Women’s Hidden Contributions to Modern Genetics Get Revealed by New Study: No Longer Will They Be Buried in the Footnotes

It’s too easy, when our historical knowledge is limited, to mistake effects for causes, to fall for just-so stories that naturalize and perpetuate inequality. Many of us may have only recently learned, for example, that the moon landing would not have been possible without mathematician Katherine Johnson and her Hidden Figures colleagues, or that the Hubble telescope would not have been possible without astronomer Nancy G. Roman (now immortalized in LEGO). Prior to this knowledge, we might have been led to believe that women had little to do with humankind’s first leaps into outer space, to the surface of the moon, and beyond.

Cornell University historian of science Margaret Rossiter has called this phenomenon “the Matilda effect,” after an 1893 essay by suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage. Rossiter spent years trying to counter the dominant narratives that leave out women in science with a multi-volume scholarly history. Counter-narratives like hers now appear regularly online. And popular media like the book, then film, Hidden Figures have inspired other academics to drill into the history of their fields, find the women who have been ignored, and try to understand the how and why.




When Brown University’s Emilia Huerta-Sánchez and San Francisco State University’s Rori Rohlfs saw Hidden Figures, they decided to research their specialization, theoretical population genetics. It may not be as glamorous as space travel, and their research may not become a Hollywood film or LEGO set, but the results they unearthed are revelatory and important. During the 1970s, for example, “a pivotal time for the field of population genetics,” notes Ed Yong at The Atlantic, the two researchers and their team of undergraduates found that “women accounted for 59 percent of acknowledged programmers, but just 7 percent of actual authors.”

Those women were scientists doing “crucial work,” writes Yong. One programmer, Margaret Wu, created a statistical tool still regularly used to calculate optimal genetic diversity. Her model appeared in a 1975 paper and is now known as the Watterson estimator, after the “one and only" named author, G.A. Watterson. "The paper has been cited 3,400 times.” Today, “if a scientist did all the programming for a study, she would expect to be listed as an author.” But the practice only began to change in the 1980s, when “programming began changing from a ‘pink collar’ job, done largely by low-paid women, to the male-dominated profession it remains today.”

The marginalization of female programmers during some of the field’s most productive years—their relegation to literal footnotes in history—has created the impression, as Huerta- Sánchez, Rohlfs, and their co-authors write, that “this research was conducted by a relatively small number of independent individual scientists nearly all of whom were men.” See a summary of the authors' findings in the video above. To obtain their results, they combed through every issue of the journal Theoretical Population Biology—nearly 900 papers—then pulled out “every name in the acknowledgments, worked out whether they did any programming, and deduced their genders where possible.”

The study, published in the latest issue of Genetics does not comprehensively survey the entire field, nor does it definitively show that every programmer who contributed to a paper did so substantively enough to warrant authorship. But it does not need to do these things. The disparities between named authors and marginally acknowledged scientific laborers in a major journal in the field calls for an explanation beyond selection bias or chance. The explanation of systemic bias not only has the benefit of being well-supported by a huge aggregate of data across the sciences, but it also presents us with a situation that can be changed when the problems are widely seen and acknowledged.

The study's results "dispel the misconception that women weren't participating in science," the researchers point out in their video, and they suggest that a significant number of women in genetics weren't given the credit they deserved. Huerta- Sánchez and Rohlfs walk their talk. The undergraduate researchers who worked on "Illuminating Women's Hidden Contribution to Historical Theoretical Population Genetics" are all named as authors in the paper, so that their contributions to writing a new history of their field can be recognized.

via The Atlantic

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

Historic Manuscript Filled with Beautiful Illustrations of Cuban Flowers & Plants Is Now Online (1826 )

The internet has become an essential back up system for thousands of pieces of historical art, science, and literature, and also for a specialized kind of text incorporating them all in degrees: the illustrated natural science book, from the golden ages of book illustration and philosophical naturalism in Europe and the Americas. We’ve seen some fine digital reproductions of the illustrated Nomenclature of Colors by Abraham Gottlob Werner, for example—a book that accompanied Darwin on his Beagle voyage.

The same source has also brought us a wonderfully illustrated, influential 1847 edition of Euclid’s Elements, with a semaphore-like design that color-codes and delineates each axiom. And we’ve seen Emily Noyes Vanderpoel’s 1903 Color Problems: a Practical Manual for the Lay Student of Color come online (and back in print), a study whose ideas would later show up in the work of modern minimalists like Josef Albers.




Above and below, you can see just a fraction of the illustrations from another example of a remarkable illustrated scientific book, also by a woman on the edge of being forgotten: Nancy Anne Kingsbury Wollstonecraft's 1826 Specimens of the Plants and Fruits of the Island of Cuba.

This study of Cuban plant life might never have seen the light of day were it not for the new online edition from the HathiTrust digital library, “by way of Cornell University’s Library Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections,” notes Atlas Obscura. The book is notable for more than its obscurity, however. It is, says scholar of Cuban history and culture Emilio Cueto, “the most important corpus of plant illustrations in Cuba’s colonial history.” Its author first began work when she moved to the island after her husband, Charles Wollstonecraft (brother of Mary and uncle of Mary Shelley) died in 1817.

She began documenting the plant life in the region of Matanzas through the 1820s. That research became Specimens of the Plants and Fruits of the Island of Cuba, a meticulous study, full of Wollstonecraft’s vibrant, striking watercolors. After making several attempts at publication, she died in 1828, and the manuscript never appeared in public. Now, almost two centuries later, all three volumes are available to read online and download in PDF. They had been dormant at the Cornell University Library, and few people knew very much about them. Cueto, the scholar most familiar with the manuscript's place in history, had himself searched for it for 20 years before finding it hidden away at Cornell in 2018.

Now it is freely available to anyone and everyone online, part of an expanding, shared online archive of fascinating works by non-professional scientists and mathematicians whose work was painstakingly interpreted by artists for the benefit of a lay readership. In the case of Wollstonecraft, as with Goethe and many other contemporary scholar-artists, we have the two in one. View and download her 220-page work, with its 121 illustrated plates at the HathiTrust Digital Library.

via Cornell/Atlas Obscura

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

Explore an Interactive Version of The Wall of Birds, a 2,500 Square-Foot Mural That Documents the Evolution of Birds Over 375 Million Years

Now, this avian Vatican also has its own Michelangelo.

Audubon Magazine

And the Class of Aves has its very own avian Pantone chart, created by science illustrator Jane Kim in service of her 2,500 square-foot Wall of Birds mural at Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology.

The custom chart’s fifty-one colors comprise about 90 percent of the finished work. A palette of thirteen Golden Fluid Acrylics supplied the jewel-toned accents so thrilling to birdwatchers.

Along the way, Kim absorbed a tremendous amount of information about the how and why of bird feather coloration:

The iridescence on the neck and back of the Superb Starling comes not from pigment,

but from structural color. The starling’s outer feathers are constructed in a way

that refracts light like myriad prisms, making the bird appear to shimmer. The eponymous

coloring of the Lilac-breasted Roller results from a different kind of structural

color, created when woven microstructures in the feathers, called barbs and barbules,

reflect only the shorter wavelengths of light like blue and violet.

The primary colors that lend their name to the Red-and-yellow Barbet are

derived from a class of pigments called carotenoids that the bird absorbs in its diet.

These are the same compounds that turn flamingos’ feathers pink. As a member of

the family Musophagidae, the Hartlaub’s Turaco displays pigmentation unique in the

bird world. Birds have no green pigmentation; in most cases, verdant plumage is a

combination of yellow carotenoids and blue structural color. Turacos are an exception,

displaying a green, copper-based pigment called turacoverdin that they absorb

in their herbivorous diet. The flash of red on the Hartlaub’s underwings comes from

turacin, another copper-based pigment unique to the family.

 

Kim also boned up on her subjects’ mating rituals, dietary habits, song styles, and male/female differences prior to inscribing the 270 life-size, lifelike birds onto the lab’s largest wall.

She examined specimens from the center's collection and reviewed centuries’ worth of field observations.

(The seventeenth-century English naturalist John Ray dismissed the hornbill family as having a “foul look,” a colonialism that ruffled Kim’s own feathers somewhat. In retaliation, she dubbed the Great Hornbill, “the Cyrano of the Jungle” owing to his “tequila-sunrise-hued facial phallus,” and selected him as the cover boy for her book about the mural.)

Research and preliminary sketching consumed an entire year, after which it took 17 months to inscribe 270 life-size creatures—some long extinct—onto the lab’s main wall. The birds are set against a greyscale map of the world, and while many are depicted in flight, every one save the Wandering Albatross has a foot touching its continent of origin.

Those who can’t visit the Wall of Birds (official title: From So Simple a Beginning) in person, can log some digital birdwatching using a spectacular interactive web-based version of the mural that provides plenty of information about each specimen, some of it literary. (The aforementioned Albatross’ entry contains a passing reference to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.)

Explore the Wall of Birds’ interactive features here.

You can download a free chapter of The Wall of Birds: One Planet, 243 Families, 375 Million Years by subscribing to Kim’s mailing list here.

Via Hyperallergic

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City February 11 for Theater of the Apes book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Strange Dancing Plague of 1518: When Hundreds of People in France Could Not Stop Dancing for Months

If you find yourself thinking you aren’t a victim of fashion, maybe take another look. Yes, we can consciously train ourselves to resist trends through force of habit. We can declare our preferences and stand on principle. But we aren't consciously aware of what's happening in the hidden turnings of our brains. Maybe what we call the unconscious has more control over us than we would like to think.

Inexplicable episodes of mass obsession and compulsion serve as disquieting examples. Mass panics and delusions tend to occur, argues author John Waller, “in people who are under extreme psychological distress, and who believe in the possibility of spirit possession. All of these conditions were satisfied in Strasbourg in 1518,” the year the Dancing Plague came to the town in Alsace—an involuntary communal dance festival with deadly outcomes.

The event began with one person, as you’ll learn in the almost jaunty animated BBC video below, a woman known as Frau Troffea. One day she began dancing in the street. People came out of their houses and gawked, laughed, and clapped. Then she didn’t stop. She “continued to dance, without resting, morning, afternoon, and night for six whole days.” Then her neighbors joined in. Within a month, 400 people were “dancing relentlessly without music or song.”




We might expect that town leaders in this late-Medieval period would have declared it a mass possession event and commenced with exorcisms or witch burnings. Instead, it was said to be a natural phenomenon. Drawing on humoral theory, “local physicians blamed it on ‘hot blood,’” History.com’s Evan Andrews writes. They “suggested the afflicted simply gyrate the fever away. A stage was constructed and professional dancers were brought in. The town even hired a band to provide backing music.”

Soon, however, bloody and exhausted, people began dying from strokes and heart attacks. The dancing went on for months. It was not a fad. No one was enjoying themselves. On the contrary, Waller writes, “contemporaries were certain that the afflicted did not want to dance and the dancers themselves, when they could, expressed their misery and need for help.” This contradicts suggestions they were willing members of a cult, and paints an even darker picture of the event.

Certain psychonauts might see in the 1518 Dancing Plague a shared unconscious, working something out while dragging the poor Strasbourgians along behind it. Other, more or less plausible explanations have included ergotism, or poisoning “from a psychotropic mould that grows on stalks of rye." However, Waller points out, ergot “typically cuts off blood supply to the extremities making coordinated movement very difficult.”

He suggests the dancing mania came about through the meeting of two prior conditions: “The city’s poor were suffering from severe famine and disease,” and many people in the region believed they could obtain good health by dancing before a statue of Saint Vitus. They also believed, he writes, that “St. Vitus… had the power to take over their minds and inflict a terrible, compulsive dance. Once these highly vulnerable people began to anticipate the St. Vitus curse they increased the likelihood that they’d enter the trance state.”

The mystery cannot be definitively solved, but it does seem that what Waller calls “fervent supernaturalism” played a key role, as it has in many mass hysterias, including “ten such contagions which had broken out along the Rhine and Moselle rivers since 1374,” as the Public Domain Review notes. Further up, see a 1642 engraving based on a 1564 drawing by Peter Breughel of another dancing epidemic which occurred that year in Molenbeek. The 17th century German engraving above of a dancing epidemic in a churchyard features a man holding a severed arm.

We see mass panics and delusions around the world, for reasons that are rarely clear to scholars, psychiatrists, historians, anthropologists, and physicians during or after the fact. What is medically known as Saint Vitus dance, or Sydenham’s Chorea, has recognized physical causes like rheumatic fever and occurs in a specific subset of the population. The historical Saint Vitus Dance, or Dancing Plague, however, affected people indiscriminately and seems to have been a phenomenon of mass suggestion, like many other social-psychological events around the world.

Episodes of epidemic manias related to outmoded supernatural beliefs can seem especially bizarre, but the mass psychology of 21st century western culture includes many episodes of social contagion and compulsion no less strange, and perhaps no less widespread or deadly, especially during times of extreme stress.

via Public Domain Review

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

Isaac Asimov Predicts in 1983 What the World Will Look Like in 2019: Computerization, Global Co-operation, Leisure Time & Moon Mining

Painting of Asimov on his throne by Rowena Morill, via Wikimedia Commons

“It’s difficult to make predictions,” they say, “especially about the future.” The witticism has been variously attributed. If Yogi Berra said it, it's adorable nonsense, if Mark Twain, dry plainspoken irony. If Niels Bohr, however, we have a statement that makes us wonder what exactly “the future” could mean in a radically uncertain universe.

If scientists can’t predict the future, who can? Science fiction writers, of course. They may be spectacularly wrong at times, but few professionals seem better equipped to imaginatively extrapolate from current conditions—cultural, technological, social, and political—and show us things to come. J.G. Ballard, Octavia Butler, Arthur C. Clarke, Kurt Vonnegut… all have foreseen many of the marvels and dystopian nightmares that have arrived since their time.




In 1964, Asimov used the occasion of the New York World’s Fair to offer his vision of fifty years hence. “What will the World’s Fair of 2014 be like?” he asked in The New York Times, the question itself containing an erroneous assumption about the durability of that event. As a scientist himself, his ideas are both technologically farseeing and conservative, containing advances we can imagine not far off in our future, and some that may seem quaint now, though reasonable by the standards of the time (“fission-power plants… supplying well over half the power needs of humanity”).

Nineteen years later, Asimov ventured again to predict the future—this time of 2019 for The Star. Assuming the world has not been destroyed by nuclear war, he sees every facet of human society transformed by computerization. This will, as in the Industrial Revolution, lead to massive job losses in “clerical and assembly-line jobs” as such fields are automated. “This means that a vast change in the nature of education must take place, and entire populations must be made ‘computer-literate’ and must be taught to deal with a ‘high-tech’ world,” he writes.

The transition to a computerized world will be difficult, he grants, but we should have things pretty much wrapped up by now.

By the year 2019, however, we should find that the transition is about over. Those who can be retrained and re-educated will have been: those who can’t be will have been put to work at something useful, or where ruling groups are less wise, will have been supported by some sort of grudging welfare arrangement.

In any case, the generation of the transition will be dying out, and there will be a new generation growing up who will have been educated into the new world. It is quite likely that society, then, will have entered a phase that may be more or less permanently improved over the situation as it now exists for a variety of reasons.

Asimov foresees the climate crisis, though he doesn’t phrase it that way. “The consequences of human irresponsibility in terms of waste and pollution will become more apparent and unbearable with time and again, attempts to deal with this will become more strenuous.” A “world effort” must be applied, necessitating “increasing co-operation among nations and among groups within nations” out of a “cold-blooded realization that anything less than that will mean destruction for all.”

He is confident, however, in such “negative advances” as the “defeat of overpopulation, pollution and militarism." These will be accompanied by “positive advances” like improvements in education, such that “education will become fun because it will bubble up from within and not be forced in from without.” Likewise, technology will enable increased quality of life for many.

more and more human beings will find themselves living a life rich in leisure.

This does not mean leisure to do nothing, but leisure to do something one wants to do; to be free to engage in scientific research. in literature and the arts, to pursue out-of-the-way interests and fascinating hobbies of all kinds.

If this seems “impossibly optimistic,” he writes, just wait until you hear his thoughts on space colonization and moon mining.

The Asimov of 1983 sounds as confident in his predictions as the Asimov of 1964, though he imagines a very different world each time. His future scenarios tell us as much or more about the time in which he wrote as they do about the time in which we live. Read his full essay at The Star and be the judge of how accurate his predictions are, and how likely any of his optimistic solutions for our seemingly intractable problems might be in the coming year.

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

NASA Creates Movie Parody Posters for Its Expedition Flights: Download Parodies of Metropolis, The Matrix, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and More

For just over eighteen years now, NASA has been conducting expeditions to the International Space Station. Each of these missions has not just a name, or at least a number (last week saw the launch of Expedition 58), but an official poster with a group photo of the crew. "These posters were used to advertise expeditions and were also hung in NASA facilities and other government organizations," says Bored Panda. "However, when astronauts got bored of the standard group photos they decided to spice things up a bit."

And "what's a better way to do that other than throwing in some pop culture references?" As anyone who has ever worked with scientists knows, a fair few of them have somehow made themselves into living compendia of knowledge of not just their field but their favorite books, movies, and television shows — not always, but very often, books, movies, and television shows science-fictional in nature.




The prime example, it hardly bears mentioning, would be Star Trek, but the well of fandom at NASA runs much deeper than that.

You'll get a sense of how far that well goes if you have a look through the Expedition poster archive at NASA's web site. There you'll find not just pop culture references but elaborately designed tributes — downloadable in high resolution — to the likes of not just Star Trek but Star WarsThe MatrixThe Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (the sole possible theme, Douglas Adams fans will agree, for Expedition 42), and even Fritz Lang's Metropolis, which first gave dystopian sci-fi its visual form in 1927 (and which you can watch here). Albums are also fair game, as evidenced by the Abbey Road poster for Expedition 26.

Bored Panda calls these posters "hilariously awkward," but opinions do vary: "I love them," writes Boing Boing's Rusty Blazenhoff. "I think they're fun and creative." And whatever you think of the concepts, can you fail to be impressed by the sheer attention to detail that has clearly gone into replicating the source images? It's all more or less in line with the formidable graphic design skill at NASA, previously featured here on Open Culture, that has gone into its posters celebrating space travel and the 40th anniversary of the Voyager missions.

Going through the Expedition poster archive, I notice that none seems yet to have paid tribute to Andrei Tarkovsky's Solarissurely one of the most powerful pieces of outer space-related cinema ever made. Granted, that film has much less to do with teamwork and camaraderie than the intense psychological isolation of the individual, which would make it tricky indeed to recreate any of its memorable images as proud group photos. But if NASA's poster designers can't take on that mission, nobody can.

via Boing Boing

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, 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.

Jazz Musician Plays Acoustic Guitar While Undergoing Brain Surgery, Helping Doctors Monitor Their Progress

Unlike many colorful expressions in English whose origins are lost to us, the comparison of majorly consequential tasks to brain surgery makes perfect sense. One false move or miscalculation can result in instant death. The chances of irreversible, life-altering damage are high, should a scalpel slip or a surgeon mistake healthy brain tissue for diseased. This can happen more readily than we might like to think. “It can be very difficult to tell the difference between the tumor and normal brain tissue,” admits Dr. Basil Enicker, a specialist neurosurgeon at Inkosi Albert Luthuli Central Hospital in South Africa.

An operation Enicker led makes the procedure seem like just as much an art as a science. During an “awake craniotomy,” the surgeon and his team removed a tumor from the brain of Musa Manzini, a South African jazz bassist.




To help them monitor the operation as they went, they had him strum an acoustic guitar in the OR. “Presumably, had he hit a wrong note,” writes Kimon de Greef at The New York Times, “it would have been an immediate signal for the surgeons to probe elsewhere.” He also carried on an extended conversation with one of the surgeons, as you can see in the video above.

Such procedures are not at all unusual. In a similar case at the University of Texas’ MD Anderson Cancer Center, young musician Robert Alvarez strummed his guitar while surgeons removed a tumor near his speech and movement centers. In 2014, de Greef reports, “a tenor in the Dutch National Opera, Ambroz Bajec-Lapajne, sang Schubert’s ‘Gute Nacht’ as doctors removed a tumor. In 2015, the saxophonist Carlos Aguilera read music and performed during an operation in Spain.” That same year, a Brazilian man played the Beatles while he underwent brain surgery.

Not all of them are musical, but awake craniotomies are so common that Manzini “watched quite a lot of YouTube videos,” he says, “to prepare myself mentally.” As for the shock of being conscious while surgeons poke around in your most precious of bodily organs, millimeters from possible paralysis, etc., well... it’s certainly more comfortable now than in some of the earliest brain surgeries we have on fossil record—some 8,000 years ago. One wonders how Neolithic patients passed their time under the knife.

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

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