Ada Lovelace Day!

This week, we celebrate Ada Lovelace Day! Hooray! This is the day all scientists look forward to, when we get to celebrate the mutual contributions of women and men to the body of knowledge that is Science. In labs and classrooms across the world, we scientists take a break from our experiments to toast the men and women who’ve come before us, and to thank them for fostering the environment of mutual respect and collaboration that has led to some of the most important discoveries of our time.

Wait. Sorry, I’ve been doing a lot of phenol-chloroform extractions today.

Ada Lovelace Day is actually the day when advocates take Wikipedia by storm to beef up the entries of neglected women scientists. Or, as they are better known: Scientists. The day takes its name from Augusta Ada Byron (yes, that Byron, the one who inspired Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley to write Frankenstein), Countess of Lovelace, who was the first person to write a computer program. More than that, Lovelace made the stunning creative leap in logic in 1843  that an analytical engine (a.k.a. computer) would be capable of composing musical scores.

But I think my favorite part of her story is that her mother apparently prescribed Mathematics as a way to stave off insanity, a strategy that would later be pursued by the logician Bertrand Russell, who has similarly been credited with laying the foundations for computers. Ada resisted this indoctrination, calling herself a “poetical scientist”.

Which gets me to my point: Ada Lovelace was not only a woman scientist, she was a creative thinker who rejected the notion of the scientist as a one dimensional character.

Collected Editions of Darwin's Origin of the Species span the wall.

Collected editions of Darwin’s Origin of the Species span the wall.

I recently had the pleasure of visiting the Huntington Library, outside of Los Angeles, where Daniel Lewis has created a striking exhibit called Beautiful Science: Ideas that Changed the World. I highly recommend it. The gardens are beautiful, and the exhibit is inspiring. It chronicles the growth of the scientific knowledge base through natural history, astronomy, medicine, and light by displaying primary documents and artefacts, including a collection of printed editions of Darwin’s The Origin of the Species that spans one wall.

Scientific illustrations of creatures real and imaginary.

Scientific illustrations of creatures real and imaginary.

What the exhibit captures well is the striving of these philosophers and scientists to understand the world around them, from collecting stories of imaginary and only partially glimpsed creatures to observing the minute detail of the flea through early microscopes. The astronomy room is particularly beautiful, with dark blue painted walls and an elaborate star scape enveloping the collected works of Aristotle, Galileo, and Einstein, allowing pinhole glimpses of the staggering insights that led them to push the boundaries of human understanding.

However, what the exhibit fails to capture is the nuance, context, and collaboration that lead these thinkers to their conclusions. Exhibit A: A distinct lack of Rosalind Franklin.

A distinct lack of Rosalind Franklin.

A distinct lack of Rosalind Franklin.

Much better.

Much better.

As you know, Watson and Crick used her pic of DNA to build their model of the double helix and then completely failed to credit her with the insight. Her early death from cancer precluded her from consideration for the Nobel prize. Together, these events have supported a narrative of the discovery of the structure of DNA as being solely the intellectual achievement of Watson and Crick. Although Crick subsequently acknowledged her contribution, the damage was done. This is the power of narrative in Science.

The stories that we tell about the history and culture of Science matter. To see this, all you have to do is listen in on any conversation between young women and minority scientists and their more senior female mentors. You’ll hear questions about how to deal with the work-life balance, how to navigate family planning and the tenure tract, how they’ve handled being a woman in a predominantly male profession.  At this point, the whole conversation intersects with the one going on more broadly today regarding women in the workplace. However, for scientists, there is another layer to this conversation.

Most conversations centering around the challenges faced by women and minorities in science are pushing against a limited narrative of Science- One in which, in fact, the Scientist is Dr. Frankenstein: white, male, obsessed with a single goal to the exclusion of morality and the consequences of his actions and working alone, or perhaps with the help of a hapless Igor. (I won’t go so far as to accuse Shelley of writing one dimensional characters. Rather, Dr. Frankenstein has himself been reduced to a stereotype by modern portrayals.) However, the deeper truth is that both men and women scientists suffer in the Dr. Frankenstein narrative.

There’s no question that young women scientists need more female role models. Ada Lovelace Day seeks to address this by highlighting the contributions of women to science, both in the past and today. But young women scientists also need male role models. And young men scientists need both male and female role models. Because the questions we should be asking of our mentors shouldn’t be limited to work-life balance. They should be about how to identify and challenge paradigms, how to bring fresh perspective to an intractable problem, how to make insights that are supported by observation. In short, how to be “poetical scientists”.

For me, the answer to these questions has always been to find another way of looking at the problem. This generally involves talking to people with different experiences, different narratives; the more different, the better. But, at their most creative, those conversations can only occur when mutual respect and collaboration are central, authentic tenants of the community. One in which we fully engage with notions of trust, support, and giving credit where it’s due. Hey, what if my phenol-fulled dream of Ada Lovelace Day isn’t so crazy? This is the kind of community we should be striving for, and demand of, our scientific institutions.




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