Category Archives: STEM

Search for a #WomanAstro, Somerville, and a Death

The most widely received tweets I post on Twitter (@WomanAstronomer) are obviously about women astronomers, particularly historical. People want to know about them. They want to know who they were, what they accomplished, and why they mattered.

That’s a lot to know about someone, especially someone hidden by history. But science needs female role models.

The day before Christmas, I pulled up my WomanAstro calendar to see who to share on Twitter. Flora McBain Saddler (1912-2000), a googled name added to my list, previously shared, but not recently researched.

I wikied her. No Wikipedia entry. Always disappointing. I know most academics aren’t particularly fond of Wikipedia, but it’s an easy search for the public and the record should be complete.

Sadly, it isn’t.

It takes time and a good deal of searching sources to write about a woman astronomer – deciding validity, determining facts, finding an image, reading a lot, googling some more. Wikipedia is easy, and relatively reliable. It’s discouraging when I stumble across another WomanAstro who hasn’t been given her Wikidue.

I thought I would write about Flora here, put together a little bio. At least that’s how this blog started out.

Here’s the draft of the first paragraph:

Flora, a Scottish woman born of limited means – her father a cart pusher, her mother a maid – obtained a physics and mathematics degree in 1934 from the University of Aberdeen where she later worked as a researcher and lecturer. A solar eclipse trip to Siberia in 1936 ignited her interest in astronomy.

But as I was writing this happened:

Flora, a Scottish woman born (brothers, sisters?) of limited means – her father a cart pusher (name? had to look up “carter”), her mother a maid (name?) – obtained a physics and mathematics degree (why these subjects) in 1934 from the University of Aberdeen (archives?), where she worked as a researcher and lecturer (archives?). A solar eclipse trip to Siberia in 1936 lit her interest in astronomy (why did she go?).

There was still so much to learn about her. In one reference, Flora was described as “a thin quiet, unmarried woman who smoked a good deal. She was somewhere in her forties.” Her sudden marriage to Donald Sadler was also described as “a sensation.” Most intriguing. And no photograph of her to be found either.

That’s as far as I got. I saved Flora for another day. Christmas was coming, and I had spent too much time on research, so I didn’t tweet anything. I should have.

 

The day after Christmas, Mary Somerville (1780-1872) was born. Widely known, she does have a Wikipedia page. Easy tweet.

The summer 1998 issue of theWoman Astronomer newsletter also ran a feature story about her. I pulled out a copy.

Serendipity struck on the front cover. At the bottom of the page, an article on how to research “the elusive woman astronomer.” As I read the article, my Twitter feed began to rush by like a raging river. I put aside Somerville for another day.

 

Vera Rubin had died.

Such a sad day. Such a loss for science, for astronomy. Such a loss of a graceful mentor, smart scientist, role model, mother, all the people a woman can be. And, sadly, the loss of her due, a Nobel Prize.

Her loss was devastating.

I checked my files for Vera. No file. I knew somewhere in my vast collection of “To Be Filed” was an old letter from a student who had sent a copy of her report on Vera.

More serendipity. I found the March 1999 correspondence within seconds. In her letter, the student wrote:

rubin-vera-resume-scan-161228“Hello again! This is a copy of my final report on Vera Rubin. You can keep it – I am going to turn in the other copy on Monday. The assignment was to write a resume for a woman or minority scientist, following a certain format. We drew names, and I drew Vera Rubin. I actually enjoyed doing the research (for once) because I had never heard of her before and I do have an interest in astronomy.”

I wonder if this student knows Vera died. I wonder how much this report influenced her life choices. Is she an astronomer now? Was Vera the role model that set her life in a new direction? I should do some research. Another day.

Back on Twitter, the most endearing posts about Vera were personal. People shared their anecdotes of her, their pictures, and the ways she influenced their life. It was heartwarming to see how much she meant to her community, what she gave to science, and why she mattered.

Vera’s Wikipedia page updated the day she died. I have no doubt there will be plenty of research, articles, maybe a new book written about this remarkable astronomer.

In the meantime, Flora deserves her page in history, too.

Engaging Girls: From Science Fiction to Science Fact

Is the leaky pipeline of women in science an opportunity knocking? I think so. And I’d like to offer a suggestion on what these women can do instead of giving up on science and allowing their hard-earned educations to go to waste. Write science fiction for girls!

During a recent trip to my local library, I ambled over to the children’s section in search of science fiction that would appeal to 10-year old girls. I asked the pregnant librarian sitting behind the help desk for some authors’ names currently popular with kids. She stood up, confessing she didn’t know any that were specifically targeted at girls.

The helpful librarian then escorted me down the aisles of books, pointing out sci-fi selections. I suspect her suggestions were rendered more from the “Science Fiction” decal on the book spine than from specific knowledge of what kids actually liked. At the end of our stroll, she referred me to a pamphlet listing science fiction children’s books compiled by the local library system. For good measure, I also picked up the pamphlet for fantasy books. Once on my own, I searched for titles using the sci-fi pamphlet.

The path to my affection for the wonders of the night sky began on the steps of science fiction when I was a young Army brat living in Germany. Before I could read, before my family owned a black-and-white television, and well before I had any inkling of what was beyond my small world, I fell in love with space during Saturday morning matinees.

To be honest, I don’t remember a single movie. What I do remember are Flash Gordon episodes shown before the feature attraction. I distinctly recall watching the heroic Flash with his fair damsel companion Dale Arden by his side, the brilliant Dr. Zarkov, and the evil Emperor Ming. Their exploits enthralled my young mind. But what I remember most vividly is the rocket ship flying through the sky, with strange crackling noises and spitting fire. These now-silly images formed my first thoughts of the possibility of visiting another planet.

A year after we returned stateside, and with a television now in our house, I fell in love with the weekly adventures of the Robinson family in Lost In Space. The show also was a favorite of my girlfriend across the street and it didn’t take long before our play of choice was re-enacting Lost In Space episodes. To this day, I remember our game playing always began with deciding who would be Judy. She was the pretty one and, back in the 60s, that’s what mattered to young girls.

The science fiction book bug really didn’t bite until I was out of high school and living on my own. I joined the Science Fiction Book Club and remember reading my first sci-fi novel, Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. I was infected. I wanted to read more stories about other worlds and, more importantly, I wanted to write science fiction. I then began reading books on how to write the genre. The single most important lesson learned from the many how-to books I read stated that, and I paraphrase, “to write science fiction, you need to know science fact.” I took that statement to heart and began a new chapter in my life.

When I returned home from the library with my four selections of children’s science fiction, I took a closer look at the pamphlets. Actually, I did what anyone interested in science would do. I analyzed them. For the sci-fi pamphlet which offered 29 suggestions, 17 books had boys as the protagonist, eight had a boy/girl combination, and only four had a girl as the main character. The pamphlet of fantasy books offered a more balanced gender distribution, though some of the characters were creatures, not humans: 12 girls; 11 boys; and 5 girl/boy combinations.

So, what does this mean? It means that there is an opportunity just waiting to be answered by women who have leaked out of the mainstream of science. It is my hope they will answer the knock, open that door, and take this opportunity. Our girls need you! And, yes, I’m working on a science fiction novel for kids which, I hope, will engage at least one girl to want to know more about science facts.