Mar 24, 2010

Women in Science - an Ada Lovelace Day Wishlist

Ada Lovelace Day

Ada Lovelace, also known as Augusta Ada Byron, also known as the daughter of Byron the poet, was a nineteenth-century mathematician and writer who created the first algorithm meant to be processed by a machine – an effort for which she’s considered the world’s first computer programmer. Today is Ada Lovelace Day, which means that bloggers from around the world are invited to post about women in science and technology.

The goal is, I think, to write about a particular woman scientist we admire. But I’m going to have to cheat a little bit, as sadly I don’t know enough about women in science and technology to be able to write a good tribute post. When I don’t know enough about a topic I naturally try to read about it, so I thought I’d celebrate Ava Lovelace Day by putting together a wish list, which I hope will be useful not just for myself but for others too.

But first, I hope you’ll bear with me as I try to explain why I even care about any of this to begin with. If you’ve been reading this blog for some time, you’ll probably have noticed that feminism and science are two things I care about. Unfortunately, when the two come together the results aren’t always the most fortunate. Things like Luce Irigaray’s infamous assertion that Einstein’s mass–energy formula is sexist because “it privileges the [masculine] speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us” make me cringe so badly I almost go into convulsions. Their sheer absurdity hurts feminism and it hurts science. And sadly, the result is that they cheapen something that is more than important enough to deserve to be discussed seriously.

I don't believe that the scientific method is in itself sexist (or racist, elitist, classist, you name it). But the method is of course applied by flawed and biased human beings, which means that over the course of history the practice of science has been and continues to be all of the above. You could say that the fact that science has been dominated by (white) males has shaped the way some questions are framed and some issues dealt with, but this is not because men and women are inherently different or look at the world differently; it’s because we all operate under certain social constraints. I think that saying that the speed of line is “masculine” or that “girls can’t do science” are nothing but two examples of the same harmful way of thinking.

I don't think women scientists should be appreciated simply because they're women, of course, nor that they should be patted on the head. But the best way to make sure that this ceases to happen is to continue to tip the balance: the more women there are in science and technology, the less likely it will be that they’ll be perceived as women first and human beings second. And women will be more likely to follow careers in these fields if they’re not made to feel unwelcome. To me, Ada Lovelace Day is about taking a moment to celebrate the pioneers, the women whose efforts contributed to the fact that, though we still have some way to go, a woman following a science career is no longer widely considered “unnatural”.

Without further ado, here’s a list of books on the topic I’d like to read:

Ada Lovelace Day Wishlist
  • The Door in the Dream: Conversations with Eminent Women in Science by Elga Wasserman — a collection of interviews with women who are members of the American National Academy of Sciences, focusing on their experiences in traditionally male-dominated fields.

  • Kindred Nature: Victorian and Edwardian Women Embrace the Living World by Barbara T. Gates — I want this book SO BADLY it’s not even funny. As the title tells us, it’s about female naturalists in Victorian and Edwardian times, and how they fared in a world where sexism was even more blatant than it is today.

  • Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles, and Momentous Discoveries by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne — a group biography of fourteen women who either won a Nobel prize or played a fundamental role in a Nobel prize winning project. It’s important to note that out of over three hundred Nobel winners in several science-related fields since 1901, only nine were women. By depicting the battles these women had to fight, Sharon Bertsch McGrayne sheds some light on the reasons why.

  • Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox — a biography of chemist Rosalind Franklin, whose crucial contribution to the discovery of DNA’s structure was never recognised.

  • Women in Science: Then and Now by Vivian Gornick — like The Door in the Dream, this book is based on interviews, but it’s more specific in that it asks women scientists about any changed they have (or have not) noticed when it comes to what they have to face over a period of twenty-five years.

  • Scientists Anonymous: Great Stories of Women in Science by Patricia Fara — A YA biography of several women scientists from the 17th century to the modern era, covering big names like Marie Curie, Florence Nightingale and Rosalind Franklin as well as some lesser-known ones.

  • She's Such a Geek: Women Write About Science, Technology, and Other Nerdy Stuff edited by Annalee Newitz and Charlie Anders — another book I’m dying to get my hands on. This is an anthology of 24 essays spotlighting women who work not only in science and technology, but also in other nerdy fields such as video games or the comic book industry. I’m especially interested in this book because it deals with sexism in geek culture, a topic close to home.
Have you read any of these? If so, what did you think? Do you have any women scientists you admire, or any other books about them you’d recommend? Also, I was wondering – do you know of any fiction books that deal with these themes? If so, I’d love to hear about them.

Remember, it’s still not too late to join the Ada Lovelace Day celebrations!


  1. I just read about Ada Lovelace in a computer book a few weeks ago. I was really pleasantly surprised that she'd even existed; the computing field is still dominated by men now, after all. I know virtually nothing about women in science, and certainly haven't read any books about them, but I've kept your list for future reference!

  2. Thanks for bringing Ada to our attention. I'll be sure to talk about her today at school!!!

  3. Ahhhh, Ana, I can't believe you didn't tell me about The Door in the Dream! Oh yeah, you just did. :D Sorry, I'm a little giddy here. I am seriously so excited about that book! I went and looked into it more after reading your list, and the description says that Wasserman contacted all the female members of the Academy and most agreed to participate and were interviewed. Which means Audrey likely participated. You can probably guess that I already went and ordered the book. :D

    And of course, you can surely guess how very excited I am to see the Rosiland Franklin biography on your list. :D The Nobel Prize Women in Science book has been on my wish list for a while...but all the rest are now getting added...thank you!!!

    Eva mentioned another book that sounds really good, The Madam Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science, a few weeks ago. Rich is giving it to me for Easter. :D I'm guessing you'd love that one, too.

    Okay, surely you'd like me shut up now. Sorry for babbling...your post just left me so excited!

  4. Did not know about Ada Lovelace until today, so it's great that there are things like this to help spread information.

    Of the books you mentioned, I'm definitely interested in the book about Rosalind Franklin. I'm super interested in the stuff of DNA (I was contemplating a course in biogenetics before I decided on architecture..), and her name seems vaguely familiar somehow. I'll have to check that out.

  5. I studied History and Philosophy of Science and I did not know about Ada Lovelace Day! I remember watching the film Life Story (or The Race for the Double Helix) starring Juliet Stevenson and Jeff Goldblum as Rosalind Franklin and James Watson at school and wondering why Franklin never got any credit for the discovery of DNA. Although I went on to study science after that, her tragic story resonated within me throughout my student years. Juliet Stevenson did an amazing job in the film.

  6. I was just reading about her father Lord Byron and am amazed that she did what she did with that guy for a father. He detested smart women. The less they knew the better, he thought. Ironic.

  7. About half my friends (female, all) are scientists of some sort so hurray for a whole day to celebrate women and science. I can think of a few fiction titles about women and natural history science like 'Remarkable Creatures' and 'The Coral Thief', but not so much books about women in chemistry or physics.

  8. About half my friends (female, all) are scientists of some sort so hurray for a whole day to celebrate women and science. I can think of a few fiction titles about women and natural history science like 'Remarkable Creatures' and 'The Coral Thief', but not so much books about women in chemistry or physics.

  9. The Franklin biography is great. It's a good and important "story," told incredibly well. I'd also look into Marie Curie (physics and x-ray) and Rachel Carson (biology and environmental science). I can't think of biography recommendations for them off the top of my head though.

    I've never heard the saying that the speed of line is “masculine." Where did you hear that one?


  10. I was so hoping women would be farther along in careers like this by now. I haven't read any of those books.

  11. She's Such a Geek sounds right up my alley. Being a geek myself, I've felt the shock on people's faces when I express interest in comic books or David McCullough books or films like No Country for Old Men or World of Warcraft or eh, I'll stop now. I've even heard "but you're a girl" on more than once occasion.

    Apparently any intelligence or creativity I display should be of the interior design or clothing accessories variety. Thanks for the list of books!

  12. Ha, I know that Irigaray line! Awful, just awful. Definitely convulsions are deserved. Does make me want to re-read Sokal's Fashionable Nonsense a bit though.

  13. I've read the Rosalind Franklin book. It's wonderful, but sad, of course!

  14. Thanks for introducing me to Ada Lovelace! I'd like to take a closer look at a couple of the books, too.

  15. I can not believe that I did not know that Ada Lovelace was Byron's daughter. Fantastic piece of trivia and congratulations to you on showcasing such a fantastic selection of books.

  16. Hello Ana, (that reminds me of my old eating disorder, lol)

    You know how google does videos on youtube like authors@google, women@google, and so on. Well, there's a video there with Catherine Brady, who has written a book on Elizabeth Blackburn, a moleculur biologist who did groundbreaking research on telemeres. Which of course has great important to research on finding cures and treatments for cancer. It's one of my favourite videos on there and ever so interesting - and Catherine discusses how Elizabeth managed to become a successful scientist despite the sexism she faced.

  17. I thought Byron's daughter died from starvation or was lost to history? Coolio; I'm happy she survived and became a great scientist!

    I don't think the scientific method is sexist, either, but the institutions that support and fund the sciences definitely are--even to this day, although to a much lesser extent.

  18. I feel bad that I suffer with a lack of scientific knowledge. I had never heard of Ada, but she sounds very interesting, especially as she is considered the first computer programmer.
    To be honest, science scares me a little with it technical language.

  19. Happy Ada Lovelace Day back at you! I noticed someone else mentioned Tracy Chevalier's Remarkable Creatures -- I just heard about it yesterday on the radio. I thought of you immediately.

  20. This is a great post! I adore science and am planning to study some form of it when I go to university soon. These books truly sound very interesting and encouraging for women who enjoy science, and for everyone else!

    from Une Parole

  21. Tjhanks for putting a post up, and such a good one :). I had not heard of 'Kindred Nature' and unhealthily fascinated with it now :P. And, She's Such a Geek is another fascinating one - Geek culture is such a fascinating mix of progressivism and old-line sexism :/

  22. Kindred Nature sounds so good! I feel like I have to have it and read it right now. Unfortunately, my library doesn't have it, so I'm going to have to look into buying it.

  23. How sad that I am in the high tech industry and know nothing about the women who contributed so much to this industry I am in! As usual you have brought something new to my attention so I will expand my reading horizons!

  24. I want every one of these books. THank you thank you thank you and #luvana

  25. Wonderful thoughts, Nymeth! My teenage daughter just attended a workshop and conference dealing with women in science and technology and higher education and she had a wonderful time there. I am hoping that she someday chooses to give her talents to science, for as you say, there are not many women who do. Thanks for taking the time to post about this!

  26. Meghan: I hope you'll find the list useful! I also know very little about it, but I hope to be able to fix that soon.

    Staci: I hope you had the chance to! Sometimes a single example/role model can make such a huge difference for a girl thinking of following a science career.

    Debi: I thought I'd better let you see the post instead of just sending you gushy e-mails whenever I discovered a book for the list - which, believe me, I considered doing :P The Madam Curie complex sounds like it could be awesome too! And lol, I love the fact that you guys exchange Easter gifts :D

    Michelle: It's possible that you've heard of Franklin before - I actually had too, and I'm woefully uneducated when it comes to science :P Her story sounds fascinating, but so sad too :\

    Chasingbawa: Clearly I need to look for that film!

    Chris: Apparently she didn't see much of him growing up. Makes sense :P And yes, it IS ironic. Take THAT, Byron :P

    Jodie: I'd heard of Remarkable Creatures, but not The Coral Thief - off to look it up!

    Sara: I first came across that quote in an article by Richard Dawkins about a certain brand of cultural criticism that completely misses the point when it comes to critiquing science. It makes me sad, because if we want to talk about science and sexism, there are so many useful, important things that can be said. But she has to go ahead and say some nonsense instead :\

    Kathy: It seems that progress has been incredibly slow, doesn't it? :\

    Trisha: Ha, I've been told "but you're a girl too". SIGH.

    Nicole: I can't believe I haven't read Fashionable Nonsense yet! I know I'm going to absolutely love it, so what am I waiting for?

    Jill: It does sound sad, but I can't wait to get my hands on it!

  27. JoAnn: I'm glad to hear it! I hope you enjoy whichever ones you pick :)

    Peta: I actually didn't either! I only found out when researching this post.

    Amy, I'm going to look for that video for sure. It sounds wonderful!

    Heidenkind: Ada Lovelace was his only legitimate child, but he also had Allegra by Claire Clairmont, Mary Shelly's stepsister, who did die. Poor thing :\ And about science, I absolutely agree!

    Vivienne: Science intimidates me a little bit too sometimes, especially because I don't have much of a background to understand it, but at the same time, I find it so interesting!

    Kiirstin: I think I'm going to love that book!

    Emidy: Hooray for studying science! Wishing you the best of luck in your field of choice :)

    Jason: I hadn't heard of it either until I started researching this post...and yep, now I want it badly :P Also, yes, that's very true about geek culture, and extra disappointing for the countless girls who hope to find a shelter there :\

    Candletea: Sadly, neither does mine :(

    Kathleen, I hope you enjoy whichever ones of those you decide to pick up!

    Care, you're most welcome :D #luvcare

    Zibilee: I hope she does too! That conference sounds wonderful :)

  28. Wow, what a list! If I didn't know myself better I'd order the whole list right now... but I know these would end up on my shelf with all the other unread stuff! Thanks for sharing Nymeth, I'd never even heard of Ava Lovelace!!

  29. Only just heard of Ada Lovelace this week (blogging enriching the mind once again), but had no idea she was Byron's daughter! How cool!
    Marie Curie & Elizabeth Blackwell were childhood idols; have you read Galileo's Daughter by Dava Sobel? She could have been a scientist in her own right--argued theory with her father in her letters--but it was the Renassaince so she was packed off to a convent instead. And then there's the woman who spent her life in MIT's observatory, charting stars, but whose name I forget (ironically). Will look up because her bio was in fact interesting and the perfect comment on how the quiet women in science have been quite literally overlooked...

  30. I read your post a couple of days ago and intended to write something myself but alas time passes so quickly! I'd never heard of Ada Lovelace before I read your and Lu's posts. What a lovely name she has. And considering I'm a programmer, I really should've known her. Anyway from your book list, I'm so interested in She's Such a Geek. Hope to read that one day!


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.