Tag Archives: ada lovelace day

Ada Lovelace Day 2013: Gayla Benefield

Not many girls studied Mechanical Drawing in Libby, Montana. Gayla Benefield was the first. She was also one of the first to notice that something wasn’t quite right about the town; people seemed to have trouble breathing, too many middle-aged men seemed to be using oxygen cylinders. Life expectancy turned out to be way below the national average; both of Benefield’s parents died young.

Turns out that Libby had been contaminated by asbestos dust from the local mine that formed the bedrock of its economy. Nearly half the town has been affected by asbestos related cancers. This is an obscene statistic; mesothelioma took my father, a tiny asbestos fibre entering his lungs as a young man, then, thirty years later… Put a human face on Libby’s situation and it’s truly horrific.

Yet, as Margaret Hefferman points out in her TED Talk on the subject, it’s an example of wilful blindness; until Benefield starting asking questions and raising the alarm, the idea that Libby’s air and trees and playgrounds were toxic was… Ignored? Unknown? Suppressed?

Ironically, it’s Ada Lovelace Day, a day on which we celebrate those women in science who were – are – ignored, unknown or suppressed. We might argue that we’re enlightened now, but look at how men dominate media punditry in science (to the extent that an organisation like HerSay is necessary). Look at how even a noted, successful scientist like Richard Dawkins is more than capable of putting his foot in his mouth when it comes to sexism.

I’m not sure if , in the strictest sense, Gayla Benefield counts as a woman in science and technology – she was working as a meter reader when she started to get suspicious about Libby – but there’s something scientific about spotting hidden patterns and connections, in asking questions and following a lead to its conclusion. And, sadly, there’s something of the history of science in vested interests turning a blind eye to evidence presented, even when the consequences of this are fatal.

Gayla Benefield saw those patterns and dared to speak out; despite the everyday sexism afflicting the media and society as a whole, there are thousands of women working in science and technology, trying to unravel the connections between our observations and yes, save lives. Thank you, ADW, for helping us start to look beyond our wilful blindness.

Ada Lovelace Day 2012

Ada Lovelace

So it’s Ada Lovelace Day, and while I was thinking of writing about Mary Anning (I like dinosaurs), that post got overtaken by events. Because only last week, a 14 year old girl was shot because she wanted to be a doctor.

The whole concept of this is almost beyond belief – no, scratch that, it’s horribly believable. After all, this isn’t the first time girls have been attacked because they dared to try and get an education. And while it’s bad enough that women face a hard time working in STEM subjects (and in geek culture in general), the idea of teenagers being killed for having that ambition is just…

So let’s celebrate Malala Yousafzai. She’s fourteen and decided to speak out publicly about the Taliban’s edict that girls shouldn’t attend school in her home town of Swat in Pakistan, an edict that has lead to the destruction of 150 schools. Malala wrote a blog about all this for the BBC, and thanks to this and her activism (which has lead to her being awarded a number of peace prizes), she was shot by the Taliban last Tuesday.

She wanted to be a doctor.

Malala Yousafzai

Now she wants to be a politician to help fight for those other girls who want to become doctors, or engineers or programmers or whatever. And yes, that’s a noble and necessary goal, but isn’t it horrific that the world loses a doctor because the fight to see girls receive a decent education is so necessary?

Now I know that I’m a white western male, and am therefore up to my eyeballs in privilege, but it seems ridiculous that we’re marginalizing and persecuting the ambitions of around half the world’s young people. Look at all the talent and passion humanity is squandering because people like Malala not only receive a lack of encouragement but are shot at. Yesterday was Blog Action Day, and it was all about ‘The Power of We’, about how working together and forging communities can change the world. Well, this is the flipside – disenfranchised teenagers and dreams and ambitions being destroyed by extremists. And yes, we can demonise and hate those extremists, but 150 schools don’t get destroyed, women don’t get paid less, without some level of tacit approval from everyone else. That should be a wake-up call; for the sake of young people like Malala, let’s hope it is.

(Okay, so I got a bit political this year. For a less politicized response to ALD, here’s my post from last year…)

Ada Lovelace Day 2011: Telling Stories

20111006-192337.jpgI’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 the subject of today’s commemoration.

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 why today is Ada Lovelace Day, an international day of blogging 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.

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 unclassily 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 Ada Lovelace Day’s importance 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…

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