Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Women in Science: Tell Me About It

Today is Blog About Women in Science and Technology Day!
Of course, I must start with the movies.

I. Pet Onscreen-Sexism Peeve #138:

Two humans, an adult female and male, encounter some horrific thing from another planet, which no human has ever seen before.

The trembling woman clings to the man and asks,
"What IS is, Biff?"

And then--this kills me--he answers in a manly tone:
"Why, Poopsey, it's some horrific alien thing no human has ever seen before!"

[Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), here. * Still, I've got to hand it to this excellent movie: by the end, the man is just as powerless and freaked out as the woman. Bubbling, slimy pods that take over your body can strip even the most broad-shouldered men of their pomposity.]

Maybe having seen too many movies in which self-assured men explain the obvious to jelly-brained women explains my special fondness for and gratitude toward women who explain science to me.

'Cause, OK, I am an idiot when it comes to the hard sciences, but not all of us are, and thankgod we don't have to stuff our brains into high heels anymore. (Usually.)

II. Physics in a Potato Sack

So, here's a little tip o' the keyboard to Dr. Prisca Cushman--the professor of a college class I took fifteen years ago:
Physics for Otherwise Perfectly Intelligent People Who Can't Remember How to Multiply Fractions No Matter How Many Times We Explain It To Them (We Mean You, Fresca), 101.

Here is Prica's youTube, Dark Matter Music: "Model of the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search which translates actual data into sound and light. We have not yet had a dark matter interaction, but we have lots of particles hitting the detectors and that is what you are watching."

(Speaking of movies, it plays the doorbell tune from Close Encounters. She explains on in the comments that was a joke.)

Early on in class, Cushman explained that math is the language of physics, and that trying to talk about physics without reference to math is like running in a potato sack.

Obvious to many, no doubt, but it goes to show how much of a nonstarter in science I am that this had never occurred to me.
I felt so much better!
I already knew that while I can see the shimmering outlines of math, like Oz in the distance, it does not lie in my brain's power to take me into that city. But I can enjoy frolicking in the ideas that grow in the fields around the city, and that's what Dr Cushman, bless her, offered us.

Further, I could see that the ideas of science are not unrelated to other things humans think about.
I was studying Theology at the time and the way Prisca talked about Physics made me see that it partakes in a related effort:
trying to work with the ineffable by describing its effects, which requires a specialized vocabulary. With a good enough language, even without a Grand Unified Theory of Everything, you can still build a bridge.

Take gravity--or love--for instance. Nobody knows what it "is," but we can work with it well enough to get to the moon.**

Science and religion are not the same, of course, but they're like cousins. Trying to understand Infinity is like trying to understand God--both will grab handfuls of your consciousness and splatter it in nano-pieces across the universe.

So we back off and try to limn the mystery in numbers or words or images so we can work with it. So we can build higher and love deeper and mix a better blue.
Cushman's physics class helped me see that some of us are better at one area, some at another. And if we try, we--boys and girls (and aliens?)--can meet at the edge of our fields talk across the fence.

III. Cocktail Party Physics

Some amazing people, like Jennifer Ouellette (links to TypePad Books podcast) can even explain to us the science of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.

I would like to quickly sing the praises of Ouellette, author of The Physics of the Buffyverse, and the other women who blog in the most amusing and informative way possible about science at Cocktail Party Physics.
Their one-line bio reads: "Serving up science and culture with a splash of wit."

Their sidebar even includes recipes for cocktails, including "Quantum Theory: Guaranteed to collapse your wave function."
Hm. No Romulan Ale though.

I singled out Ouellette because when I first started reading, it was her blog alone, but now it includes all these women who exclaim in chorus:
"It's some horrific alien no one has ever seen before...
Let's go look at it!"

Here's the rest of the cast and some of their published work:
*M. G. Lord: Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll and Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science
*Diandra Leslie-Pelecky: The Physics of NASCAR: How to Make Steel + Gas + Rubber = Speed
*Allyson Beatrice: Will the Vampire People Please Leave the Lobby? (True Adventures in Cult Fandom)
*Lee Kottner: Maelstrom House Books

Thank you, all!
Now, how do you multiply fractions again?
* Screencap of Invasion of the Body Snatchers from here.

** Love taking you to the moon?
I'm thinking of Cyrano de Bergerac, left.

And here is the lovely 1925 silent film clip of Cyrano To the Moon, illustrating 6 ways of going there.
Cyrano spins them out to distract the count from stopping the wedding of Roxanne, the woman Cyrano loves, to another man.

Nothing to do with women in science.
Everything to do with the meeting of science and art. With panache.


ArtSparker said...

More liminal than limning.

momo said...

Great ADA LOVELACE DAY post! and great post, period. I'm off to do my duty and make my own contribution. I just realized, as well, that I never had a woman science or math teacher after 6th grade. *sadface*

Anonymous said...

Look, i haven't even finished REALLY reading all of this post of urs--I'm doing my usual para-reading of a Fresca post--(as Vlad G.'d prob'ly call what I tend to do when I know I SHOULD be doin' other stuff, but I just haveta see what's in ur heart/mind that ur sharing at some given moment)--and i just haveta say I nominate YOU for a Nobel or, rather, for an AUTHENTIC peace prize for astounding contributions to our understandings and our questionings of ourselves and every other thing we do or do not know about that is or is not out there. Haven't been comenting lately cuz I'm really not into cyber stuff...but I still readja. Hope this makes up a wee bit for my cybersilence.

Love and Wonderment!

Margaret said...

Great point about the collision of science with other fields! I love it when one is recognizable in another.

And the bit about God and Gravity and Love: the gives me that suspicious awe that I felt when you compared the H-bomb, the male reproductive system, the British Library and the Enterprise. Talk about circles!

Annika said...

I'm taking the opportunity to say thank you for the Envelope Full of Win that landed on my doormat on Monday! Am working on a more exhaustive thank you note, but: it arrived, and it made me very happy.

I like your observation that theology and science both demand a specialized language, etc. It's an interesting area, comparing the two, but risky. Coming to Zen practice after years of physics studies I often find parallell concepts, but they're more often than not misunderstood by Zen masters who claim that Buddhism is "scientific". But religion and science, on the whole, have more in common than many non-religious people want to think.

Fresca said...

SPARKY: Through the mirror, eh?

MOMO: It was a treat to have a woman science prof--she was about my age too (me being a "returning student").

STEF: Thanks! Always nice to see you. Never any pressure to comment!

MARGARET: Spins me round!

ANNIKA: I'm glad my envelope has winged its way to your continent and brought happiness.
I love to think of that physical journey--sooooo much slower than this e-trip, but so satisfying.

Yeah: I have found lots of people speak too blithely of how science is "just like" religion.... or how "all religions are the same," too.

That's sort of like the argument that since we're all made of atoms we're all the same person. Not a very workable proposition!