Women in science

A facebook friend recently posted a link to the following image:


I will try to ignore the spelling and grammatical errors, although they are not a promising start. I was surprised by the first one in particular, so I looked into it a bit. Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (1900-1979) was a brilliant early astrophysicist. She did indeed, along with others, make startling discoveries about the molecular composition of stars. The much more senior Russell did indeed suggest (probably quite strongly) that she not publish some of the more startling conclusions. But the text here implies that he stole her idea, repeated it exactly, and then published the same thing and took all the credit. According to wikipedia, this is not what happened at all:

When Payne’s dissertation was reviewed, astronomer Henry Norris Russell dissuaded her from presenting her conclusion that the composition of the Sun was predominantly hydrogen and thus very different from that of the Earth, as it contradicted the accepted wisdom at the time. However, he changed his mind four years later after having derived the same result by different means and publishing it. Although he acknowledged her work briefly in his paper, Russell was still often given credit for the discovery even after Payne had been proved correct.

But perhaps you don’t trust wikipedia, even if it does manage to spell Russell correctly. Fortunately I happen to own Payne-Gaposchkin’s autobiography, so I looked up references to Russell. She describes him (20 years after his death, and shortly before her own) as “a great man” – “not sensitive, vain, or vindictive”, although she admits that he did not have the “gift of letting his associates share the sense of achievement” (p.178).

Interestingly, in the same paragraph where she says that the “feminine urges to cook, to sew, to entertain were natural to me”, she concludes by writing: “during my whole scientific life I have never had a sense of being inferior, never been conscious that my fellow-scientists considered me inferior, on account of my sex” (p.167) . Of course she was at a disadvantage in many ways as a woman, and for every man who went out of his way to support her there was another man who actively discriminated against her. She understood this dynamic perfectly well, and she makes a point of saying how much better was the situation in america (harvard) than in her native england (cambridge).

It is also undoubtedly true that her discoveries are remembered less well because she was a woman (as the wikipedia description attests), so I agree completely with the sentiment of the image above. In fact I know for a fact that this still happens (albeit less often and less explicitly) and it is a disgrace. But advocates do themselves a disservice through slipshod research (especially regarding scientists!), by defaming people who were not (in this case) at fault, and by distorting the facts – facts which require no distortion at all in order to serve the intended purpose.

It seems fitting to close with Payne-Gaposchkin’s own words from a late chapter “On being a woman” (pp.226-7):

As I look back I ask myself what difference it has made to me as a scientist that I was born a woman. As concerns the intellectual side of the matter, I should say that it has made very little. [...] On the material side, being a woman has been a great disadvantage. It is a tale of low salary, lack of status, slow advancement. But I have reached a height that I should never, in my wildest dreams, have predicted 50

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Category: Science

That Happened: the barkley marathons 2015









The barkley entry form (which begins: It can be done. You can’t do it, but it can be done.) has a quiz every year. This year included questions on such topics as quasars, solitary numbers, red oak, and the Etruscan language. Question 2 asked for the meaning of the name of the element dysprosium, and my response was as follows:

It comes from the Greek δυσπρόσιτος meaning “hard to get”. This phrase also describes (a) the answers for this exam; (b) five loops at the Barkley; and (c) anything worthwhile in life.

As two-time barkley finisher Brett Maune recently wrote to the barkley listserv: “Acute discomfort can produce the most treasured lifelong memories.” [Yours truly may have been similarly quoted in the barkley documentary opining that most people could use a little more pain in their lives.] The barkley is the epitome of and the ultimate referendum on this approach to life.

After having gotten to book 4 (Indian Head) of loop two in 2012 and then crewed in 2013 and 2014, I was back in the race for 2015. My training was consistent but modest at best, with 5-7 hours per week since the beginning of December. My biggest weekend was a fun trip to Nova Scotia to hang out with fellow barker Jodi Isenor and his wife Karine (and friends), where I managed over 10,000’ of vertical in the snow. Alas it also left me with some heel blisters (still not sure why; I haven’t had anything like that before – see below right), requiring that much of my remaining training be done barefoot in my apartment building – either on the treadmill at max incline or going up and down the ten flights of stairs (e.g. 7500 steps in two scintillating hours).










Race weekend I got to the campground thursday evening, and found it fairly quiet with rain expected, so I ended up at the slightly sketchy motel in wartburg… where I immediately ran into Laz (i.e. race director Gary Cantrell) and Frozen Ed Furtaw and chatted for a bit. Slept surprisingly well and went back friday morning to set up my tent, say hello to everyone gathering, and test out my blister patches on still-sensitive heels (verdict: it only hurt on the uphills). It was more exciting than I expected to be back in the game!

Eventually Laz handed out the course directions for this year (see various excerpts in italics below), as well as the individualized Univac computer predictions for each runner (Julian Jamison: taken by poachers and sold into slavery). Later (around 5pm?!) the official map finally appeared, and we all crowded around it trying to carefully mark the route; see pics.

I decided not to take the official instructions out on the course with me, but I made some notations on the map from them, from my memory of previous loops, and from conversations in previous weeks with Jodi and with Jared Campbell: thank you both! The weather was brisk (in the 20s in camp at night on both friday and saturday, cooler and windier up in the hills) but looked mostly clear. Back to my cozy tent, read for a bit, and lights out at 10:30p, just half an hour before the earliest possible blowing of the conch shell.

Except that of course this year he didn’t blow the conch until 10:22a on saturday, the latest in history. I hadn’t slept all that well, but this gave me time in the morning to …

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Category: Running

Writing in english as a foreign language

Asta recently picked up Heart of Darkness, which got me thinking about the impressive few who have achieved literary success writing in english despite it not being their native tongue, which I find extraordinary to think about. [Of course people have done the same in other languages, such as the irishman Samuel Beckett writing Waiting for Godot in french, but I am not particularly qualified to talk about that.]  Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov (Pale Fire in a second language? wow) are the two that I always think of in this context.

So I decided to trawl the web and see who else I could come up with. At one end of the range are those whose first language isn’t english but who moved to anglophone countries by the age of 4 or 5 and thus speak it as a native: e.g. Kazuo Ishiguro from japan or Tom Stoppard (whose word-play is amazing) from czechoslovakia, both of whom moved to england very young. The next level would be having a different primary language but being surrounded by english from school-age onward: this includes Jack Kerouac (I had no idea he was french-canadian) and Chinua Achebe from nigeria, whose family language was igbo but whose parents knew english and who went to an english-language school himself.

And finally there are those such as Conrad and Nabokov who didn’t start learning english until college-age or later. I found a few other well-known writers in this remarkable category, but not many: Joseph Brodsky, Ha Jin, and Arthur Koestler (who was hungarian and whose most famous book Darkness at Noon was written in german, which he learned early, but who also wrote in english as a third language). Surprisingly my albeit brief google search didn’t turn up Ayn Rand, who wasn’t a very good writer but who certainly achieved remarkable literary success.

Equally surprisingly it didn’t turn up someone who was in fact a good writer: Kahlil Gibran. Gibran grew up in what is now lebanon, speaking arabic, before moving to the US at age 12 and starting to learn english. He returned to lebanon from age 15 to 19 before finally settling back in the US and writing in both arabic and english. His best-known work, The Prophet, was written in english.

I’d be curious to learn of any corrections to the above, and especially any additions.…

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Category: Books

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Julian C. Jamison

I'm an economist, researcher, traveler, runner, and astronaut-in-waiting. I enjoy pondering human behavior, including both what we do and what we ought to do - either to maximize our well-being or in pursuit of some other goal.

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