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It’s that time of the year again: Happy Ada Lovelace Day everyone! This is a celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. And what better way for a book blogger to celebrate it than with a fantastic book on the subject?!
Reading The Madame Curie Complex confirmed just how protected I’ve been by choosing a career in an area – communications – generally considered safely within the “feminine realm”. I don’t remember ever being positively or negatively discriminated in school or work, but was shocked recently when a marine biologist friend of mine (my age) remembered a professor of hers telling the class that he didn’t believe physics was a field for women.
This fascinating book is filled with examples like this, but smartly avoids the victimization of the women it approaches. They were/are all intelligent, resourceful scientists who dealt with their circumstances in different ways and made extraordinary contributions to the advancement of science (even if those contributions weren’t recognized).
Julie Des Jardins calls the “Curie Complex” the general belief that women, to be able to compete with men in science (and probably other fields as well?), have to be twice better and work twice as hard. They need to be rational geniuses in the lab and the perfect mothers and wives at home. Only in this way can they gain respect at work and prove that their anti-natural tendencies to pursue a career in science has not undermined their femininity:
Meloney [an American journalist who helped form the Curie myth] had created a schizophrenic figure: a serious scientist (a masculine type) and a sacrificing woman (a maternal typo), both inherently incompatible. In the minds of male employers women would always fall short of the ideal, and women who internalized their alleged deficiencies could not move forward. If Meloney’s portrait of Madame Curie was supposed to inspire women, it may have done the reverse.
One of the most popular ways for women scientists to deal with this is to sacrifice their “maternal” side. Not only decades ago…
Even the most accomplished women scientist in the 1950s and 1960s continues to insist that the key to success was to perform head and shoulders above male competitors, sacrificing family, health and sanity for research.
… but also today. One of the most compelling statistics in the book for me were studies from 2009 that show that 70% of male science faculty were married with children versus only 44% of women at the same career level. This is incredibly telling, especially because it’s not the choice of many of these women: more that 40% of the women interviewed regretted that they hadn’t more children, “in their minds, it was still not possible for them to have it all.”
The book reads like a novel and I whizzed through it. Des Jardins tells us about the lives of many women scientists since the late 1800s and their way of accepting, coping, maneuvering or challenging the glass ceiling. The biographic details were fascinating, and despite being so different, Des Jardins was able to put these women’s lives together under the same “Curie Complex” light, and create a powerful argument.
She begins with Marie Curie (the canon), then moves on to Annie Cannon and the women who worked at the Harvard Observatory in the early 1900s, inexhaustibly cataloging and measuring stars. Next, the women of the Manhattan Project, that seem to have been erased from history. She finishes with the “Lady Trimates” (Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikos) who made the field their laboratories, blurring the borders between science and the home, finding alternatives to the “detached” science we practice and challenging the way we see science:
Many feminists then and since have warned of the dangers of overdetermining gender differences, for stereotypes of “universal woman” can be as troubling as time-honored notions of “universal man.” Sociobiology, a biological rationale for gender difference, was especially polarizing when it grew in popularity in the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1990s the question of creating a “feminist science” was rephrased: “Do women do science differently?” And in 2004 new debates ensued in Science over whether or not there was a “female style” in the lab.
The debate is still on and it’s just as important.
Des Jardins wrote a book that is not only clearly well researched, but rich in hundreds of little insights into the women she writes about. The perfect choice for the Ada Lovelace Day celebration.
Credits: Hark! A Vagrant!
Life has been happening like crazy on this side of the line. Add holidays and heat and pure, unadulterated laziness and you get a blogging slump. It would also be a reading slump if it wasn’t for YA audiobooks and daily newspapers (a holiday tradition and zen moment).
I need a bit of incentive because my spirit breaks just by looking at the two months backlog. Anyone interested in doing a buddy-read or something? Any easy read-alongs going around? Interesting projects?
Meanwhile, and while inspiration doesn’t strike, I’m doing a meme. They’re not usually my thing, but these are desperate times and maybe thinking about the books I’ve planned for the upcoming months will help.
Top Ten Books on my Fall TBR List
Gillespie and I by Jane Harris
Harris’ The Observations didn’t do much for me, but everyone seems to be raving about Gillespie and I so I’ve decided to give it a try.
Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay
My most anticipated re-read is Tigana, my favorite book by Guy Gavriel Kay. I’ve decided to tackle it in audio format this time around.
Chroniques de Jérusalem by Guy Delisle
All books by Guy Delisle are an instant best-seller here in Brussels, European capital of the graphic novel. I’ve never read anything by him but heard lots about this one, a birthday present from my co-workers.
The King of Attolia (The Queen’s Thief, #3) by Megan Whalen Turner
I’ve recently re-read the first two in the series just so that when I’d pick this one up for the first time everything was fresh. I hear it’s the best one of the series so far?
The Unicorn Hunt (The House of Niccolo, #5) by Dorothy Dunnett
I’m trying to go through The House of Niccolo series reeeeeeally slowly because you only read Dunnet for the first time once. It was a Herculean effort not to lunge for this one right after Scales of Gold and its extraordinary ending. I’ve waited long enough.
Moab is My Washpot by Stephen Fry
Whenever I don’t have a formed opinion on a certain topic, I Google Fry’s thoughts on it and always find myself nodding in agreement. Moab is My Washpot is an autobiography covering his first 20 years of life. The Fry Chronicles is already in the TBR waiting its turn.
The Mauritius Command(Aubrey/Maturin Book 4) by Patrick O’Brian
Another series I want to make last, although its 21 volumes-long… The previous book, HMS Surprise, is set to become one of the best of 2012.
Mayombe by Pepetela
For Kinna’s Africa Reading Challenge, this will be my first by one of Angola’s most famous writers. Everyone I know who reads in Portuguese seems to have read at least one of his books.
She’s Such a Geek: Women Write About Science, Technology, and Other Nerdy Stuff by Annalee Newitz & Charlie Anders (Eds.)
To celebrate Ada Lovelace Day, on 16 October.
Un día de cólera by Arturo Pérez-Reverte
At the beginning of the year one of my goals was to read more books in their original languages. I’ve done well in Portuguese and French but haven’t picked up anything in Spanish yet. This hour by hour description of 1808′s Dos de Mayo Uprising in Madrid will put me back on track.
A patient, long before he becomes the subject of medical scrutiny, is, at first, simply a storyteller, a narrator of suffering – a traveler who has visited the kingdom of the ill.
Microhistories are probably my favorite sub-genre of non-fiction (after biographies), and of all the ones I’ve read so far, none was as epic and all-encompassing as The Emperor of All Maladies. I’m now convinced the history of cancer reflects (and sometimes even leads) global movements. I’m still in awe of the task that Dr. Mukherjee set out to accomplish and of the amazing result.
This book’s philosophy is that the history of cancer is not only a story of scientific activity, but also of the doctors, researchers and lobbyists that fought it, and, most especially, that of the patients:
Resilience, inventiveness, and survivorship – qualities often ascribed to great physicians – are reflected qualities, emanating first from those who struggle with illness and only then mirrored by those who treat them. If the history of medicine is told through the stories of doctors, it is because their contributions stand in place of the more substantive heroism of their patients.
Together with the stories of individuals struggling with cancer, Dr. Mukherjee tackles an impressive number of topics, from cell theory to the cultural movements of millions of people, from scientific achievements to political will, and he’s able to summarize this in close to 600 pages (or 21 audio hours) of clear and compelling story-telling.
Even the parts I found less interesting – genetics, methodology of medical trials – were still surprisingly accessible, and the most interesting ones like the fight with Big Tobacco, the story of palliative care and the rise of patient’s right, were downright gripping.
About 90% of The Emperor of All Maladies focuses of the USA, but on the other hand, most of the book is set in the 20th century, a time when the US led cancer research. Still, I missed a bit of a geographical range. which is my only little quibble with an otherwise fantastic book.
At the beginning of the book we’re told the story of Atossa, a Persion Queen born in 550 BC, who was the first registered case of breast cancer. At the end of the book Dr. Mukherjee imagines Atossa being diagnosed and receiving treatment over the centuries: in the Middle Ages her problem would become a blackbile unbalance (or trapped melancholia), to be cure with goat dung or holy water; the radical mastectomy favored in the 19th century would probably have cost her not only her breasts, but also muscles, lymph nodes and bones in her chest cavity; the 20st century’s passion for aggressive drugs, radiation and chemotherapy might have almost killed her without any results; and 90s/2000s’ doctors would be able to identify the mutation in her genes and better adjust her treatment to her cancer type.
This imaginary birds-eye view of Atossa’s life was my favorite scene because it illustrates perfectly the way Dr. Mukherjee associated cancer’s history to our history as humans.
Today, Atossa would live decades longer than she would have in the past, but, if instead of breast cancer she’d had metastatic pancreatic cancer, her prognosis wouldn’t change more than a few months over the last 2,500 years.
I appreciated the book’s balanced tone that avoided the cheerful optimist about developments and cures that always sound too cheerful, too optimistic, when compared to reality. We still have a long way to go. There’s hope, there’s life extension, but still no universal cure.
A little aside to say that as A Reader I loved all the literary metaphors and references used throughout the book: Alice in Wonderland, Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Anna Karenina (“Normal cells are identically normal; malignant cells become unhappily malignant in unique ways.“), Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, etc. I was also strangely excited by getting his reference to HeLa cells, which I got to know through the wonderful The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
About the narration: Stephen Hoye was the only narrator in the Audies History category that was nominated for two books: this one and In the Garden of Beasts. This distinction is well justified. The Emperor is full of technical explanations and complicated drug names that are accessible in part because of Hoye.
There’s a cadence to his reading that’s very particular to him. I usually get a bit annoyed by this in other narrators, but surprisingly not with Hoye. I also appreciated how you could really notice the emotion in his voice during the last “pages” of the book, when he’s describing the brave, fearless but ultimately vain struggle of a cancer patient.
Other thoughts: Avid Reader’s Musings, The Book Lady’s Blog, S. Krishna’s Books, Book Addiction, My Books. My Life., let’s eat grandpa, Life… with books, Devourer of Books, Bibliophile by the Sea, Scuffed slippers and wormy books, Maple Gazed Kiwi (yours?)
Mike Brown led the team of scientist responsible for Pluto losing its planetary status. They discovered “Xena” (now Eris), which would have been the 10th planet had Pluto kept its status, but instead became its downfall.
It’s a fun book full of anecdotes and a good dose of personal stories. Brown in a scientist, but he’s also a husband and a father and he’s refreshingly ok with showing that side of him.
How I Killed Pluto is a great insight into the world of professional astronomy in all its glory and dullness. It’s all very exciting discovering a new planet, but let’s not forget the mind-numbing hours following tiny dots of light in endless image-stills to figure out if they’re moving.
Brown gets extra brownie points for acknowledging that scientific discoveries are never accomplished in isolation. Instead, he presents it as the work of many very bright and very creative risk-takers swimming against the tide of a long-established dogma. Add to that the academic rivalries (Brown even has an evil nemesis, The Spanish Professor who tried to steal his discovery Muahahaha!) and you have a very entertaining science book.
By the end I felt really curious about the day-to-day life implications of downgrading a planet. For instance, how long did it take for school books to make the change? Did some of them include an errata sheet? How did science museums update their exhibitions. Was there a PhD student on the brink of finishing a thesis on Pluto that had to re-write the whole thing? What about astrology, will Pluto in my 1st House no longer mean I “radiate intensity”? What do creationists think about this?
And linguists? One of the most interesting parts of the book was when Brown pondered about a planet’s definition: is it based on scientific criteria or just a convention? It’s the same with “continents”. I was taught that “Oceania” was a continent and am always surprised when someone tells me that no, Australia is a continent (don’t Kiwis get pissed with this?!). On the other hand, if what matters are tectonic plaques, then why are Europa and Asia separated? Words matter and Brown’s own questions brought me back to heated debates in philosophy and semiotics classes.
The re-definition of Pluto and Eris as “dwarf planets” while the others become “classic plants” sounds muddy even to a non-expert like me – is a dwarf planet still a planet? Brown calls the new classifications “a slew of unscientific clutter”, a sitting-on-the-fence decision created to be comfortable and not change the universe as we know it.
But no matter what, Pluto will always be a planet to me. Whenever I recite the planets, I can never stop at Neptune.
“The battle between metropolis and microbe was over, and the metropolis had won.”
If you have a weak stomach, this is not the book for you. A fascinating read? Yes! But very graphic in its descriptions of the foulness of Victorian London and the effects of cholera in the human body – in a cool way.
The Ghost Map confirmed that I’m a fan of “microhistories”, those books that analyze society and science through the history of one particular thing, like the HeLa cells in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, honeybees in The Hive: The Story of the Honeybee and Us or cancer in The Emperor of All Maladies. Goodreads has a great list, if you’re interested. Do you have any recommendations?
In 1854 London was hit by a massive outbreak of cholera and a young doctor named John Snow (winter is coming!) decides to study it. So how does one go about tracking microscopic bacteria without the necessary tools? Dr Snow did it by using a fertile imagination supported by a good dose of disciplined observation. It also helped that he wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty – literally.
Dr Snow’s major theory was that cholera was a waterborne disease, and not spread through the air, as it was widely believed at the time. Together with Reverend Henry Whitehead, a man with his finger on the pulse of London’s poorest neighborhoods, Dr Snow starts interviewing the people in the most infected areas and tracing the disease’s timeline. He starts noticing patterns, like the woman who got ill on the other side of town because she had a preference for the water of her old neighborhood. Or the workhouse right in the center of the epidemic that wasn’t affected because they had their own well.
He also noticed that the epidemic had an epicenter: the now (in)famous Broad Street pump, that was contaminated when an early cholera victim’s septic tank was leaking into its water supply. What was only a theory, became a conclusion after Dr. Snow and Reverend Whitehead decided to map the victims and came up with the “Ghost Map”, that would eventually revolutionize not only epidemiology, but also information design (by the way, have you seen the amazing Information is Beautiful site?).
(Dr. Snow’s map – source)
Parallel to the story of the cholera epidemic and both men’s struggle to contain it, Johnson also tackles other related issues, always in an interesting, fresh way: public health, scientific history, urban civic engineering, bio-terrorism and the future of the big metropolis.
Of these, there were two in particular that caught my attention: 1) it’s not often you see someone advocating that the best thing for humanity is to be more concentrated. Johnson makes valid points in favor of the mega-cities that seem unavoidable in our future, and 2) Johnson cleverly uses this epidemic to make a point about the dangers of dogmas in science. It makes me wonder about the grave mistakes we’re committing now. Scientific knowledge has advanced since Victorian London, but not human nature:
No one died of stench in Victorian London. But tens of thousands died because the fear of stench blinded them to the true perils of the city, and drove them to implement a series of wrongheaded reforms that only made the crisis worse (…) practically the entire medical and political establishment fell into the same deadly error: everyone from Florence Nightingale to the pioneering reformer Edwin Chadwick to the editors of The Lancet to Queen Victoria herself.
The history of knowledge conventionally focuses on breakthrough ideas and conceptual leaps. But the blind spots on the map, the dark continents of error and prejudice, carry their own mystery as well. How could so many intelligent people be so grievously wrong for such an extended period of time? How could they ignore so much overwhelming evidence that contradicted their most basic theories?
(Broad Street Pump, in front of John Snow pub – source)
Other thoughts: The Little Reader, A Book a Week, One Minute Book Reviews, Sophisticated Dorkiness, A Book Lover, Worthwhile Books, Sadie-Jean’s Book Blog, Maggie Reads, she treads softly, Jenny’s Books, Ready when you are, C.B., Books and Many More Books, What Kate’s Reading, Rhapsody in Books, endomental (yours?)
Happy Ada Lovelace Day everyone! This is the day to celebrate women in science, technology, engineering and maths, and I decided to do it by reading Patricia Fara’s wonderful Pandora’s Breeches: Women, Science and Power in the Enlightenment.
At the core of the Age of Enlightenment (18th century) is the belief that only through the power of reason could man advance knowledge. Its defenders promoted the use of intelligence and logic on a wider scale and generally challenged any religious or political established beliefs.
This had a huge impact on science: alchemy and astrology were discredited and experimentation (empiricism), intellectual interchange and scientific rigor became the new norm. It was also an Age that embrassed the legend of the hero-scientist, who single-handed propelled science one step forward (e.g. Newton, Descartes, Liebniz). In her introduction to Pandora’s Breeches, Patricia Fara starts by busting this myth, both male and female:
Instead of focusing exclusively on great minds and great ideas, historians are now more interested in examining how science has entered everyday life. (…) In romanticized versions of the past, science progresses in uneven leaps as solitary geniuses make momentous discoveries in their disinterested search for truth. (…) When historians focus on famous individuals, they leave out many vital people who made science central to everyday life.
In seeing the history of science in this perspective, Fara defends that although women may have been excluded from the traditional historical record, it doesn’t mean they were excluded from scientific activity during that period. In this group of unsung people, Fara also includes the technicians and administrators who made the work of the “super-heros of the modern age” or “scholarly gladiators” possible from behind the curtain. If scientific development is seen as a communal effort, then women’s role becomes much more evident, both in the past and in the present. Fara’s book is her contribution to the rewriting of scientific history to include these forgotten contributors.
The nine women that Fara uses as examples are an extraordinary bunch. Not only for their fascinating lives, but they’re so different that together they destroy all conventional images of the woman scientist. Some of Fara’s women could be considered proto-feminists, but others defended that women should remain in the domestic realm; some made actual scientific discoveries, while others translated the works of their male relatives, wrote books that brought science to the masses or were patrons of scientists; some received awards and public recognition, others all but fell into oblivion; some were happily married mothers, others died single by choice; some where humble and masochistic, others vain and hot-headed.
Gender equality should not imply yet another series of female stereotypes, like the widely popular tom-boy-who-shuns-all-things-girly – what Jodie called “excepto-girls”. Instead, history (and all other narratives) should reflect the real variety of women out there:
In well-intentioned pastiches of the past, scientific women emerge as cardboard cutouts – the selfless helpmate, the source of inspiration, the dedicated assistant who sacrifices everything for the sake of her man and the cause of science. On the other hand, over-compensation – glorifying women as lone pioneers, as unrecognized geniuses – also has its drawbacks.
Although Pandora’s Breeches doesn’t ignore the injustice and discrimination these women faced, what really made me love this book was that it doesn’t pity them either. Fara sets out to unearth the untold stories of female participation in scientific developments but she makes sure we understand their true and real importance by placing them in context.
If only they had been man, one cans almost hear their biographers sigh, then their true brilliancy would have been recognized. Prominent examples include Aspasia of Miletus, Hypatia of Alexandria and Hildegard of Bingen. All exceptional women, without doubt, but it is misleading to celebrate them as suppressed scientists. Modern science bears little resemblance to intellectual pursuits of ancient Greece, fifth-century Egypt or Benedictine monasteries. Those women certainly deserve to be honored, but only within the framework of their contemporaries. There is no point in distorting women’s importance by exaggerating their activities.
Without Émilie du Châtelet (my favorite of the Pandora’s Breeches women*) books and translations, Newton’s theories wouldn’t have been so widely accepted. Caroline Herschel was the devoted assistant of her brother William, who discovered Uranus. Jane Marcet‘s Conversations on Chemistry inspired Michael Faraday’s pioneering career and he remembered her throughout his life as his first teacher. These are different contributions that shouldn’t forgotten, underestimated or seen as less important than other male achievements. They just happened not to be the subject of historians’ attention.
Fara’s final chapter on Mary Shelley and Frankenstein will be especially interesting to book-lovers. She points out the conflicts in Shelley’s own mind about the place of women in the world and more importantly, the role of science itself. Her doubts continue to resonate today, when we’re still debating about “Frankenfood” and the dangers of opening Science’s Pandora’s Box.
My only uneasiness about the book was the structure. In each chapter Fara pairs a woman with a famous man and then demonstrates how the first influenced the work of the second. If it was me (I hate this expression), I’d make an introduction underlining that indeed several male scientists were greatly impacted by the women in their lives, but then talk about these women by themselves.
Whether you’re interested in the history of science, the Enlightenment period, women’s studies or just curious about the lives of the men and women Fara use as examples, Pandora’s Breeches will have something to offer you. It aims high – “Rather than creating new female heroines, it has undermined conventional views of the past by attacking the very concept of heroism in science” – but I was both immediately attracted and sold to the idea.
She was Voltaire’s lover. Here’s what he wrote to a mutual friend when Émilie gave birth to her daughter:
“Mme du Châtelet informs you that this night, being at her desk working on Newton, she felt a little call. The little call was a daughter, who appeared in an instant. She was laid on a quarto book of geometry.”
The first time I heard about this book was in Time magazine’s book review and I immediately added it to my wishlist. It was also the first time I’ve ever heard of HeLa, that turned out to be one of the most famous words in research history. It’s the name of a cell line scientists have been reproducing since the 50s in order to develop and test treatments. It was used to discover the polio vaccine, it went up in the first space flight and even today it’s still one of the most used tools in labs around the world.
HeLa wasn’t spontaneously produced, it came from Henrietta Lacks, an un-sung heroine of science. She was a black tobacco farmer from whom in 1951 a doctor removed, without her knowledge or consent, a piece of her cervical cancer, which late became know as HeLa. She died shortly after leaving behind 5 children and over time her name was almost forgotten by the scientific community. In the early 90s, author Barbara Skoots became curious about the origin of the HeLa cells she was using regularly during her biological science studies and decided to write a book about them.
The Immortal Life… intertwines two stories. One follows the 10 years research Skoots did on Henrietta and her descendents and the other is about HeLa, the history of cell research and the ethical questions it raised.
Despite the emotional power of the fist storyline (and I’m always a sucker for the “human interest”, one of the reasons why I was curious about this book in the first place), it was the scientific bit that unexpectedly hooked me. Skoots’ outline of the history of cell research is written in a compelling way, even (or especially?) for laymen. Her insights on the past and present of informed consent, patients’ rights and donation of human matter for scientific and commercial purposes, were the highlight of the book for me.
Doctors in the States (have to look into the situation in Europe) don’t need patients consent to store and use human tissue discarded is surgeries. Once it’s out of your body, be it your placenta or appendix, you no longer have rights over it, even if researchers use it for profit. Many scientist fear the need for consent would only fuel endless legal battles and they are probably right, but shouldn’t donors also have their say? At least, and as many organisations demand, shouldn’t we be able to ethically object to certain types of research being done on our cells, such as bio-weapons? Interesting questions, interesting book. It seems Oprah also thought so, because she’s producing an adaptation for HBO.