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Grace Hopper

October 22, 2014 by

Women Pioneers in STEM

According to a recent article at NPR.org, in the 1930s and 40s, as many as 40% of computer science students were women. Today, it is closer to 17%. Unfortunately, very little is known about what caused the culture shift that saw women dropping out of STEM fields in great numbers, and today if you were to ask a computer scientist, there is a good chance that he or she might not know that some of the world’s first and best computer scientists were women.

Until recently, women have largely been prevented from pursuing careers outside of the home (especially in careers that were considered inappropriate for women like medicine and science), and today women are still in the minority in many of these fields. While we must keep this in mind to understand the degree to which most women have faced prejudice and oppression in our history, it is not necessarily accurate to understand our society in this way as it might cause us to oversimplify the actual positions of many women who were able to achieve success in science and technology.

In fact, though it is true that many women in history have faced extreme prejudice in their pursuit of higher learning, women of higher social class, especially beginning in the 19th century, often had much greater access to a diverse education. Thus, many women were able to work around the prejudice in their culture in order to pursue academic and scientific careers.

Later, in the early 20th-century, while many women tried to break into math and science, most were relegated to jobs that were considered lower level and routine. Thus, it would not have been unusual to encounter a woman whose job title was “computer.” Only some were able to gain access to the support and resources that were necessary for them to get recognized for their contributions to their fields.

But of course, this small sample of women who were able to pursue STEM careers does not negate the amount of prejudice that most women would have faced. Yet, these women were able to begin the process of breaking down the barriers of prejudice and misinformation that kept so many convinced that women could not be scientists.

 

Ada Lovelace

Today, Ada Lovelace is recognized as the author of what is effectively the first ever computer program. In 1842, Lovelace, who by this time had already established herself among the ranks of the top mathematicians and engineers of her age, was asked to translate a paper by Italian engineer Luigi Menabrea. In the process of translation, Lovelace made many notes and annotations on Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine that are today recognized as an “early model for a computer and Ada’s notes as a description of a computer and software” (Wikipedia). Ada Lovelace is frequently used today as a symbol of the potential of women in technology careers, and has been honored in many ways, including a day of recognition on October 14.

 

Grace Hopper

Grace Hopper is today recognized as one of the most important developers of computer language and modern computer functionality. She is credited for developing the first compiler for a computer language at a time when, she claims, most people believed that a computer was not capable of  much more than arithmetic. Her pioneering work in computer languages led to the development of COBOL, which was designed based on her idea that computer languages should not be so dissimilar to written English.

 

 

Mary Somerville

Mary Somerville was an active member in the scientific community of her era and established herself as a strong voice in the mission to improve public awareness of the importance of scientific subjects. She made her name as a science writer, performing the valuable task of “translating” highly academic scientific and mathematical language into texts that would be useful to a wider public. Joanna Baillie praised Somerville as “one who has done more to remove the light estimation in which the capacity of women is too often held than all that has been accomplished by the whole Sisterhood of Poetical Damsels & novel-writing Authors.”(Wikpiedia).

 

Reflections on Women in Academic Fields

It is interesting to note that for many of the women who are considered pioneers in science and technology, it was considered noteworthy that they had chosen not to pursue an education heavy in literature and the arts (as though these were the specialties of women and as though women were not similarly prevented from pursuing careers in these fields). For example, Ada Lovelace’s mother specifically designed her education to be heavy in math and science so that she would not become a poet like her father (Lord Byron), as though STEM fields and poetry were opposite extremes and to learn one was to ignore the other. Similarly, we see Mary Somerville praised specifically for her dissimilarity to women who write novels.

By the 19th and 20th century, women authors were becoming more prevalent, but just a generation or two before you would have found far fewer known women authors to choose form. As with anything, our societal assumptions are likely to change between generations, but it is interesting to note that, not only have we historically made it difficult for women to work at all, but we have compounded this with the difficulty of making certain careers doubly more difficult to reach. For example, when at the turn of the last century you might have encountered more women studying math, it would have been likely that many of those women were training to become teachers.

Teaching is still a women-heavy career, but at that time it was one of the only fields that many women could choose if they did want to study STEM subjects. As we continue to address the problems of gender bias and lack of diversity in STEM fields, it would likely be beneficial for us to make a study of the ways our cultural assumptions (and the evolution of those cultural assumptions) have created these very particular niches.

For example, while today many institutions are specifically targeting women for STEM careers, it is interesting to note that 76% of all public school teachers are women, while only about 36% of graduate students in math are women. The first woman in America to get a Ph.D. in Math was Winifred Edgerton in 1886. She was one of only a small handful of women to receive a Math Ph.D. by the turn of that century.

It has been 128 years since Edgerton completed her degree. Women now represent the majority of college students, but are still well in the minority of students in most STEM fields. It becomes easy to see how deep these cultural assumptions can go, but this makes these standards that much harder to challenge.

Choosing the right automation company.

October 09, 2014 by

The Unprecedented Ways Automation is Changing Life

Last week, NPR reported on Nicholas Carr’s recently released book, The Glass Cage. Carr is known as an author with pronounced concerns about the increasingly large role played by technology in our lives, and in his most recent book, Carr takes a look at the growing list of tasks that we can automate.

It seems that the rising popularity of the self-driving car may be the thing that sparked Carr to voice his concerns. In his interview with NPR, he says, “At least you used to have to figure out where you were. And even with a paper map, you’d have to locate yourself somewhere and figure out what the landmarks around you are and kind of get a sense of place. And that’s no longer necessary when you have the voice come on and say, ‘In 500 yards turn left, 200 yards turn right.’ I do think there’s something lost there.” 

In previous articles, we have explored the controversial points in automation that have caused some to worry about the implications of this kind of technology for the economy and the American workforce. But Carr is worried about something else here. A few weeks ago, NPR also did a story on how the Americana father/son bonding ritual of fixing a car was going to change with the increasing numbers of computerized elements in the average car. It’s this kind of threat to a lifestyle that Carr is concerned about, but truthfully this may be the kind of change that we are least able to anticipate.

Carr notes other examples of potential cultural changes that may result from an increasing presence of automation: less experience doctors, pilots, and other professionals. New and different professional and personal relationships.  Loss of intellectual stimulation at home and in the work place.

Perhaps the most disturbing example Carr gives is in the need that we have created for machines to make our moral and ethical decisions on our behalf. He provides the oft-cited example of an autonomous car put in the position to decide whether it will hit a child in the road or crash into a tunnel, possibly killing the passenger.

When considering these kinds of questions, it is important to be contextual. For example, it is worth considering the safety ratings on automated cars versus manually operated cars. Automated cars have very low accident rates, and so in a future where most cars on the road are automated, it seems likely that even if we are put in the position that we rely on machines to make these kinds of split-second moral decisions, we will probably be saving lives overall by having more automated cars on the road. Considering the number of injuries and fatalities that already occur as a result of vehicular accidents, it is in a way amazing that we as a society have invested so heavily in car ownership as a lifestyle. It is already a significant gamble.

In regards to concerns over a changing culture and the potential for loss of opportunities for mental stimulation, this is pretty closely related to the concern over the loss of job opportunities that occur as a result of automation. In response, those defending automation usually reply that companies replacing employees with automation should consider offering training to their employees so that they can pursue higher-level jobs in engineering and maintenance of machines, etc. But because this concern is specifically that we are depriving ourselves of much of the substance of our daily thoughts, it is worth considering what kinds of opportunities automation presents us in this regards. Theoretically, automation should free people of repetitive, uninteresting tasks such that they can use their time in better ways. This means that rather than bemoan the loss of opportunities for mental stimulation, we should consider the potential that new opportunities will be created.

This concern that an increasing role played by technology will diminish our abilities to feel grounded in the world and close in our personal connections is not uncommon, but is also not necessarily supported by the evidence. For example, studies have shown that the increasing use of text message shorthand has not diminished students’ abilities to write correctly. However, we should also consider that there is evidence to suggest automation does not always offer us the benefits we expect. For example, studies have shown that though we now have access to so many devices and apps to help us stay organized and save time, that most people now report feeling even more stressed and more pressed for time than ever.

John Lewis

October 03, 2014 by

The Politics of Funding Space Exploration

In a speech in 2004 given in response to calls for direction in the space program, former President George Bush claimed that “This cause of exploration and discovery is not an option we choose; it is a desire written in the human heart.” For many, there is lots of truth in this statement as the exploration of space seems to provide us with a way to contextualize our existence as humans, and because it allows us to probe at questions that border on metaphysics.

However, when a program depends on the federal government for funding, it is not enough, unfortunately, that a program may seem to be in our natural human interest or of any kind of moral imperative. For politicians who are asked to evaluate both practical and lofty matters with equal regard, it is very important that these kinds of programs also offer politicians some realizable goals with direct human and economic benefits for the American people.

This leaves scientists and engineers with an especially difficult job – beyond the intensive research and development already involved in a project, they must then publicly justify their projects just to keep them alive.

 

The Factors in Keeping the Space Program Alive

When the country faces economic trouble, the space program tends to be one of the first to suffer. As Roger D. Launius notes, “The American public is notorious for its willingness to support programs in principle but to oppose their funding at levels appropriate to sustain them.” The reasons for this are myriad.

 

Misconceptions on the True Cost of Space Travel

In several surveys taken over the last two decades, researchers have demonstrated that the public does not have a good conception of the actual monetary cost of the spaceflight program. As recently as 2007, respondents believed that NASA’s budget was about 20-25% of the federal budget, which amounts to about $2.7 trillion. In reality, the budget for NASA has never exceeded 4% (during the Kennedy administration). Today, the budget is closer to about 0.5%, around $16.2 billion per year.

Pop science icon Neil Degrasse Tyson has theorized that if more people were made aware of the actual budget of NASA, that they would probably be more inclined to favor increased financial support, and based on experiments generated so far, the evidence seems to support his claim. Scientists at the University of Houston found that when respondents were corrected in their ideas about NASA’s budget, that there was “a 29 percent mean increase for support for additional NASA spending.”

 

Perceptions of the Relative Importance of Space Travel

As a nation, we are pretty constantly faced with some very difficult political decisions. The degrees to which we choose to intervene in international affairs and the degrees to which we choose to respond to unrest at home generate moral unease and force us to question the relative monetary value of our programs. For those Americans who face very real daily struggles to find work, shelter, food, and education, it may seem that if we are failing to address our immediate instance of need here at home, that we have no business investing in programs that offer no direct, immediate address for our very real problems.

In the past, politicians have generated support for these kinds of programs by framing space exploration as a means to revitalize the economy, create jobs, provide us with critical information about the health and safety of our planet, and protect our place as a country at the forefront of scientific exploration and discovery. If there are not politicians advocating for the practical benefits of space travel, there will be little opportunity for public response.

 

The Need for Advocacy and Lobbying

In order for any particular project at NASA to get funded, it must be properly and vigorously represented to politicians by scientists and lobbyists. In his doctoral thesis at MIT, David André Broniatowski lists this as one of the first factors in the long-term political sustainability of a space program. Further, lobbyists must be able to present a realistic picture of the total cost of a program to politicians as surprise costs can be a major factor in the eventual cancelation of a program. Broniatowski places this burden on NASA, claiming that “a system that is designed without explicit consideration of political concerns faces design irrelevance.” However, it can often be difficult for scientists to create full and comprehensive budgets for a project at their outset.

 

A “Perfect Storm” of Factors

In his popular study on the role of public opinion in the life of the space travel program, Roger Launius remarks on the perception by many that politicians since Kennedy have not been as aggressive and driven in maintaining the space program. He notes that, while the perseverance of politicians is one factor, that really “in the end a unique confluence of foreign policy crisis, political necessity, personal commitment and activism, scientific and technological ability, economic prosperity, and public mood made possible the 1961 decision to carry out a forward-looking lunar landing program.”

And while we may be able to meet many of these factors, we are also faced with the fact that today, the goals of our space program have become much more complicated and technically difficult. For example, in Space.com‘s listing of NASA’s 2014 goals, continued work on travel to Mars and the development of commercial space flight are included. Each of these programs may seem like something out of science fiction, and for good reason: the scientific and technological demands of each are huge, which means that getting all of these factors to align perfectly becomes even harder.