How many women scientists can you name?

For me, the answer is surprisingly few, a fact that makes A Passion for Science: Stories of Discovery and Invention, at once, both inspirational and melancholic. Published by the organisers of Ada Lovelace Day, the book shares the stories of twenty women who researched, invented and utilised science and technology in remarkable ways. In a world where “it’s incontrovertible that there are fewer women than men in fields like science, tech, engineering and maths”, the publication aims to provide a collection of successful female role models that will inspire others to overcome the traditional gender barriers within science.

Inspiring women scientists

Of course, as the book itself points out, the reasons for the low number of women choosing to study science, technology and engineering – or of limited female graduates gaining jobs in the field and progressing to high levels – are complex. This publication won’t solve them overnight, but it might just help people recognise the contributions women have made to science, or acknowledge the very real possibility of being able to combine family life with a successful science career. My favourite examples of the featured women include the astronomer Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, high-energy physicist Joan Feynman and the “enchanted maths fairy”, Ada Lovelace herself.

Lovelace is, as most people are now aware, credited as the first ever computer programmer. Despite living over a century before the invention of the first modern computer, she was “the first person to write and publish a full set of instructions that a computing device could use to reach an end result that had not been calculated in advance”. Lovelace is the figurehead for an annual day celebrating the achievements of women in technology, a fitting position for someone whose “understanding of [Charles] Babbage’s Analytical Engine was so deep that it surpassed that of Babbage himself” and who the editor of this volume describes as being “100 years ahead of her time”.

At the age of 25, Payne achieved another first. In her PhD (described by Harvard colleague Otto Struve as “undoubtedly the most brilliant PhD thesis ever written in astronomy”) she derived for the first time the composition of the stars. While she later wrote a popular science book and an introductory textbook on astronomy – in which she urged readers to check out paintings in art galleries to search out impossible depictions of the moon – it was this initial work that acted as an inspiration to Richard Feynman’s sister Joan. Seeing a woman’s name on a scientific publication, Feynman realised that – contrary to her mother’s view that “women can’t do science, because their brains aren’t made for it” – it was possible for a woman to become a scientist.

Luckily for Feynman her brother was more encouraging than her mother, sending her university science textbooks when she was still a teenager, telling her to aim higher than she naturally did and even agreeing to stay out of her chosen field of study so as not to compete with her work. She ended up being cited as one of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s elite senior research scientists and also received NASA’s distinguished Exceptional Achievement Medal for her “pioneering contribution to the study of solar causes of geomagnetic and climate disturbances”.

Chinese physicist Chien-Shiung Wu was quoted in Newsweek in 1963 saying, “… it is shameful that there are so few women in science… In China there are many, many women in physics. There is a misconception in America that women scientists are all dowdy spinsters. This is the fault of men. In Chinese society, a woman is valued for what she is, and men encourage her to accomplishments yet she remains eternally feminine.”

It’s notable that many of the women featured in the book had, like Feynman, been inspired or supported to think differently about their career choices by others. Whether it was Chien-Shiung Wu’s father setting up an entire “school for girls” at a time when Chinese girls were forbidden from receiving formal education, Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s father waking his children up in the dead of night to watch Sputnik sailing across the sky, Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin’s intrepid archaeologist mother or Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin’s high achieving aunts, the idea that girls and women could receive an education, be interested and involved in science and do something other than simply raise a family was instilled in each at an early age.

The melancholy of women and science

However, although the book is not in any way written as a polemic, I couldn’t stop myself from being saddened by the repeated examples of individual, institutional or cultural inequality that appear in these stories. What’s more, while some may be explained away by the historical context in which many of these women lived, plenty are still with us today. I even caught myself (a physics graduate who has been involved in astronomical and physical chemistry research) being surprised by the use of the female pronoun in this sentence from Jemima Kiss’s Foreword: “I want an engineer to explain the provenance of her ideas, a designer to describe her vision for the future.” I was also shocked to meet such a great number of high-achieving female scientists in these pages, most of whom I’d never even heard mention of before.

Several of the challenges featured in the book echo my own experience as a nascent scientist, even though I grew up in a time where girls could be educated both at school and in higher education. Where many of these women needed to fight for the right to study a “boys’ subject” like science or maths at school, I had to leave my own London girls’ school (the same one Tony Blair later sent his daughter to) in order to be able to study double mathematics at A Level. Like those women who found themselves in a substantial minority if they studied physics at university, I ended up being the only female physicist in my year at Girton College, Cambridge (a college that had – 120 years before – been Britain’s first residential college for women). While these may seem like minor challenges in retrospect, they both meant I needed a certain level of determination in order to stick with my aim of studying physics at a world class institution – a quality a pupil at the boys’ school associated with mine wouldn’t have required.

I’m pleased to say I have suffered less out and out discrimination than some of the women in these pages – but perhaps that is because I ended up in the female-dominated world of publishing, rather than pursuing a scientific career. What many of these remarkable women found when they finally made it into the workforce was a world of uncertain, temporary – and often unpaid – positions and a community which tended to only take their findings seriously once they had been corroborated by a man. This culture even led to women like Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin keeping quiet about some of her findings (which were later discovered by men), since they contradicted her male bosses’ views. Her comment 50 years after this episode was “a warning to the young. If you are sure of your facts, you should defend your position”.

A group of women staff members at Harvard College Observatory c. 1890, directed by Williamina Fleming (standing). Image: Curator of Astronomical Photographs at Harvard College Observatory

What’s clear from these stories, though, is that it’s not just scientific institutions and scientists themselves that have a role to play in encouraging women to consider – and stick with – careers in the field, it’s wider society. From newspapers only mourning the loss of embryology pioneer Dame Anne McLaren’s husband when the couple were both killed in a car crash, or swapping around Joan Feynman and her husband’s PhDs (on the assumption that she was the anthropologist and he the physicist), to the limited published accounts available on the work of figures such as Victorian geologist Florence Bascom and “one of the most important people in computing” Karen Spärck Jones, the media is also a key factor. Any publishers reading this, I urge you to take up Sue Nelson’s offer to write a book about the life of astronomer Williamina Fleming. I for one would want to read the story of a Scottish single mother who found herself stranded in America in the 1880s, took a job as a maid at the Harvard College Observatory and went on to discover over 300 variable stars, 10 novae and 52 nebulae. The supporting players in her biography include the ‘computers’, a team of low-paid workers (traditionally men, but Fleming ended up recruiting bright untrained women to the job instead) who examined photographic plates looking for stars, and the Director of the Observatory Edward Pickering, who broke with the norms of the time, encouraging his female workforce to attend conferences and present papers.

And of course, as the PinkStinks and Let Toys be Toys campaigns have recently highlighted, wider society also genders science in a way that may influence girls’ interests or choices. After all, if Ada Lovelace hadn’t had the opportunity to amuse herself designing boats and steam-powered flying machines as a child, would she have grown up to be so adept at machine thinking? More fundamentally, as Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin put it, “we were scientists, we were scholars (neither of these words has a gender)”. With that in mind, it is fitting that this collection of pieces about the lives and works of great scientists doesn’t feel the need to announce its gender in the title wording or cover design (something I fear a traditional publisher would almost certainly do). These are fascinating stories of people whose work has made a substantial difference to the world in which we live. They just happen to be women too…

A Passion for Science: Stories of Discovery and Invention is edited by Suw Charman-Anderson and published by FindingAda. Readers of this blog can obtain a 25% discount on the published price of £5.99 by using discount code ‘strategiccontent’ at the checkout. All proceeds go towards supporting Ada Lovelace Day.


Who wouldn’t want to build a life-size origami elephant?

It’s not really a surprise that I have a bit of a penchant for elephants. After all, I chose one as my company logo – for reasons explained here. So there’s no way I couldn’t share this rather bizarre – but extremely appealing – campaign to raise money to fold a life-size origami elephant out of a single sheet of paper.

Here’s how professional origami artist Sipho Mabona made a rather smaller prototype come to life:

Mabona intends to replicate the process on a massive scale, in order to “prove that there are no limits to what can be made out of a[n] uncut square piece of paper”.The folding itself (summarised in starkly simple form below) is, he says, “a beautiful process” that has more significance than the final result. His intention is to complete the transformation from paper sheet to life-size elephant within the Art Museum in Beromünster, Switzerland; he’ll also be capturing it with time-lapse photography.

All this is much more impressive than my own time-lapse origami efforts, which are displayed in the fundraising video for the HMS Beagle Project below. Maybe someone should create a life-size origami Beagle somewhere?


You can find out more about Sipho Mabona and his White Elephant campaign – and pledge your support in return for some origami animal goodies – at Indiegogo.

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Keeping up to speed with social media – reviewing Jon Reed’s new edition

Get up to Speed with Online Marketing coverI can’t quite believe that three years have passed since I blogged a review of my former colleague Jon Reed’s first book: Get up to Speed with Online Marketing. Of course, times – especially when you’re dealing with social media – change, so it’s no surprise that publisher Pearson has just launched a new edition. Always keen to be an early adopter, I’ve already got my grubby mitts on a copy – and here’s what I said about it on Amazon:

An accessibly-presented, business-focused, practical (and fun) guide to connecting with customers via social media

The latest edition of Jon Reed’s accessible and practical book Get up to Speed with Online Marketing has all the strengths of the first version and more. When I reviewed the initial publication three years ago, I highlighted the book’s emphasis on the use of third party tools, such as applications, plugins and widgets that help non-technical folk get quick results without the need to brief and pay designers or developers. Writing back then I said, “Of course you could find all these online tools yourself if you had sufficient time. What Get Up to Speed… does really well, though, is help you know what does what and what’s worth spending the time and effort to implement. Some of the best ‘takeaway’ points from the book are simple, but it’s unlikely you would stumble across them unless you’d tried all these things out yourself.” All this useful information, along with constant reminders to focus on your overall goals and measure the impact of your decisions, results in a book that both builds confidence and helps you choose where to concentrate your efforts.

What has changed since the first edition is the place of social media and online marketing within the business world. In the first edition, Reed takes time to persuade us that it’s worth investing in what he calls “the new marketing” in the first place. Now, we’re told, “social media is the mainstream”, a view I certainly share – which makes this book even more of an essential tool for any marketer, and especially for anyone who’s struggling to promote their own small business while also juggling all the other demands on their time.

It may be the norm to use social media now, but the challenge for overstretched and under-budgeted marketers isn’t just about how to create websites, write blogs and set up social media profiles. The key marketing issues Reed focuses on are the need to be findable (in places where your customers already are) and how to build relationships with customers and contacts. There’s no doubt Reed (whose Publishing Talk community has over 280,000 followers on twitter) knows a thing or two about connecting with people. But readers also benefit from the accessible way in which he shares all his knowledge. The real-life case studies he reports on, the checklists and summaries he includes and the links to all those third-party tools make it extremely easy for anyone to see which social media tools they can use to do this, and what steps they should take to achieve their goals. A new ‘best practice’ feature at the end of each chapter provides a handy reference for how to handle each featured approach, a glossary helps you sort your ‘wireframes’, ‘pingbacks’ and ‘hangouts’ from your ‘CMS’, and regular FAQs (again, new to this edition) anticipate some of the key issues people are likely to find difficult.

Reed’s also in touch with the latest trends. For this version of the book he’s dropped the chapters on virtual worlds (a cool development, but not something most people will actually use to promote their business) and social bookmarking in favour of covering Google+ and “one of the biggest social media sensations in recent years” (the visually-based Pinterest). He also features mobile platforms such as Instagram and Twitter’s video service Vine. Never fear, though, if you still want the old stuff you can download the lost chapters from the book’s website.

As with the last edition, it’s the practical tips and “quick wins” that are likely to prove the most useful. Whether it’s setting up a hashtag contest (where you ask users to share images or ideas via a specific platform and keyword) to generate a buzz, using a social media client such as HootSuite to manage your workload or geotagging online images to gently promote your location, even the most social-media savvy reader is likely to learn a thing or two from these. And if all that sounds too much like hard work, Reed is also keen to make it fun. On the final page he exhorts you to “focus on what you enjoy, what you do best, and where you can add the greatest value to your business”. Overall, then Get up to Speed… remains an excellent, practical (and fun) guide to using social media to reach your markets while keeping your overall business objectives in mind.

Find out more at the Get up to Speed with Online marketing: How to use websites, blogs, social networking and more to promote your business website, or follow the book on Twitter or Facebook.