Tag Archive: women writers

Aug 13 2017

Book review: The Comet Sweeper by Claire Brock

thecometsweeperA return to women in science in this post where I review The Comet Sweeper: Caroline Herschel’s Astronomical Ambition by Claire Brock, a biography of a woman who discovered comets and nebulae and published a catalogue of astronomical objects in the later years of the 18th century. For scientists the name “Herschel” will not be unknown. Caroline Herschel’s brother William discovered Uranus, and was paid as an astronomer by King George III. Her nephew, John was also well known as a scientist. However, relatively little has been written about Caroline.

The Comet Sweeper is based substantially on the autobiographical writing of Herschel. However, she was sufficiently well-known at the time to be referenced elsewhere, and indeed later in her life was bestowed with various honours and medals for her astronomical work.

Herschel was born in Hanover in 1750, her father Isaac was a musician and very much a self-taught man – something he passed on to Caroline. Anna, her mother, gets a less than sympathetic treatment from her daughter and consequently this book. For her early years Anna treated Caroline as a servant, and stopped her education as soon as it appeared it would help her leave the Herschel household in Hanover. She was finally given a means of escape when her brother, William, invited her to Bath to work in music with him in 1771. She had no previous training in music and put herself assiduously to learning what she needed to know. William Herschel was earning up to £400 per year from music lessons and the like when he invited his sister to join him. It seems that Caroline became a significant musician in her own right, at least until her brother dragged her into astronomy.

This is something of a theme through the book, Caroline Herschel is clearly very capable and when given the opportunity can excel in whatever she turns her hand to. But the choices she has are limited. In the first instance her mother controls what she can do, then her brother – switching her from music to astronomy with little regard for her own wishes.

In astronomy Herschel started by assisting her brother in the workshop – at the time, to get the best telescope, you built them from scratch yourself. She supported him in his observations but she also carried out observations on her own. The “sweeping” of the title is the systematic scanning of the night sky with a telescope to identify static features such as stars and nebulae but more specifically to find comets. To a degree the discovery of nebulae was incidental to the main task of finding comets, nebulae were easily confused with comets so recording their locations was an essential part of finding comets. The Herschel’s work followed, but only by a few years, the publication of Charles Messier’s first catalogue of diffuse celestial objects in 1774.

As well as discovering comets and nebulae Herschel was also responsible for publishing Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars in 1798, which built on the earlier work of Flamsteed. Ultimately this became the New General Catalogue of stars. Amateur astronomers will know this work, Messier’s catalogue provides information on the 100 or so most prominent objects whose identifying numbers are prefixed with an M- beyond this are the NGC objects – from the New General Catalogue which is the descendant of Herschel and Flamsteed’s catalogue.

Herschel was honoured in her own lifetime with a gold medal from the Royal Astronomical Society, as well as honorary membership and medal from the King of Prussia, at the age of 96. She was the first woman to be published in Philosophical Transactions the journal of the Royal Society. These awards did come until quite late in her life although she was paid £50 per annum by King George III as an assistant to her brother. He was paid rather more, £200, but notably rather less than he earned as a musician.

I found the broader insight that The Comet Sweeper gave into the lives of Georgian women was interesting. Women did not have formal positions within the scientific community of the time but they contributed as wives, sisters, daughters. At the time there was little in the way of formal, paid, scientific community – it was very much a gentleman’s club but there was a place for women in it although not necessarily of equal status.

This was to change later in the 19th century when science became institutionalised, as a result women were excluded by, for example, not being able to receive degrees or even attend lectures at university.

The Comet Sweeper is not a long book, it is readable and casts an interesting light on women in science in Georgian England and the specific contributions of Caroline Herschel.

Jun 05 2017

Book review: Women in Science by Rachel Ignotofsky

women_in_scienceWomen in Science by Rachel Ignotofsky is a whistle-stop tour of 50 women in science mainly from the mid-19th century onwards. Each woman gets a double page spread, with a few paragraphs of text on one page and a cartoon drawing of them and some catchphrases on the other. As well as this there is a centrefold of lab equipment, a timeline and some very brief descriptions of 14 further women in science at the end. You can see more on the authors website, here.

Also included are some statistics on women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), I suspect the figures relate to the US but the picture would not be dramatically different in the UK. On the plus side the proportion of women in STEM has increased from 14% in 1970 to 41% in 2011 and it has been rising steadily. The proportion of engineers who are women rose from 3% in 1970 but has been on a plateau at 13% since 1990. In computer work the proportion of women peaked in 1990 and has been dropping since then, it now stands at 27%.

Why is this important? Historically women have been treated as second class citizens. It wasn’t that they tried to do the things that men did traditionally, and failed. They were very actively prevented from studying in their chosen fields. They weren’t allowed into science labs or science lectures. And if by some chance they did manage to train themselves, there were no jobs or facilities for them to continue their work because they were women. This is the legacy we are trying to overcome.

It isn’t a matter of deep history, women alive today will have been refused access to degree courses in their chosen subjects. Cambridge University, for example, only awarded the first full degree to a woman in 1946, which is the year my mother was born. The parents of men alive today would have kept those systems in place. Women only got the vote in the UK during the lifetime of my grandparents. After I was born my mother was denied an application form for an administrative job at a local garage because the owner felt that her place was at home with her young children. Since the 1970s the spirit of the welfare system in the UK has changed to one in which it is seen as best for both parents to work. And yet historically women have been denied access to many careers. This leaves a legacy because people tend to recruit other people like themselves. The aspirations of children and young people are shaped by the roles they see people like them undertaking.

This book provides a set of role models that show that women can be successful in science.

The 50 chosen women are from a range of sources, many of them are from the rather sparse roll-call of female Nobel Prize winners. Some of the names I recognised: Marie Curie, Jocelyn Bell-Burnell, Jane Goodall, Ada Lovelace, Katherine Johnson (through my very recent reading), Dorothy Hodgkin, Rachel Carson, Lise Meitner. Others I had never heard of, like Lillian Gilbreth who worked on psychology and industrial design. Or Patricia Bath, who founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness.

I’ve looked through the book with my son (aged 5), he seemed to like it – although his main questions on each page were “Where was she born?” and “Where did she go?”. Then again in a book on the history of art his questions were “Where’s Jesus?” and “Why are those people naked?”. I suspect it is better suited to children a little older than him.

Currently my son is binge watching “Horrible Histories”, a programme for children about history. It is a string of vignettes from history acted as adverts, as music videos, game shows or just plain acted. It is lively and educational. It strikes me that Women in Science would provide an excellent source for a sister programme.

I don’t think I am the intended audience for this book but it did remind me to put some more biographies of women in science on my reading list. I’m pleased to see there is a biography of Maria Sibylla Merian, 17th century illustrator and entomologist. Ada Lovelace and Mary Anning are also on my list.

Apr 08 2017

Book Review: Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

hidden_figuresHidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly tells the story of Africa American women who worked as “computers” at NASA and its predecessor NACA during and after the Second World War.

In a first, this means I am currently reading both fiction and non-fiction by African-American women. (I’m also reading The Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler)

The Hidden Figures worked initially in the West Area Computing Group at the NACA Langley Research Centre in Hampton, Virginia, which did reseach on aircraft and then rocket design. The Computing groups carried out calculations at the behest of engineers from around the Centre, this was at a time when calculation was manual or semi-manual compared to today. Over time they were co-opted directly into research groups, some of them to ultimately become engineers. The West Computing group was mirrored by the East Area Computing Group – comprised of white women.

There is some history for women acting as “computers”, and the necessity of World War II led to the government taking on Africa American women for the job, in face of historic segregation. For African American women this was a rare opportunity, until then the only recourse for African American woman with advanced training in maths was teaching. For a very few the Computing group ultimately acted as a stepping stone to working as an engineer.

Shetterly sees these women as a vanguard to the African Americans in the modern US who have every opportunity open to them. This jars a little to me when I see constant news from the US of, for example black people being more likely to be killed by the police, or a senior African American being brought together by the President with the policeman that aggressively interviewed him on his doorstep because the house looked too nice to belong to a black man. Or African Americans being purposefully disenfranchised.

The shocking thing to me, as a Brit, was the degree to which US society was absolutely, formally segregated on racial grounds. In Virginia, where this story is set, segregation was preserved by the Democratic Party (perhaps some explanation as to why African Americans are not necessarily whole-heartedly Democrats). In Prince Edward County, Virginia they went as far as shutting down all the public schools for 5 years in order that black and white children would not be educated together – white children were given grants to study at private schools. Britain may have been racist in the past, it may still be racist today but it never enshrined it so deeply and widely into law.

In response to this Africa Americans ran a parallel community, segregation didn’t end because the segregation laws were repealed. It ended because African Americans saw the end of those laws as a door ajar which needed a serious push to pass through. Thus when Rosa Parks sat on the bus, Katherine Goble (from this book) went to university and Ruby Bridges went to school they didn’t do so entirely alone. They had the support of their community and the organisation of the NAACP to help them. They had to be twice as good as a white person to get the same job. At the same time they also saw themselves as representatives of their race, and examples to their children.

When you look at a man the age of Donald Trump, 70, it’s worth bearing in mind that his teenage years were spent during the end of segregation by law and his parents were the white generation which fought so hard to keep it.

The focus of the book is mainly the personal lives, and ambitions of the women. There is some description of the work they, and the Research Centre did, but not in any great depth. The book highlights again the transformative effect of, particularly, the Second World War on society in the US. The seeds of theses changes could be seen after the First World War. This mirrors similar changes in society in the UK.

Once “computing” became the realm of high capital machinery the importance of women as computers waned, high capital machinery being the preserve of men. We see the consequences of this even now.

The book finishes with the part Katherine Johnson, in particular, played in John Glenn’s first trip into orbit and her subsequent work on the Apollo moon landing and Apollo 13 recovery. Shetterly emphasises the legacy of this group of women that normalised the idea that Africa American women could ultimately become engineers, scientists or any other sort of professional.

Interestingly my wife and I disagreed on the prominence of the men on the cover of the book (see above). She thought they were central and thus important, I thought they were small and thus unimportant. In the text the men are bit-part players, they are husbands and sons, or drift in and out of the narrative having spoken their line.

Feb 20 2017

Book review: Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil

weapons_of_math_destructionObviously for any UK anglophone the title of Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil is going to be a bit grating. The book is an account of how algorithms can ruin people’s lives. To a degree the “Big Data” in the subtitle is incidental.

Cathy O’Neil started her career as a mathematician before worked for the Shaw Hedge Fund as a quant before moving to Instant Media to work as a data scientist. It’s nice to know that I’m not the only person to have become a data scientist largely by writing “data scientist” on their CV! Nowadays she is an activist in the Occupy movement.

The book is the result of O’Neil’s revelation that algorithms were often used destructively, and are responsible for gross injustices. Algorithms in this case are models that determine how companies, and sometimes government, deal with their employees, customers and citizens; whether they are offered loans, adverts of a particular sort, employment, termination or a lengthy prison sentence.

The book starts with her experience at Shaw where she saw the subprime mortgage crisis from quite close up. In a nutshell: the subprime mortgage crisis happened because it was in the interests of most of the players in the industry for the stated risk of these mortgages to be minimised. The ratings agencies were paid by the aggregators of these mortgages to rate their risk, and the purchasers of these risk ratings had an interest in those ratings to be low – the ratings agencies duly obliged.

The book goes on to cover a number of other “Weapons of Math Destruction”, including models for recruitment, insurance, credit rating, scheduling (for work), politics and policing. So, for example, there are the predictive policing algorithms which will direct the police for particular parts of town in an effort to reduce serious crime but where the police will consequently record more anti-social behaviour which will lead the algorithm to send them there again because it turns out that serious crime is quite rare but anti-social behaviour isn’t (so there’s more data to draw on). And the police in a number of countries are following the “zero-tolerance” model which says if you address minor misdemeanours then more serious crimes are fixed automatically. The problem in the US with this approach is that the police are sent to black neighbourhoods repeatedly (rather than, say, college campuses) and the model is self-reinforcing.

O’Neil identifies several systematic problems which are typically of Weapons of Math Destruction. These are the use of proxies rather than “real outcomes”, the lack of feedback from outcomes to the model, the scale on which the model impacts people, the lack of fairness built into the model, the opacity of the models and the damage the models can do. The damage is extensive, these WMDs can lead to you being arrested, incarcerated for lengthy periods, denied a job, denied medical insurance, and offered loans at most extortionate rates to complete courses at rather low rate universities.

The book is focused almost entirely on the US, in fact the only mention of a place outside the US is of policing in the “city of Kent”. However, O’Neil does seem to rate the data and privacy legislation in Europe – where consumers should be told of the purposes to which data will be put when they supply it. Even in the States the law provides some limits on certain types of model (such as credit scoring) but these laws have not kept pace with new developments, nor are they necessarily easy to use. For example, if your credit score is wrong fixing it although legally mandated is not quick and easy.

Perhaps her most telling comment is that computers don’t understand fairness, and certainly don’t exhibit fairness if they are not asked to optimise for it. Which does lead to the question “How do you implement fairness?”. In some cases it is obvious: you shouldn’t make use of algorithms which explicitly take into account gender, race or disability. But it’s easy to inadvertently bring in these parameters by, for example, postcode being correlated with race. Or part-time working being correlated with gender or disability.

As a middle aged, middle class white man with a reasonably well-paid job, living in a nice part of town I am least likely to find myself on the wrong end of an algorithm and ironically the most likely to be writing such algorithms.

I found the book very thought-provoking, it will certainly lead me to ask me whether the algorithms and data that I am generating are fair and what the cost of any unfairness is.

Jul 07 2016

Book review: SPQR–A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard

A little diversion for me next: straightforward classical history. I’ve read spqrSPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard. SPQR Senātus Populusque Rōmānus  is the motto of the city, meaning “The Senate and People of Rome”, it has been used since antiquity and is still in use now.

The book starts with the story of Cicero and Catiline in 63 BCE, Cicero revealed Catiline’s plot to overthrow the Roman government. It is presented as the first events where there was significant documentary evidence from multiple sources. Proper history, if you like. Even then what survives should not necessarily be read as gospel truth. Rome prior to this was seen in fragments.

Beard returns to this theme of what the evidence is and how much we can trust it throughout the book. As I read through I discover that the earliest copies of Roman writings date from about 500 AD, anything written before then has been transcribed perhaps several times. Some of this writing sounds like it is in the form of what we would understand as contemporary books but other parts are the selected, edited letters of important people. In neither case are they published and promoted in the way we see modern publishing. In terms of contemporary texts, the inscriptions on tombs and monuments provide a second source of material. In earlier years these inscriptions were limited to the most important but in the first century CE there was a huge expansion of tomb inscriptions from what appear to be relatively ordinary people. There is some writing preserved in wall paintings and less formal graffiti in rare places, like Pompeii. There is some material from the Vindolanda tablets, found at Hadrian’s Wall. We also learn of the books that are lost from references and quotes in other extant works.

The book then returns to cover the history of Rome in chronological order. Starting with the founding myth of Romulus and Remus, purportedly raised by wolves. Subsequently Romulus killed Remus over an argument about where to found the city which was to become Rome. The founding story of Romulus and Remus and fratricide can be seen as a retrospective “justification” for the almost continuous civil war within the Roman Empire. Archaeological evidence shows settlements on the site of modern Rome from around 800BCE. A second theme of the myths of early Rome is the way in which the city grew by assimilating neighbours, you didn’t need to be born in the city to be a Roman, you didn’t even need to live there. The city welcomed incomers.

Rome ran through a sequence of political structures, starting with the Regal Period (of kings) which was replaced with the Roman Republic, where two elected consuls ruled, in 509 BCE. During this period trying to re-introduce a monarchy or calling yourself “king” was seen as anathema. The consuls were finally replaced with Emperors in 44 BCE after the Roman Empire had reached almost its greatest extent. It was experimenting with ways of being a state, in the sense that the prevailing organisations at the time were on a city basis rather than a country. We take the nation-state and its political and bureaucratic structures pretty much for granted these days, for example, we have courts and police forces and so forth. In the years of the Roman Empire these structures were not well-established, and much of SPQR describes Romans feeling their way in establishing political structures.

It’s easy to project the modern world onto the Roman Empire but really it is very different. 20% of the population were slaves, newborn children were fairly casually abandoned. There was no effective system of justice in terms of an established police force or a court system designed to address simple crimes of property or violence against the ordinary person. The great majority of the written record of Rome refers to “Great Men” but Beard writes a couple of chapters on what can be inferred about women and the poor. Strikingly the poor were more likely to “eat out” than the wealthy – they couldn’t afford kitchens of their own.

I pleased to learn that the Emperor Caligula was named for his “Bootikins”, he was taken on military campaigns as a child and dressed in a soldiers uniform with “little soldier’s boots” – caligula. And a Roman writing from Britain writes of the Brittunculi – the Little Britons. Rather relevant to current affairs is the tombstone of a British woman, Regina, born north of London whose husband, Barates from Palmyra in Syria, commissioned the monument, placed near South Shields in the first century CE.

The book ends in 212 CE when the Emperor Caracalla grants everyone in the Roman Empire citizenship. This falls approximately a 1000 years after the founding of Rome, the Roman Empire in the East was to last another millennium but Beard leaves this story to another writer.

At first sight this is an intimidating tome but it reads well, and clearly. It revealed sufficient of the underlying methodology of classical scholars to pique my interest.

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