I’m not a scientist.
This probably comes as no surprise, given the contents of this blog, but I am interested in the history of science, how discoveries impacted the society around them and vice versa. That’s why I’m interested in today’s commemoration. World Telecommunication and Information Society Day is a UN sponsored celebration of the opportunities afforded by the internet and initiatives to bridge the digital divide. This year’s theme is ‘women and girls in ICT’.
When you’re talking about tuis subject, one woman immediately jumps out. a href=”http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ada_Lovelace”>Ada Lovelace was the daughter of Lord Byron, not that they had a relationship; discovering that she had a talent for maths (and earning the nickname ‘the Enchantress of Numbers’, she was the first to recognise the true potential of Charles Babbage’s primitive computing ‘Engines’ going so far as to figure out a prototype computer program. It never got used, more because of the limitations of technology, and somewhere along the line Ada’s contribution to the birth of computing became an oft-forgotten historical footnote.
And that’s just one of the reasons to celebrate female pioneers in science, engineering and computing whose stories aren’t as well recorded as their male counterparts.
For instance, the majority of staff at Bletchley Park were WRENs, working on breaking Nazi codes and operating some of the earliest electronic computers, such as Colossus; some of their memories are recorded here.
Those WRENs fall within something of a tradition, because before computers were computers, computers were people, with the term referring to a fairly menial role manually crunching numbers for navigational charts, scientific data and the like. One of these ‘computers’ was Henrietta Swan Leavitt who, while routinely counting data for Harvard College Observatory, figured out the basis of measuring distances between astronomical objects, which in turn provided evidence for the expansion of the universe. Not bad for $10.50 a week, although sadly you won’t be surprised to hear that she received no recognition for this until after she died in 1921.
Beyond the information society, the list of unsung female heroes of science goes on; Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951 – her cells turned out to be remarkably resiliant and became known as the HeLa line, used to make breakthroughs in research into AIDS, cancer and polio, amoung others; Rosalind Franklin did much of the research that lead to our understanding of the structure of DNA, but her research being published later than that of Crick and Watson’s and her early death at the age of 37 meant that her work has often been overlooked.
It would be cool if… Well, I was going to say if the next Steve Jobs was a woman, but a) it’s still soon to be talking about the next Steve Jobs, and b) it’s best to concentrate on being the first you than the next anyone else. And yet there’s something in this – in the UK, men are almost six times more likely to be employed in SET occupations than women. As a UKRC research report states, “The under-representation of women in SET is increasingly seen as an issue affecting economic growth and productivity… Research suggests that diverse teams that include men and women are important to innovation and economic development.”
Novelist Neal Stephenson has written an article on ‘Innovation Starvation‘, about how we seem to have lost a sense of technological optimism and the resulting inspiration that leads us to carry out epic scientific and engineering projects. There are probably many reasons for this, but one seems fairly obvious – about half the population has become marginalised from contributing to a solution. The first programmer may have been a woman, but the general perception of computing is still that of a male-dominated industry, and that sort of perception has ramifications.
One of the potential solutions to this innovation starvation Stephenson has been involved in is a rediscovery of science fiction as a vehicle for big, inspirational ideas rather than an exploration of tech’s darker side. And maybe that will tie in to the growing visibility of women in SF fandom (another field of which there’s a false perception of it being over-whelmingly male). That puts an onus on many sci-fi writers, particularly those in more populist media like comics – write better female characters!
That’s not quite as simplistic as it sounds – we help form our society through the stories and narratives we tell, and, well, you can write education strategies till they’re coming out your ears, but I’m still willing to bet that more people have heard of Watson and Crick that Rosalind Franklin; more people have heard of Charles Babbage than Ada Lovelace. Maybe the importance of days like this is simply in that we tell a wider range of stories and that they’re told well, inspirational and aspirational.
After all, Ada’s dad was a poet…