Tuesday 8 October 2013

"A Passion for Science" and Ada Lovelace Day

Ada Lovelace Day, created by Suw Charman-Anderson, is a yearly celebration of women in science, maths, engineering and technology. It started with pledges to write about women in STEM on a particular day - here's my attempt from 2010 (yes, I should have done more since!). It's well documented, including by experiments, that women still face barriers in these fields, and Ada Lovelace Day is one of the initiatives to challenge this and to celebrate unsung heroines.

If you want to get blogging on Ada Lovelace Day, just pick one (or more) women in STEM to write about on 15th October this year and let Suw know what you are doing! I may not be able to as I'm writing something else on 15th October, so apologies for that.

This year, Suw's put together what looks like a fantastic event. I'm going, and maybe I'll see you there. It's at 6pm at Imperial College London on (you guessed it) 15th October. There are going to be lots of speakers on lots of different types of science, plus a healthy dose of comedy, and it looks to me like it will be immense fun. You can get a ticket here, and use the code "friendofALD" to get £5 off - there's a "enter promotional code" box just above the big green Order button. It's suitable for age 12 and over, which sadly may exclude my mental age when it comes to jokes, but the rest of me will be there.

Also, on 15th October, there will be a book coming out. It's called "A Passion for Science", is edited by Suw, and is to fund Ada Lovelace Day. It will start as an e-book, but Suw hopes to have a paperback version too.

The book is about 25 people who broke with tradition to study science, technology, engineering or mathematics. One of them discovered pulsars. Another wrote the first computer program. Another used her illegal radio set to help the resistance during World War II. Another discovered that stars are made of hydrogen and helium.

You've probably guessed it: all these trailblazers were women (though we're not being too loud about this, so that those who don't think women can do science will still pick it up and maybe learn something. I'm assuming that you're not one of these idiots, since you're reading a blog that's obviously written by a woman). And here's my big news: I wrote a chapter about Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, who is my favourite ever astronomer. (I've blogged about her here and here.) I am very fond of Payne-Gaposchkin. Her discovery was, really, just as significant as that of Newton, Einstein or Darwin - what the Universe is made of - yet very few people know her name. She used some of my favourite pieces of science - the then very new quantum physics to take a new look at spectroscopy, the study of light and matter. Although she was kept as a lowly "technical assistant" for many years, and after her PhD had limited freedom to pursue her own research, she went on to make many more discoveries about stars, novae, and much more.

I love her for possessing many of my own "bad points" - she was quietly obsessive, moody, jealous, and terribly untidy. She - like me - particularly liked drawing together huge amounts of information from various sources, and putting it all together in a clear way. She was a kind, funny and wonderfully brave and compassionate person, fascinated by everything from astronomy to art to languages to cooking to woodwork to music to etc etc. I first read about her in Empire of the Stars and then, more compellingly, in The Magic Furnace (the latter is my favourite science book, by the way), and longed to know more. When I found her autobiography, that was one of my main motivators to study science more deeply and do an MSc in Astrophysics.

So, I've been researching Payne-Gaposchkin for the last three years, and plan to do a lot more. In fact, I wrote such a long chapter that poor Suw had to cut quite a bit of it out in order not to turn the book into "Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin with a sprinkling of other amazing scientists squeezed in". But I hope to share it all with you in time . . .

In the meantime, you should definitely follow Suw and Ada Lovelace Day on Twitter. And Suw's feline owners, Grabbity and Sir Izacat Mewton. Happy Ada Lovelace Day next week!

Update: Check out the cover! I love it!

Update II: You can now buy the book! I hope some of you will - it's full of wonderful stories and inspiration.

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