications for the categories of feature-length documentary and documentary short.


Should win: 5 Broken Cameras -or- The Invisible War [tie]
Although this year's candidates are all very strong, I find it impossible not to give special kudos to those movies for which lives were literally on the line during their making and/or subsequent promotion. Case in point is 5 Broken Cameras, a maddening film about a Palestinian village in the West Bank that suffers relentless encroachment by Israeli settlements. While the main filmmaker, Emad Burnat, and his neighbors strive to protest these land-grabs in peace, the local Israelis do not respond in kind. Instead, they harass, threaten, arrest, and attack, often illegally and brutally. During four years of filming, Burnat burns through five video cameras, four of which are shot or otherwise destroyed, and one of which literally saves his life. 5 Broken Cameras is the sort of film that could serve as a poster child for Witness, a human rights organization with the motto "See it, film it, change it;" for that, I think it's well deserving of the Oscar.

Risking one's life, or certainly one's reputation, is also apparent in my other top pick for this year's Oscar docs: The Invisible War, a deeply moving, highly-charged account of sexual abuse in the U.S. military. Watching this film, I was brought to tears as, one by one, proud women (and one man) who wanted nothing more than to honorably serve their country recounted how they were coerced, harassed, beaten, and raped by their colleagues and superiors—and then ignored, belittled, and persecuted when they reported these events. Even more troubling were statistics about just how common such assaults in the military are today; by all accounts, at least 19,000 service members were sexually abused in 2010 alone. We also learn that prosecution of such cases cannot be handled effectively in the current system, since they are processed not through a federal court system but through the military chain of command, where serious conflicts of interests often lie. Of the five nominees, I feel this film has the most potential to create change as a result of its nomination, and it's heartening to know that even if it doesn't win, system reform may already be on the horizon.

Will win: Searching for Sugar Man
While it lacks the gravitas of the other four contenders, Searching for Sugar Man is the film to beat in this year's feature-length documentary category. It tells the improbable story of the search for a Dylanesque singer-songwriter named Sixto Rodriguez who all but disappeared after his 15 minutes of fame in the U.S. came and went in the early 1970s. It's a truly heartwarming tale, much akin to 2010's Winnebago Man. The movie could probably win on buzz alone, but it doesn't hurt that there are two contenders on the subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (which will likely split votes), plus a very hot-button challenger in The Invisible War, the topic of which some Academy voters may shy away from.


Should win: [Draw]
I'm slightly handicapped in this category this year by the fact that I've only been able to watch three of the five nominees: Kings Point, Mondays at Racine, and Inocente. Of these three, I thought the latter was the strongest, most unique, and most artfully told, and not just because its protagonist is a 15-year-old artist herself. The film's cinematography was well done, and the combination of themes—immigration, homelessness, abuse, and arts education—was a refreshing reminder of many of the contemporary social problems we Americans like to sweep under the rug. In comparison, while I was moved by both Kings Point and Mondays at Racine, I honestly don't think either one has what it takes to take home the golden statuette. Finally, I hesitate to comment on the other two nominees, Open Heart and Redemption, without having seen them, but I will say that their trailers lead me to believe they're both excellent films. So, I'm actually going to give this category a pass on final judgment, but if it were between the three I watched, my vote would be for Inocente.

Will win: Open Heart
Call me crazy, but if you see a pattern in what the Oscar voters like, you stick with it. Two short documentaries that have won this category in recent years, Smile Pinki and Saving Face, were about savior doctors helping poor citizens of developing countries with free medical procedures to fix crippling conditions—cleft palettes in the first case and facial disfigurement from acid attacks in the second. In this year's Open Heart, poor children from Rwanda are brought to the Sudan for potentially life-saving heart surgery. Sound familiar? Until the Academy proves me wrong, I'm picking this story line every time.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

regarding nemo

New England came to a halt this week with the passing of the Nemo megablizzard. I decided to chronicle the storm's wrath with a little time-lapse film, which doubled as practice for the documentary editing class I'm currently taking. Of course, I had to shoot some stills, too! I think we're gonna be digging out from under this one for a while...