“The Matilda Effect”: How Pioneering Women Scientists Have Been Denied Recognition and Written Out of Science History

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The history of science, like most every history we learn, comes to us as a procession of great, almost exclusively white, men, unbroken but for the occasional token woman—well-deserving of her honors but seemingly anomalous nonetheless. “If you believe the history books,” notes the Timeline series The Matilda Effect, “science is a guy thing. Discoveries are made by men, which spur further innovation by men, followed by acclaim and prizes for men. But too often, there is an unsung woman genius who deserves just as much credit” and who has been overshadowed by male colleagues who grabbed the glory.

In 1993, Cornell University historian of science Margaret Rossiter dubbed the denial of recognition to women scientists "the Matilda effect," for suffragist and abolitionist Matilda Joslyn Gage, whose 1893 essay “Woman as an Inventor” protested the common assertion that “woman… possesses no inventive or mechanical genius." Gage wrote that "even the United States census" failed "to enumerate her among the inventors of the country.” Such assertions, Gage proceeded to demonstrate, “are carelessly or ignorantly made… although woman’s scientific education has been grossly neglected, yet some of the most important inventions of the world are due to her.”

Over 100 years later, Rossiter’s tenacious work in unearthing the contributions of U.S. women scientists inspired the History of Science Society to name a prestigious prize after her. The Timeline series profiles of the few of the women whom it describes as prime examples of the Matilda effect, including Dr. Lise Meitner, the Austrian-born physicist and pioneer of nuclear technology who escaped the Nazis and became known in her time as “the Jewish Mother of the Bomb,” though she had nothing to do with the atomic bomb. Instead, “Meitner led the research that ultimately discovered nuclear fission.” But Meitner would become “little more than a footnote in the history of Nazi scientists and the birth of the Atomic age.”

Instead, Meitner’s colleague Otto Hahn received the accolades, a Nobel Prize in Chemistry and “renown as the discoverer of nuclear fission. Meitner, who directed Hahn’s most significant experiments and calculated the energy release resulting from fission, received a few essentialist headlines followed by decades of obscurity.” (See Meitner and Hahn in the photo above.) Likewise, the name of Alice Augusta Ball has been “all but scrubbed from the history of medicine,” though it was Ball, an African American chemist from Seattle, Washington, who pioneered what became known as the Dean Method, a revolutionary treatment for leprosy.

Ball conducted her research at the University of Hawaii, but she tragically died at the age of 24, in what was likely a lab accident, before the results could be published. Instead, University President Dr. Arthur Dean, who had co-taught chemistry classes with Ball, continued her work. But he failed “to mention Ball’s key contribution” despite protestations from Dr. Harry Hollmann, a surgeon who worked with Ball on treating leprosy patients. Dean claimed credit, and published their work under his name. Decades later, "the scant archival trail of Alice Ball was rediscovered…. In 2000, a plaque was installed at the University of Hawaii commemorating Ball’s accomplishments.”

Other women in the Matilda effect series include bacterial geneticist Esther Lederberg, who made amazing discoveries in genetics that won her husband a Nobel Prize; Irish astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who discovered the first radio pulsars in 1967, but was excluded from the Nobel awarded to her thesis supervisor Antony Hewish and astronomer Martin Ryle. A similar fate befell Dr. Rosalind Franklin, the chemist excluded from the Nobel awarded to her colleagues James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins for the discovery of DNA.

These prominent examples are but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to women who made significant contributions to scientific history and were rewarded by being written out of it and denied awards and recognition in their lifetime. For more on the history of U.S. women in science and the social forces that worked to exclude them, see Margaret Rossiter’s three-volume Women Scientists in America series: Struggles and Strategies to 1940, Before Affirmative Action, 1940-1972, and Forging a New World since 1972. And read Timeline’s Matilda Effect series of articles here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch the Original TV Coverage of the Historic Apollo 11 Moon Landing: Recorded on July 20, 1969

During a recent dinner a few friends and I found ourselves reminiscing about formative moments in our collective youth. The conversation took a decidedly downbeat turn when a nationally televised moment we all remembered all too well came up: the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. Like millions of other schoolkids at the time we had been glued to the live broadcast, and became witnesses to horror. “It was NASA’s darkest tragedy,” writes Elizabeth Howell at Space.com, an accident that “changed the space program forever.”

The contrast with our parents’ indelible memories of a televised space broadcast from seventeen years earlier could not be starker. On July 20, 1969, the nation witnessed what could easily be called NASA’s greatest triumph, the Apollo 11 moon landing, which not only really happened, but was broadcast live on CBS, with commentary by Walter Cronkite and former astronaut Wally Schirra and live audio from Mission Control in Houston and Buzz Aldrin himself, “whose job during the landing,” Jason Kottke writes, “was to keep an eye on the LM (lunar module)’s altitude and speed.”

We don’t hear much from Neil Armstrong—“he’s busy flying and furiously searching for a suitable landing site. But it’s Armstrong that says after they land, ‘Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.’” Kottke’s fascinating description of the events points out details that heighten the drama, such as the fact that Armstrong’s heartrate “peaked at 150 beats per minute at landing” (his resting heartrate was 60 bpm). At around 10 minutes to landing, the astronauts link to Mission Control cut out briefly, which must have been terrifying.

“Then there were the intermittent 1201 and 1202 program alarms, which neither the LM crew nor Houston had encountered in any of the training simulations.” These turn out “to be a simple case,” notes NASA, “of the computer trying to do too many things at once.” Given that the Lunar Module’s computer only had 4KB of memory, this is hardly a surprise. What is astonishing is that such a relatively primitive machine could handle the task at all.

The film viewers saw on their screens was not, of course, a live feed—CBS did not have cameras in space or on the moon—but rather an animation.

The CBS animation shows the fake LM landing on the fake Moon before the actual landing — when Buzz says “contact light” and then “engine stop”. The animation was based on the scheduled landing time and evidently couldn’t be adjusted. The scheduled time was overshot because of the crater and boulders situation mentioned above.

There were, however, cameras mounted on the Lunar Module, and that 16mm footage of the landing, which you can see above, was later released. And then there’s that moon walk (which really happened), which you can see below—blurry and indistinct but no less amazing.

Just a little over eight years “since the flights of Gagarin and Shepard,” NASA writes, “followed quickly by President Kennedy’s challenge to put a man on the moon before the decade is out,” it happened. Armstrong, Aldrin, and Michael Collins landed on the moon. Armstrong and Aldrin walked around and collected samples for two hours, then returned safely to Earth. In a post-flight press conference, Armstrong called the successful mission “a beginning of a new age,” and it was, though his optimism would seem almost quaint when a couple decades later, the U.S. turned its sights on weaponizing space.

Read more about this extraordinary event at NASA and Kottke.

via Kottke

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Why Med Schools Are Requiring Students to Take Art Classes, and How It Makes Med Students Better Doctors

I have followed several debates recently about the lack of arts and humanities education in STEM programs. One argument runs thus: scientists, engineers, and programmers often move into careers designing products for human use, without having spent much time learning about other humans. Without required courses, say, in psychology, philosophy, sociology, literature, etc., students can end up unthinkingly reproducing harmful biases or overlooking serious ethical problems and social inequities.

Technological malpractice is bad enough. Medical malpractice can have even more immediately harmful, or fatal, effects. We might take for granted that a doctor’s “bedside manner” is purely a matter of personality, but many medicals schools have decided they need to be more proactive when it comes to training future doctors in compassionate listening. And some have begun using the arts to foster creative thinking and empathy and to improve doctor-patient communication. The verbally-abusive Dr. House aside, the best diagnosticians actually have sympathetic ears.

As Dr. Michael Flanagan of Penn State’s College of Medicine puts it, “Our job is to elicit information from our patients. By communicating more effectively and establishing rapport with patients so they are more comfortable telling you about their symptoms, you are more likely to make the diagnosis and have higher patient satisfaction.” From the patient side of things, an accurate diagnosis can mean more than “satisfaction”; it can mean the difference between life and death, long-term suffering or rapid recovery.

Can impressionist painting make that difference? Dr. Flanagan thinks it’s a start. His seminar “Impressionism and the Art of Communication” asks fourth-year medical students to engage with the work of Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet, in exercises “ranging from observation and writing activities to painting in the style of said artists,” notes Artsy. “Through the process, they learn to better communicate with patients by developing insights on subjects like mental illness and cognitive bias.” Why not just study these subjects in psychology courses?

One answer comes from Penn State associate professor of art history Nancy Locke, who presents to Flanagan’s classes. “Art can make people see their lives differently,” she says, “Doctors will see people regularly with certain problems.” And they can begin to schematize their patients the way they schematize diseases and disorders. “But a painting can continue to be challenging, and there are always new questions to ask.” Impressionist painting represents only one road, among many others, to the ambiguities of the human mind.

Another Penn State professor, Dr. Paul Haidet, director of medical education research, offered a seminar on jazz and medical communications to fourth-year students in 2014 and 2015. As he mentions in the video above, Flanagan himself took the course. “Just as one jazz musician provides space to another to improvise,” he tells Penn State News, “as physicians we need to provide space to our patients to communicate in their own style. It was a transformational experience, unlike anything I ever had in medical school myself.” He was inspired thereafter to introduce his painting course.

One could imagine classes on the Victorian novel, modernist poetry, or improvisational dance having similar effects. Other medical schools have certainly agreed. Dr. Delphine Taylor, associate professor of medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, “emphasizes that arts-focused activities are important in training future doctors to be present and aware,” Artsy writes, “which is more and more difficult today given the pervasiveness of technology and media.” Arts programs have also been adopted in the medical schools at Yale, Harvard, and UT Austin.

The precedents for incorporating the arts into a science education abound—many a famous scientist has also had a passion for literature, photography, painting, or music. (Einstein, for example, wouldn’t be parted from his violin.) As the arts and sciences grew further apart, for reasons having to do with the structure of higher education and the dictates of market economies, it became far less common for scientists and doctors to receive a liberal arts education. On the other hand, todays liberal arts students might benefit from more required STEM courses, but that’s a story for another day.

via Artsy

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Find the Address of Your Home on Pangaea: Open Source Project Lets You Explore the Ancient Land Masses of Our Planet

A cool tool. Software engineer Ian Webster has created a website that lets you see how the land masses on planet Earth have changed over the course of 750 million years. And it has the added bonus of letting you plot modern addresses on these ancient land formations. Ergo, you can see where your home was located on the Big Blue Marble some 20, 100, 500, or 750 million years ago. Webster's project (access it here) is open source. Enjoy.

via Kottke

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Color Film Was Designed to Take Pictures of White People, Not People of Color: The Unfortunate History of Racial Bias in Photography (1940-1990)

In the history of photography and film, getting the right image meant getting the one which conformed to prevalent ideas of humanity. This included ideas of whiteness, of what colour — what range of hue — white people wanted white people to be. 

- Richard Dyer, White: Essays on Race and Culture

As the bride in the 2014 Interracial Wedding Photographer skit (see below) on her titular sketch comedy TV show, comedian Amy Schumer cast herself in a small but essential background role. She is for all practical purposes a living Shirley card, an image of a young white woman that was for years the standard photography techs used to determine “normal” skin-color balance when developing film in the lab.

The Shirley card—named for its original model, Kodak employee Shirley Page--featured a succession of young women over the years, but skin tone-wise, the resemblance was striking.

As described by Syreeta McFadden in a Buzzfeed essay that also touches on Carrie Mae Weems' 1988 four-panel portrait, Peaches, Liz, Tamika, Elaine, a color wheel meme featuring actress Lupita Nyong'o, and artists Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin's 2013 project that trained an apartheid-era Polaroid ID2 camera and nearly 40-year-old film stock on dark-skinned South African subjects as a lens for examining racism:

She is wearing a white dress with long black gloves. A pearl bracelet adorns one of her wrists. She has auburn hair that drapes her exposed shoulders. Her eyes are blue. The background is grayish, and she is surrounded by three pillows, each in one of the primary colors we're taught in school. She wears a white dress because it reads high contrast against the gray background with her black gloves. "Color girl" is the technicians' term for her. The image is used as a metric for skin-color balance, which technicians use to render an image as close as possible to what the human eye recognizes as normal. But there's the rub: With a white body as a light meter, all other skin tones become deviations from the norm.

This explains why the portrait session McFadden’s mom set up in a shopping mall studio chain yielded results so disastrous that McFadden instinctively gravitated toward black-and-white when she started taking pictures. Grayscale did a much better job of suggesting the wide variety of multicultural skin tones than existing color film.

In her 2009 paper "Looking at Shirley, the Ultimate Norm: Colour Balance, Image Technologies and Cognitive Equity," Concordia University media and communication studies professor Lorna Roth went into the chemistry of inherent, if unconscious, racial bias. The potential to recognize a spectrum of yellow, brown and reddish skin tones was there, but the film companies went with emulsions that catered to the perceived needs of their target consumers, whose hides were noticeably lighter than those of black shutterbugs also seeking to document their family vacations, milestones, and celebrations.

Industry progress can be chalked up to pressure from vendors of wood furniture and chocolate, who felt their dark products could look better on film.

Oprah Winfrey and Black Entertainment Television were early adopters of cameras equipped with two computer chips, thus enabling them to accurately portray a variety of individual tones simultaneously.

Who knew that Amy Schumer sketch, below, would turn out to have such historic significance? Once you know about the Shirley card, the comedy becomes even darker. Generations of real brides and grooms, whose skin tones fell to either side of Schumer’s TV groom, DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest fame, failed to show up in their own wedding photos, through no fault of their own.

via Vox

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Carl Sagan Returns to His Old Sixth-Grade Classroom to Turn a New Generation of Kids On To Science

All throughout his career, Carl Sagan cited the events in his formative years that set him on the road to becoming, well, Carl Sagan: the introduction to "skepticism and wonder" provided by his parents; his visit to the 1939 New York World's Fair; his first trips to the public library, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Hayden Planetarium; his discovery of Astounding Science Fiction Magazine and its fantastic visions undergirded by genuine knowledge. That last happened around the same time he entered the sixth grade at David A. Boody Junior High School, where he would eventually return, decades later, to teach the lesson seen in the video above.

"As a child, it was my immense good fortune to have parents and a few teachers who encouraged my curiosity," Sagan says in voiceover. "This was my sixth-grade classroom. I came back here one afternoon to remember what it was like." Anyone watching him handing out the "breathtaking pictures of other worlds that had been radioed back by the Voyager spacecraft" and addressing the excited students' questions will understand that, in addition to his formidable hunger for knowledge and deep understanding of his subjects, Sagan also possessed a quality rare in the scientific community: the ability and willingness to talk about science clearly and engagingly, and transmit his excitement about science, to absolutely anyone.

The clip also provides a sense of what it was like to learn directly from Sagan. In the interview clip above, no less a science guy than Bill Nye talks about his own experience taking Sagan's classes at Cornell in the 1970s. "If you saw his series Cosmos — the original Cosmos — his lectures were like those television shows," says Nye. He goes on to tell the story of meeting Sagan again, at his ten-year class reunion. "I said I want to do this show about science for kids. He said, 'Focus on pure science. Kids resonate to pure science.' That was his verb, resonate." And so, when Bill Nye the Science Guy debuted a few years later, it spent most of its time not on the fruits of science — "bridges, dams, and civil engineering works and gears" and so on — but on science itself.

Carl Sagan co-founded the Planetary Society in 1980. Nye, drawn by its mission of "empowering the world's citizens to advance planetary science and exploration," joined that same year. After speaking at Sagan's memorial a decade and a half later, Nye found himself on its board of directors. Then he became Vice President, and then "there was a dinner party, there was wine or something, and now I'm the CEO." In that way and others, Nye continues Sagan's legacy, and Nye hardly counts as Sagan's only successor. "This is how we know nature," as Nye puts Sagan's view of science. "It's the best idea humans have ever come up with." That view, whether expressed in Sagan's own work or that of the countless many he has directly or indirectly influenced, will surely continue to inspire generations of learners, inside or outside the classroom.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Optical Scanning Technology Lets Researchers Recover Lost Indigenous Languages from Old Wax Cylinder Recordings

In an 1878 North American Review description of his new invention, the phonograph, which transcribed sound on wax-covered metal cylinders, Thomas Edison suggested a number of possible uses: “Letter writing and all kinds of dictation without the aid of a stenographer,” “Phonographic books” for the blind, “the teaching of elocution,” and, of course, “Reproduction of music.” He did not, visionary though he was, conceive of one extraordinary use to which wax cylinders might be put—the recovery or reconstruction of extinct and endangered indigenous languages and cultures in California.

And yet, 140 years after Edison’s invention, this may be the most culturally significant use of the wax cylinder to date. “Among the thousands of wax cylinders” at UC Berkeley’s Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, writes Hyperallergic’s Allison Meier, “are songs and spoken-word recordings in 78 indigenous languages of California. Some of these languages, recorded between 1900 and 1938, no longer have living speakers.”

Such is the case with Yahi, a language spoken by a man called “Ishi,” who was supposedly the last surviving member of his culture when anthropologist Alfred Kroeber met him in 1911. Kroeber recorded nearly 6 hours of Ishi’s speech on 148 wax cylinders, many of which are now badly degraded.

“The existing versions” of these artifacts “sound terrible,” says Berkeley linguist Andrew Garrett in the National Science Foundation video at the top, but through digital reconstruction much of this rare audio can be restored. Garrett describes the project—supported jointly by the NSF and NEH—as a “digital repatriation of cultural heritage.” Using an optical scanning technique, scientists can recover data from these fragile materials without further damaging them. You can see audio preservationist Carl Haber describe the advanced methods above.

The project represents a scientific breakthrough and also a stark reminder of the genocide and humiliation of indigenous people in the American west. When he was found, “starving, disoriented and separated from his tribe,” writes Jessica Jimenez at The Daily Californian, Ishi was “believed to be the last Yahi man in existence because of the Three Knolls Massacre in 1866, in which the entire Yahi tribe was thought to have been slaughtered.” (According to another Berkeley scholar his story may be more complicated.) He was “put on display at the museum, where outsiders could watch him make arrows and describe aspects of Yahi culture.” He never revealed his name (“Ishi” means “man”) and died of tuberculosis in 1916.

The wax cylinders will allow scholars to recover other languages, stories, and songs from peoples destroyed or decimated by the 19th century “Indian Wars.” Between 1900 and 1940, Kroeber and his colleagues recorded “Native Californians from many regions and cultures,” the Berkeley project page explains, “speaking and singing; reciting histories, narratives and prayers, listing names for places and objects among many other things, all in a wide variety of languages. Many of the languages recorded on the cylinders have transformed, fallen out of use, or are no longer spoken at all, making this collection a unique and invaluable resource for linguists and contemporary community members hoping to learn about or revitalize languages, or retrieve important piece of cultural heritage.”

via Hyperallergic

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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