Tag: women

Book review: Her Space, Her Time by Shohini Ghose

My next review is of Her Space, Her Time by Shohini Ghose. I picked this book up as a result of a review in New Scientist. It is in the spirit of Broad Band which covered the contributions of women to computing over the years – contributions which have historically been ignored. Her Space, Her Time does the same for women in physics, generally on the astrophysics and cosmology side of the subject.

The book is divided into seven chapters each covering an area of physics and a group of women who worked in those areas. The chapters cover star cataloguing (and rather more), the big bang, the space programme, radioactivity, nuclear fission, particle physics and dark matter/ beta decay. This results in a coverage which is approximately chronological.

There are some recurring themes in the book: women not allowed entry to universities for undergraduate and graduate studies, women not allowed employment in university departments and facilities (often the pretext is the lack of toilets for women), women not allowed employment at the same institution as their spouse (this seemed common in the US and its effect on the recruitment and promotion of women was noted as far back as 1966), being ignored by the Nobel Prize committee and (sometimes) their male collaborators. These women were frequently the only women in the room. Fleeing Nazi Germany (and Austria) is a theme too but that applies equally to men.

On a more positive note their work was often recognised and rewarded during their lifetimes by their scientific communities. In at least the case of Ernest Rutherford and Ernest Lawrence they had the support of senior scientists throughout their lives.

The Harvard Observatory features heavily in the first couple of chapters. Women originally became involved as “computers” analysing the stars in the photographic plates. They included Williamina Fleming, Annie Jump Cannon, Antonia Maury and Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin with Anna Draper providing funding to the observatory via a bequest in the late 19th century. In they first instance they were analysing stars for brightness and then later for spectral features. A group of women were responsible for compiling the “Harvard” stellar classification scheme which classifies stars by temperature using the letters O, B, A, F, G, K, M (typically remembered by a sexist mnemonic). One of the women, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, discovered the relationship between brightness and period for stars which is central to measuring intergalactic (and shorter distances) and was key to understanding the scale of the galaxy and the universe. Over a very long period Harvard Observatory allowed women to be employed as astronomers, and finally become professors in astronomy. The transitions usually being the result of a change in observatory or university management.

The third chapter is a bit of an oddity, looking at women’s contributions to the space programme on the project management and rocketry side of things rather than physics as such.

The final four chapters are then an extended collection on nuclear physics starting with Marie Skłodowska-Curie, and the less well known Harriet Brooks who worked on the new subject of radioactivity in the late 19th century. Brooks worked with Rutherford, publishing in 1904 in Nature on their discovery of radon. Rutherford and Frederick Soddy would earn the Nobel Prize for the transmutation of elements whilst Brooks was left out. Rutherford and Brooks clearly had a long personal relationship, ending in 1933 on her death at the age of 56. Brooks had left physics research in 1907 when she married Frank Pitcher.

Chapter 5 largely concerns Lise Meitner who was involved in the discovery of nuclear fission with Otto Hahn with whom she worked closely for many years. Hahn received the Nobel Prize for their work on nuclear fission, whilst she did not – this has been seen as one of the more egregious omissions of the Nobel Prize Committee – Meitner was nominated for a Nobel Prize 48 times and was widely recognised as an expert in her field. Her position was made more difficult because she was Jewish, worked in Austria and with Hahn who despite protestations was a Nazi sympathiser at the very least.

Chapter 6 concerns cosmic rays and the photographic detection thereof. It starts with Bibha Chowdhuri who is from Ghose’s home city of Kolkata and was later to discover cosmic ray muons using this method. The focus of the chapter though is Marietta Blau and her student Hertha Wambacher who developed the method of photographic detection of cosmic rays. The Meitner/Hahn story is reprised here with Jewish Blau forced to leave Vienna in 1938 with her student Wambacher, a Nazi sympathiser, remaining to take credit. Elisa Frota-Pessoa, a Brazilian physicist, is mentioned somewhat incidentally towards the end of the chapter with Ghose stumbling on one of her (very prescient) publications whilst researching other work.

The book finishes with the slightly odd pairing of Wu Chien Shiung who was instrumental in the discovery of parity violation which won her colleagues Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen-Ning Yang the 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics (they specifically mentioned her in their acceptance speech) and Vera Rubin who is credited with discovering dark matter by measuring the rotation curves of galaxies and observing that they flatten at large radii – an indicator of the presence of extra, unseen matter.

Reading back through my notes, women were at the heart of modern physics through the 20th century, often those women were the only ones in the room – it is clear they were exceedingly capable. The men around them collected a dozen Nobel Prizes whilst the only woman from this book to win the Nobel Prize for Physics was Marie Skłodowska-Curie. Maria Goeppert Mayer shared the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1963 she is the only other woman to win in the 20th century. She is not included in this book, perhaps because her Nobel Prize meant she was already well known.

In the past I thought the Nobel Prize committee were simply a bit careless in failing to award women but reading this book it seems they were rather purposeful – the physics community knew these women, and the significance of what they had done, and many were nominated for a Nobel Prize, often repeatedly.

As a result of this book I am now interested in a parallel volume of Indian scientists in the West!

Book Review: Grace Hopper – Admiral of the Cyber Sea by Kathleen Broome Williams

After reading Broad Band by Claire L. Evans, about women in computing, I realised Grace Hopper was important, so I thought I’d hunt out a biography. I found Grace Hopper: Admiral of the Cyber Sea by Kathleen Broome Williams. Unusually I bought it second hand – my copy came from the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey Library Pomona, and has an austere, maroon cover.

Grace Hopper was born in New York City in 1906, she died in 1992. An undergraduate in mathematics she started a career in teaching at Vassar College but joined the Navy after the US joined the Second World War. She was posted to work on the Mark I computer at Harvard. She subsequently wrote the first software compiler, and was instrumental in the creation of the COBOL programming language. After “retiring” she then had a long career in the US Navy working on standardising their computing systems. After finally retiring from the Navy she worked for DEC for a few years until her death at the age of 86. She finished her career a rear admiral in the US Navy and has a battleship named for her (the USS Hopper) amongst numerous other rewards.

Grace Hopper gives some feel as to how it was to grow up in a relatively wealthy New York City family. The Hopper family had a holiday home in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire which, when she was small, was a day and a half travel to reach from New York City. She was brought up to be self-sufficient and trained in mathematics. Her father worked in insurance and was a double amputee – he wanted to make sure his children could fend for themselves should he die although he survived to a fair age.

Hopper studied mathematics first at Vasser College before going to Yale for a PhD in mathematics. She married Vincent Hopper in 1930, they bought a summer home of their own in Wolfeboro for $450 – part of a wedding gift. They were divorced in 1941 although it was not something she talked about, despite giving numerous interviews later in her live. Grace Hopper does not indicate the grounds for her divorce. After gaining her degree she became a lecturer in Vasser College where she was an excellent and committed teacher.

When America joined the war she was keen to serve in the US Navy which she achieved following some struggle. Fundamentally they were not keen to employ women, furthermore she was older than the Navy typically recruited, technically underweight and in a reserved occupation (as a lecturer in mathematics). Eventually she joined in 1942, and finally entered service in 1944, after training. She was proud to work in the Navy throughout her life and even whilst employed in industry she continued in the reserve service. In her Navy service she found a link with the dignitaries, including royalty, she met in later life.

Her naval placement was with the Mark I computer at Harvard, invented by Howard Aiken and built by IBM. It was the first programmable electromechanical computer in the world. Based on the slightly older relay technology rather than valves found in successors it was used principally for ballistic calculations as well as calculations of various function tables. Aiken was pretty tough to work with but Hopper clearly knew how to handle him and held him in high regard. She worked on many of the Mark I’s smaller programming jobs as well as doing more than her share of documentation and report writing.

One issue with the Mark I was that it was programmed with paper tape, the programs and data are stored as a pattern of holes 3-4mm across punched out the tape. There was a lot of paper around, as well as the disks of paper punched out from the tape. Sometimes one of the punched out disks was re-united with a hole causing an error, as Hopper pointed out “a hole getting back into a hole”!

After the war it was clear she would not be able to continue at Harvard, so she let to work on the UNIVAC at the Eckert–Mauchly Computer Corporation, later bought by the Rand Corporation and then IBM. Through Hopper’s life we see the birth and maturing of the new computing industry.

Hopper realised there was a need for standardisation in programming languages. There were an increasing number of different types of computer around, and the maintenance and programming of such computers was a bigger job than had initially been realised. Standardisation reduces this problem because a program written for one computer can be run on another. This is how COBOL was born, the Navy sponsored the Committee on Data Systems Languages (CODASYL) which created the COBOL programming language which was derived from Hopper’s FLOW-MATIC language developed for the UNIVAC.

As a scientist and software developer for 30 years I was scarcely aware of COBOL, yet it comprised approximately 80% of running code in the late nineties, according to Gartner. I imagine that figure has not dropped greatly. There is clearly a huge body of COBOL “dark matter” that software developers don’t talk about. The reason for COBOL’s obscurity seems to be the disdain of the academic computer science community, FORTRAN – born at the same time – suffers a similar disdain.

During her time working on UNIVAC Hopper maintained her Navy connection through a reserve position, and in 1966 – at the age of 60 – she retired from the reserve to work full time for the Navy at the Pentagon. She continued to work in the Navy until 1986 when she left to join DEC, at the age of 80!

In this book Grace Hopper comes out as an exceptional character. Her great skills were rooted in teaching, the drive to build a compiler was partly making her own life easier but also democratising the process of programming. She also saw the importance of raising a generation of programmers. She was very personable but seemed to have virtually no personal life. She drank moderately and smoked heavily for most of her life, and clearly had a bit of a hording problem towards the end. She was a life-long Republican and saw little value in the women’s rights movement – her own enormous success giving her the impression that there was no inequality to address.

Throughout her life, well into the period others might consider retiring, she was was engaged in a full schedule of public speaking. She gained many rewards, and a great deal of recognition in her lifetime.

I really enjoyed this book, the only place my interest lessened slightly was in the chapter describing administrative reorganisations of the US Navy. I am in awe of the achievements of Grace Hopper.

Book review: Broad Band by Claire L. Evans

Broad Band by Claire L. Evans book cover. Cream background with a silhouette of a woman made from circuit boards

This review is of Broad Band by Claire L. Evans, subtitled The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet. It is arranged thematically with each chapter focusing on a couple of women moving in time from the first chapter, about Ada Lovelace in the 19th century, through to the early years of the 21st century. The first part of the book covers the early period of computing up to the mid-sixties, the second part the growth of networked computing through the seventies and eighties with the final part covering the rise of the World Wide Web and services devoted to women.

The first chapter introduces us to Ada Lovelace, sometimes heralded as the first programmer which is a somewhat disputable claim. More importantly she was clearly a competent mathematician and excelled in democratising and explaining the potential of the mechanical computing engines that Charles Babbage was trying, and largely failing, to build. More broadly this chapter covers the work of the early human “computers”, who were often women, employed to carry out calculations for astronomical or military applications. Following on from this role, by 1946 250,000 women were working in telephone exchanges (presumably in the US).

Women gained this role as “computers” for a range of reasons. In the 19th century it was seen as acceptable work for educated women whose options were severely limited – as they would be for many years to come, excepting war time. The lack of alternatives meant they were very cheap to employ. Under the cover of this apparently administrative role of “computer” women made useful, original contributions to science albeit they were not recognised as such. Women were seen as good at this type of meticulous, routine work.

When the first electronic computers were developed in the later years of the Second World War it was unsurprising that women were heavily involved in their operation partly because of their previous roles, and partly because men had been sent to fight. There appears to have been an attitude that the design and construction of such machines was men’s work and their actual use, the physical act of programming was women’s work – often neglected by those men that built the machines.

It was in this environment that the now renowned Grace Hopper worked. She started writing what we would now describe as compilers to make the task of programming computers easier. She was also instrumental in creating the COBOL programming language, reviled by computer scientist in subsequent years but comprising 80% of the world’s code by the end of the 20th century. The process that Hopper used to create the language, a committee involving multiple companies working towards a common useful goal, looks surprisingly modern.

In the sixties there was a sea-change for women in computing, it was perceived that there was a shortage of programmers and the solution was to change programming into an engineering science which had the effect of gradually pushing women out of computing through the seventies. It was at this time that the power of computer networks started to be realised.

The next part of the book covers networking via a brief diversion into mapping the Mammoth Cave system in Kentucky which became the basis of the first network computer game: Colossal Cave Adventure. I was particularly impressed by Project One, a San Francisco commune which housed a mainframe computer (a Scientific Data Systems 940) which had been blagged from a company by Pam Hardt-English. In the early seventies it became the first bulletin board system (BBS) – a type of system which was to persist all the way through to the creation of the World Wide Web (and beyond). Broad Band also covers some of the later bulletin board systems founded by women which evolved into women’s places on the Web, BBS were majority male spaces for a long time. In the meantime Resource One also became the core of the San Francisco Social Services Referral Directory which persisted through until 2009, this was a radical innovation at the time – computers used for a social purpose outside of scientific or military applications.

The internet as we know it started with ARPANET in 1969. Broad Band covers two women involved in the early internet – Elizabeth (Jake) Feinler who was responsible for the Resource Handbook – a manually compiled directory of computers, and their handlers, on ARPANET. This evolved, under her guidance, to become the WHOIS service and host.domain naming convention for internet addresses. The second woman was Radia Perlman, who invented the Spanning Tree Protocol for ethernet whilst at DEC in 1984.

This brings us, in time, to the beginning of the World Wide Web. The World Wide Web grew out of the internet. Hypertext systems had been mooted since the end of the Second World War but it wasn’t until the eighties that they became technically feasible on widely available hardware. Broad Band cites British Wendy Hall and Cathy Marshall at Rank Xerox as contributors to the development of hypertext systems. These were to be largely swept away by Tim Berners-Lee’s HTML format which had the key feature of hyperlinking across different computers even if this made the handling of those links prone to decay – something handled better by other non-networked hypertext systems. The World Wide Web grew ridiculously quickly in the early nineties. Berners-Lee demonstrated a rather uninspiring version at HyperText ’91 and by HyperText ’94 he was keynote speaker.

There is a a brief chapter devoted to women in gaming. Apparently Barbie Fashion Designer sold 600,000 units in 1996 more than Doom and Quake! There was a brief period when games were made very explicitly for girls – led to a degree by Brenda Laurel who had done extensive research showing boys strive for mastery in games, whilst girls were looking for a collaborator to complete a task. These ideas held sway for a while before a more diverse gaming market took hold which didn’t divide games so much by gender.

It is tempting for me to say that where women have made their mark in computing and the internet is in forming communities, communicating the benefits of technology and making them easier to use – in a reprise of the early pioneering women in science – because that is what women are good at. However, this is the space in which women have been allowed by men – it is not a question of innate ability alone.

I found this book really interesting, it is more an entry point into the topic of women in computing than a comprehensive history. It has made me nostalgic for my computing experiences of the eighties and nineties, and I have added a biography of Grace Hopper to my reading list.

Book review: Femina by Janina Ramirez

In my history thread of reading, Femina by Janina Ramirez is up next. The subtitle, A New History of the Middles Ages, Through the Women Written Out of It, is as good a summary as one would like. Through nine chapters it relates the stories of women from the 7th century through to the 15th century. The earliest chapter relies entirely on archaeological evidence with later chapters mainly documentary but with some reference to historical objects.

The introductory chapter highlights that medieval women, such as Joan of Arc and Julian of Norwich influenced the suffragettes, so their existence was not unknown. It is fair to say that medieval women have not been subject of a huge amount of academic interest.

Subsequent chapters typically focus on one woman but include some material on other similar or related women. The chapters progress chronologically.

A recurring theme is the spread of the Catholic Church through the medieval period, and the role of women in that spread. First, bearing jewelry with secret Christian symbols but later as abbesses – in this period it seemed common for a monastery, for monks, and a convent, for nuns, to be paired. The position of abbess was quite senior, and providing an opportunity for study. The Reformation in the first half of the 16th century took away this route to power for women.

As is my custom I will provide a short summary of the chapters:

Movers and Shakers – the “Loftus princess burial” in North East England in the 7th century. It represents a transitional burial incorporating pre-Christian grave goods – in a Christian cemetery where grave goods are typically not found. It also considers the role of women like Queen Bertha of Kent and Hilda of Whitby in the development of the early Christian church in England.

Decision makers – the women of the British kingdoms prior to the “Viking” invasion in the second half of the 9th century. Cynethryth, Queen of the Mercians, features heavily – she ruled with her husband, Offa, until he died, and then in her own right. Cynethryth is unique as a women in England found on coinage of this period.

Warriors and Leaders – the Birka Warrior, a burial in a settlement near Stockholm – occupied for a period of 200 years. They were buried with weapons but were recently identified as a woman rather than a man. Obviously this caused some controversy but other sources suggest that there were at least some military women in this period and other burials on the site suggested that women were also tradespeople.

Artists and patrons – the Bayeux Tapestry, and the team of women believed to have made it – it turns out that it isn’t King Harold getting the arrow in the eye – once again my childhood history knowledge is false!

Polymaths and scientists – this chapter focusses on Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). She was an abbess and wrote widely on a range of topics including science and medicine as well as composing music. Her correspondence network included several popes.

Spies and Outlaws – the Cathars in southern France – who were subject to the Albigensian Crusade for heresy in the early 13th century. This was in a time when the Inquisition was only part-formed and local arrangements were more important than the central view. Women appear in the records of the Inquisition, and could be preachers in the Cathar religion.

Kings and diplomats – Jadwiga, the only female king of Poland, a member of the Europe-wide royal families. She introduced the Catholic Church to Poland, founded a University in Krakow, the first in Poland. She died following childbirth at the age of 26. In common with the Decision Makers chapter it shows how marriage was used as a tool of diplomacy in medieval Europe but with women playing some role in organising these partnerships – not simply pawns moved around a board by men.

Entrepreneurs and influencers – the chance survival of The Book of Margery Kempe – the first autobiography in English, written around 1440. Margery Kempe was from a relatively important family in Kings Lynn. She seems like quite a character, reporting a wide range of business enterprises, and religious visions as well as a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

The final chapter touches on diversity, looking at the ethnicity of Londoners around the time of the Black Death – it shows (on the basis of 41 skeletons) that London in 1350 was about as diverse as modern London. There is also a single court account, elided in the official translation, relating to someone who might now be considered transgender.

Unrelated to gender, Femina highlights how cosmopolitan and connected medieval England was to Europe, and even Asia.

One thing that struck me from this book is that history is viewed through a glass darkly. Across the span of the 600 or so years from the latest of the women described in this book to the present day a great deal can happen. The first is that women are simply not written about, although this book shifts the balance a bit, it is clear were not generally considered the equals of men in the Middle Ages but they were more important than we perhaps currently believe.

More insidiously history is continually re-written by (usually) men with their own axe to grind, or simply a story to tell. An example of this is the “invention” of the Vikings in the 19th century, including their horned helmets which were popularised by a staging of The Ring of the Nibelung in 1876. The suppression of women’s stories started not long after the end of this book, in the 16th century or so.

This is without considering the amount of material simply lost over the span of 600 years.

I found Femina really readable, the chapters all start with some scene setting written in a more fictional style, the chapters provide self-contained stories – it is easy to see this being made into a TV series. I think the biggest takeaways for me were how important at least some women were in the Middle Ages, and how distorted our view of the past is by the historians (and wider society) of the intervening period.

Book review: Margaret the First – A Biography of Margaret Cavendish by Douglas Grant

magaret_cavendishI have come across Margaret Cavendish in number of times in reading about the history of science, I think most recently in a biography of Christiaan Huygens. She is noted for attending a Royal Society meeting in 1666, and for being one of the earliest published female authors in England. She sounded very interesting so I picked up Margaret the First: A biography of Margaret Cavendish by Douglas Grant – one of the few biographies about her.

Margaret Cavendish was born in 1623 to the aristocratic Lucas family of Colchester and died at the relatively early age of 50 in 1673. As a child she was a keen writer, and picked up an interest in science from her brother John although as a girl her formal education was limited.

The Lucas’s were fairly heavily involved in the Civil War on the Royalist side. Margaret joined the household of the queen, Henrietta Maria, as a maid of honour in 1643. She fled to Paris with the queen’s household in 1644.  At this point William Cavendish (1st Duke of Newcastle), later to became Margaret’s husband enters the story – he was immensely wealthy and was Captain-General to the Royalist army North England. Following the Battle of Marston Moor he too fled to Europe – to Hamburg in the first instance.

William Cavendish was widower – his first wife, Elizabeth having died in 1643. Margaret and William met in Paris and were married in late 1645. Having read quite a lot of scientific biography I am starting to get a feel for what written resources are available to the biographer – in this case I suspect it was Margaret’s published writings and the financial records of her husband, which were most important. In exile William Cavendish was always struggling for money, although he seems to have had the gift of the gab since a number of times they appear on the brink of destitution which is resolved when William goes and talks to his creditors!

Whilst in Paris, Margaret dined with at least René Descartes and Thomas Hobbes – there was a fairly active salon culture in Paris at the time in which I believe women were moderately involved. In England involvement in intellectual circles appears to have been forbidden for women but perhaps it was a little more open in Paris.

The couple moved to Antwerp in 1648, where they lived in Rubens old house, again surviving on credit which William Cavendish often seemed to spend on horses! It was at this time that Margaret started to write for publication. Grant’s broad view of her output could be summarised as "needed an editor", she appeared to write straight to publication with little sign of returning to work to correct and edit for structure and coherence. 

Her early books were poetic with a theme of natural philosophy, this isn’t as outlandish as it first sounds – Erasmus Darwin was to write poetically about natural philosophy in the following century. Her atomic theories would read oddly to our eyes but were not inconsistent with prevailing theories of the time. She sat within the Classical / Cartesian school of natural philosophy with an emphasis on pure thought which in the second half of the 17th century was being displaced by a science driven by observation and experiment. In fact she wrote some criticism of the newly invented microscope. Her writing covers a wide range of forms (poetry, prose, plays, orations, letters), and a substantial fraction of it is what you might describe as romantic fiction – although The Blazing World has been described as proto-science fiction.

Margaret and her husband returned to England in 1660 following the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658 and the Restoration of Charles II. After spending some time in London, whilst William Cavendish regained possession of his estates, the couple retired to the country from where Margaret promoted her writing – providing free copies of her books to universities and individuals. It is during this period that she attended a meeting of the Royal Society, Samuel Pepys is quite critical of her and the general impression was that men felt she shouldn’t have been there.

She died rather suddenly in 1673, a few years before her much older husband who died in 1676.

It would seem that Margaret Cavendish was a very bright young woman, who missed out almost entirely on any sort of education because she was a women. Her interest in science was promoted by her older brother John, her husband and his brother as well as extensive correspondence and dinners with leading intellectuals of the day arising from her time in Paris and Antwerp. Her work was published and promoted broadly most likely because of the power of her husband, which also served to mute criticism. She was widely seen as a rather eccentric character, in part this seems to be down to a vintage dress sense but her simply writing would probably been a factor too.

It would be nice to report that Margaret Cavendish was a pioneer, soon followed by other women into the public, scientific sphere but she wasn’t. Caroline Herschel’s work was presented to the Royal Society in 1788 – over 100 years later, exceptionally Queen Victoria became a member of the Royal Society but it wasn’t until 1945 that Kathleen Lonsdale and Marjory Stephenson became the first female fellows of the Royal Society. The first women to study for undergraduate degrees started in 1880 with Oxford and Cambridge not awarding degrees to women until 1920 and 1945 respectively.

This book was published in 1956, there are a limited number of biographies of Margaret Cavendish and although this one was entirely acceptable it is a bit dated and I can’t help feeling there will have been a lot of scholarly work done on her life in the intervening years.