a lab of their own

FrazzledJen-Luc2 Well after Groundhog Day, the cocktail party's founder, long in absentia, emerges from under her nice shady rock, rubs her eyes and blinks in the bright sunshine, and demands a mint julep for her trouble. Okay, a mojito or pisco sour will do just as well. I just need a bracing pick-me-up after being deluged for weeks on end, with no time for blogging (although I have been hoisting the bloggy banner, still, over at Twisted Physics). My fellow bloggers have been equally under the gun; if it weren't for the intrepid Lee, we might have gone dark completely the last few months!

Sure, the new job is uber-demanding, but the Spousal Unit and I decided things weren't insane enough with his-and-hers book-writin', his ongoing physics research, and my matchmaking between Hollywood and science, and thereby embarked on a home-buying adventure. In the current economic climate, such a path is fraught with anxiety-inducing peril. Yet we have emerged victorious and are moving into our new townhouse in Echo Park this Friday. And I have a new assistant starting on Monday to relieve some of the administrative pressures of the Science and Entertainment Exchange. (Jen-Luc Piquant has been AWOL shooting her own cyber-movie but she assures me she'll be moving into post-production next week, so everyone will be back on board!)

There are umpteen topics for future blog posts in the works; my fodder file runneth over. But I had to re-emerge from my unplanned blogospheric exile to celebrate Ada Lovelace Day. For those not "in the know," Ada (as I prefer to think of her) was known in her day as "the enchantress of numbers," and helped inventor Charles Babbage refine his designs for his thinking machines — precursors to our modern computers, way back in the 19th century.

Babbage was pretty eccentric — a typical inventor — and people tended to love or hate him. He was an ugly, toad-like man, according to contemporary accounts. Indeed, the poet Thomas Carlyle (one of the loathers) described him as "a cross between a frog and viper." Charles Darwin, however, was a fan. And so was young Ada Lovelace, who counted among the rare few to fully grasp the significance of Babbage's "thinking machines" while others were ridiculing the single-minded little man for his obsession.Ada_Lovelace

Ada was a rare creature for her day; women just weren't encouraged to study math or the sciences; it was just too, too unfeminine, don't you know, and really dashed a girl's marriage prospects in the bargain. No sane man wanted a brainiac for a wife in Victorian England. But Ada had a few things going for her: first, she had a privileged position in society, being the daughter of the famed Romantic poet Lord Byron and a well-born mother.

However, she never actually knew her father; her mother's family saw to that. They didn't want the nefarious Byron wanton-ness rubbing off on the young girl. That's the second reason she had an advantage: to counter the perceived "wilder" aspects of her character inherited from the dissolute poet, young Ada was actually encouraged to study math and science. Those subjects were believed to have a tempering effect on "Romantic excesses."

Finally, she had a strong role model in Mary Somerville, the so-called "Queen of Science," her overcame her own family's objections to become a great populizer of scientific treatises by LaPlace ad Newton, for example. Somerville was one of the first women to be elected to the Royal Astronomical Society (the other was Caroline Herschel, sister to famed astronomer William Herschel), and took young Ada under her wing.

For all her accomplishments, however, Somerville still had very traditional ideas. She encouraged Ada to work at sewing, not just sums, insisting that "a mathematician can do other things besides studying x's and y's." (True enough, but it's telling that Somerville didn't encourage Ada to, say, become a detective, or a ship's captain, or even a lowly actuary — roles traditionally reserved for men.) Ada, in contrast, embraced her literary lineage and called herself a "poetical scientist," one who united reason with imagination. She dreamed of developing a "calculus of the nervous system", demonstrating mathematically "how the brain gives rise to thought, and nerves give rise to feelings." She fell short of that vsionary goal, but that's why she found Babbage's work so compelling.

In the end, alas, poor Ada did prove to have inherited some fraction of the Byron wildness. Benjamin Woolley's excellent biography, The Bride of Science, poignantly recounts the more tragic aspects of Ada's life, including ill-fated love affairs and near-elopement. By 1851, she'd figured out that her math skills could be useful in betting on horses, devising an elaborate gambling scheme that proved disastrous; she lost a great deal of money on those ponies. And she died in her thirties of ovarian cancer. She certainly deserves some measure of honor in the historical pantheon of women in math and science.

But Ada Lovelace Day isn't just about honoring Ada herself. The idea is also to honor other women scientists and mathematicians who bucked social pressures to follow their bliss. There are any number of good candidates to choose from — hell, every woman physicist I know is a candidate, including co-blogger Diandra — but upon reflection, I'd like to take this opportunity to honor Shirley Jackson, currently president of Rensselaer Institute of Technology in Troy, NY, right next to Albany. She has the distinction of being the first black woman to earn a PhD in physics from MIT, back in 1973 — just one of a lifetime of "firsts." I wrote a profile of Jackson back in 2000 for Industrial Physicist magazine, and traveled up to RPI for an in-person interview. I've never forgotten it; Jackson was that extraordinary.

The daughter of a postal supervisor and a social worker, Jackson inherited her father's acumen in math, and both parents fostered her innate curiosity. She designed her own scientific experiments in the family's backyard as a child — all of Nature was her laboratory. She conducted nutritional experiments on mice (her father built the cages for the little creatures) and kept honeybees under the family porch, adjusting their habitats, diets and exposure to light and logging in her observations in a journal. She has compared experimentation to "a good mystery novel, a tangible unfolding narrative of what [makes] Nature tick…. And best of all, I was at the controls… changing the plot and scenery according to the directions of my own interests."

Jackson proved to be a stellar student, one of only two black women admitted to MIT in 1964. If you just charted her rise by perusing her resume, she moved easily from success to success: a PhD in elementary particle physics, postdocs at Fermilab and SLAC, then a switch to condensed matter physics and a few years at Bell Labs studying the behavior of electrons on the surface of liquid helium films.

From there, she branched out into public service — "I'd always been raised to believe that if one had talent and opportunity, one should not be striving strictly for oneself," she told me — chairing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. But she missed interacting with students, and accepted the presidency of RPI, where she has reigned with grace and aplomb for nearly a decade. (In fact, she just voluntarily took a 5% pay cut, donating the savings to a student scholarship fund to cope with the current nasty economic environment. AIG scumbags, take notice!)

However, "It hasn't always been a smooth road for her, and people don't often see that aspect," MIT physicist Milly Dresselhaus told me back in 2000. Dresselhaus was Jackson's mentor at MIT back in the 1960s; even as a professor, there were plenty of male students who refused to take physics from a woman. Dresselhaus persevered, and so did Jackson, despite social isolation — nobody would be her study partner — verbal abuse, and even a vague reference to a "shooting incident."

Jackson was understandably reluctant to dwell too much on the pain and injustices of the past in our interview, and I hated having to even ask such questions — basically amounting to, "So, um, what's it like to be black, and a woman, at MIT in the 1960s?" (Answer: not a hell of a lot of fun!) In a fair and just world, this would simply not be relevant; but we do not live in a fair and just world. So I asked those questions — awkward, embarrassed, stymied by white liberal guilt, and resenting the questions on her behalf — and Jackson graciously answered, choosing her words carefully, gently setting the neophyte science writer straight on a few things about life as the ultimate "Other" in physics.

Honestly, I was impressed by her lack of bitterness. It had to have been lonely, not to mention discouraging. One of her professors actually advised her that "colored girls should learn a trade." Jackson didn't take that advice, but she did acquire some measure of perspective by volunteering (in her copious spare time — not!) at Boston City Hospital's pediatrics unit, to better "understand what real trouble is." And she kept at her studies, because "If I give up, what have I done but allow the other guy to win?"

One of my favorite anecdotes was one she told to illustrate why it's important not to be too easily offended. Sometimes what seems like overt racism/sexism is simply poor social skills or awkward phrasing (we all suffer sometimes from foot-in-mouth syndrome). Case in point: she applied for a summer job at MIT in a physics lab as an undergraduate. She didn't have any specific lab experience, but the professor asked, "Well, can you cook?" When she said yes, he told her she was hired. Jackson, confused, replied, "To do what?" It was not, as it happens, to whip up some tasty grits for his breakfast each morning; rather, the professor assumed that if she could cook, she had the practical skills necessary to learn her way easily around the lab.

I also liked Jackson's take on affirmative action; at the time, it had become synonymous with meeting racial quotes regardless of merit, and many women and minorities disliked being tagged as someone with an unfair advantage. Of course, the whole point of affirmative action was to promote a more level playing field. Jackson certainly benefited from affirmative action (although it did not make her journey any easier from a socio-political standapoint). She prefers to talk about "affirmative outreach," a phrase that preserves the original altruistic intent of the policy while removing the stigma of favored treatment.

Some kind of policy was needed; women in math and science (especially hard sciences like physics) have historically been incredibly rare, and even 50 years ago, their percentages were in the low single digits. The numbers aren't as dire as they used to be. Back in 1975, for instance, lss than 8 percent of bachelor's degrees in physics went to women. By 2002, that number had risen to 22%. And the number of physics PhDs earned by women has climbed from less than 4% in 1975 to around 15% in 2002. (There are probably more current statistics available from the American Institute of Physics, which regularly tracks these demographics.)

The number of women physicists who are also black? You can probably count them on your fingers and toes. If they are more numerous today, it's because Shirley Jackson and other courageous women like her blazed a trail and gave young girls the role models they needed to believe they could succeed. Jackson always quotes her father to her students: "Aim for the stars so that you can reach the treetops." That is, if you don't aim high, you don't go very far. Aim high, my sisters. Be strong.

11 thoughts on “a lab of their own”

  1. Welcome back. We all know you’ve been doing important things.
    I enjoyed reading about Shirley Jackson. I knew her at Bell Labs, but never talked with her about her background (it was easier not to go to that meta-level).
    By the way, the NRC that she headed was the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, not the National Research Council.
    Millie Dresselhaus also belongs in your pantheon of pioneers, of course.

  2. Bob beat me to the point about what RPI actually stands for, so I’ll just mention that it’s actually right next to Watervliet. Rensselaer is right next to Albany, but RPI isn’t located in Rensselaer, which I’ve always thought was funny.

  3. My hat is off to Shirley Jackson, thanks for the bio. If I may presume, let me give a plug to one of my favorite women in mathematics, and in some ways I feel a true inheritor of Ada Lovelace’s program: Emmy Noether.

  4. Your article quite correctly points out that there are very few black women on the physics scene in the US.
    I am a Canadian who has attended many meetings of the APS and Biohysical Society in your country.
    My observation, based solely on attending these meetings in the US, is that there are also very few male black physicists in your country.
    Perhaps tradition is partly to blame for the evident disparities one sees in the numbers. Some races, such as the Hebrews, have a traditional attraction to physics. Aren’t we making a mountain out of a molehill?
    Peter Martel

  5. You have been missed. An uplifting post to return with, to which I add only two quanta of trivia. Ada Lovelace was immortalized in the name of the DoD high level computer language; do I recognise a ‘hat tip’ to our sister Virginia Woolf, though she might have felt the need for a lab of ‘one’s own’ and recognized that money (and a privileged upper middle class background)were really rather important too?

  6. marvin thalenberg md

    In my Rockland County, there is a great serene woman, now 94, who was sent north by her family in the early 30’s for a better education- Margaret Morgan Lawrence. At Cornell, she had to work as a maid because noone would rent her a room. At the Columbia Presbyterian medical school, where she was the second black woman, she was given a pediatric internship, but the nurses, in whose hall she had to live, would not give her a rom, and she went perforce to Harlem Hospital.She was a pioneer in community psychiatry. as well as pur family therapy therapist.In her 60’s, she went to the local psychiatric haspital for a consultation and was sent to the back door because it was assume she was a laundress.
    Her daughter, the beautiful Sarah Lawrence Lightfoot, has 2 name chairs, one at Harvard and one at Swarthmore, and has been a MacArthur Fellow. She wrote a book about her mother- Balm in Gilead- which is well worth reading.
    We have come a long way, but we have such a long way to go.Sarah’s brother,Charles, a professor of Law at Georgetown, now at Hawaii, is a son of privilege, psychiatrist mother, father chair of the sociology dept at Brooklyn College, grown up in a liberal and well off susburban enclave, with private schools- still found it necessary to write a book called “We Wont Go Back”

  7. There is a *working* Babbage engine at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA:
    whose website has more to say about Ada:
    Only 2 of these things exist in the world, and we’ll have this one at the Museum for a while yet (thin ~through 2009), then it goes to its owner Nathan Myrhvold (ex Microsoft CTO) who has kindly lent it to us for a while. Check the schedule:
    but usually @ 2PM every day the Museum is open to the public, there’s a lecture on this, and then someone cranks the machine, which is truly a sight to behold in operation.
    In some sense, this was the first major computer project in which after spending much effort and money, the product was never shipped.

  8. Shirley Jackson is the bomb!!! She was president of AAAS during most of my PhD tenure and I have great respect for her. Kudos for the mention on the blog!!
    Good luck with all the endeavors 🙂

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