Monday, May 09, 2011

Zombie Marie Curie

This disquiets me. Marie Curie is one of my favourite scientists of all time and I keep trying to make the point that her achievements were pretty much the pinnacle of human endeavour and not ‘not bad for a woman’.  She was the first woman to receive a Nobel prize and the first person to get two.  It’s hard to imagine a greater achievement.

Am I guilty of pointing out her achievements partly because she happened to be a woman?  Fuck yeah.  It’s a point that needs making.  In my own field of computer science there are heroes that are unsung because of their chromosomes.  Ada Lovelace tends to be cast as something of a dilettante when in truth she was a talented and insightful mathematician.  But just look what Wikipedia has to say about her:

Her interest in mathematics dominated her life even after her marriage

Even after her marriage?  Like she was supposed to fucking stop doing sums because it made her husband look like an idiot (he was a member of the Royal Society, but I don’t know of anything he actually achieved)? Remember that this is a supposedly modern comment. 

And would anyone say that physics dominated Einstein’s life, or that he dominated physics?  Was Darwin dominated by his work on evolution?  Well, arguably he was dominated by his barnacles and his earthworms.  There’s a charming story (I don’t know if it’s true: who exactly documented it?) about Darwin’s children visiting a friend and demanding to know where the friend’s father ‘did his barnacles’.

But we don’t talk about Darwin being dominated by his work, we quite rightly talk about him being its master.  Nor was Lovelace dominated by her prodigious abilities.  She just did sums because she was good at them and kind of liked it.  Same as the rest of us.

There are other unsung heroes in computer science. While my admiration of Alan Turing cannot be overstated, there were lots of women working at Bletchley Park and they did all sorts of important work.  I mean, of course they fucking did.  It’s an outrage that I have to point this out, but here we are.

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