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Boston Skeptics’ Book Club #7

Posted on : May-31-2010 | By : Mary | In : Blog Post

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Last Saturday, we met up in the beautiful Christopher Columbus Park on the Waterfront to discuss The Madame Curie Complex by Julie Desjardins. The book mostly discusses the history of women in science since the 1880s, starting with Marie Curie. The title comes from the fact that Curie was often written about as a super-woman of sorts, who had time to raise her children and also win two Nobels. She was seen as a matronly martyr, even though that stereotype didn’t resemble her life at all. She was reclusive, brilliant, and seemed to prefer science over everything else. She was a Gold Standard of sorts for female scientists, who were supposed to be brilliant but only in a “womanly” fashion. Many early female scientists discussed in this book were seen as helpmeets or assistants to their male superiors. The women were mostly relegated to data collecting positions, as their “female brains” were supposed to be attentive to detail, while the analyzing and problem solving was something more suited to a “male brain”.

The book also discusses Lillian Gilbreth, the woman behind Cheaper By The Dozen, who pioneered workplace efficiency science with her husband and who continued to be a scientist of “domestic arts” (natch) after his death. The chapter about her is full of how awesome she was at managing her time and keeping her house run like a factory. She was portrayed as a mistress of domesticity, even though in reality she never cooked anything herself and had to make up a cake recipe on the fly for a publicity campaign.

The other women discussed in the book are: the women of the Harvard Observatory, the women who worked on the Manhattan Project, Rosalind Franklin, Maria Mayer (Nobel winner for the shell-orbit theory of atoms), Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall, and many more.

Overall, I found the book informative but a little long in some parts. The author really enjoys belaboring some points while not focusing too hard on other points. The Manhattan Project section was a little jumbled and she jumped from scientist to scientist until I couldn’t tell who did what, while the chapter on Lillian Gilbreth went on and on about how efficient the woman was. However, it was still an enjoyable read for me, since I like to read about history, especially with a feminist analysis. Others in the BSBC wanted to learn more about the science that the women were doing but I found the history of institutionalized sexism the most interesting part and the book definitely talked a lot about that.

If you read the book but couldn’t make it to our meeting, leave a note in the comments! I want to find out your opinions, whether you liked it or didn’t. And don’t be shy–come out to our meetings! You don’t have to be a regular (or even finish the book) to join us and have a good time.

Our next book is Carl Zimmer’s Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature’s Most Dangerous Creatures. Our next meeting date is June 19th at 3 pm, location is TBD for now until we know what the weather is like. If it’s sunny, we’ll meet again at the CC Park, otherwise we’ll probably meet at our usual Border’s Cafe. Come join us for a fun-filled parasitic chat!

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Comments (2)

I was going to attend the book club for the first time so I read the book (most of it). Unfortunately I had a graduation to attend.

As an engineer I especially enjoyed reading about Lillian Gilbreth, but what really struck me was a couple of the discoveries that the women at Harvard made that the author lightly touched on. Henrietta Leavit developed a method for calculating stars’ distance, and Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin was the first to discover stars were mostly hydrogren. Neither woman got any credit for either of these discoveries, but they are both now fundamental to their fields.

The other thing that stuck out for me was Maria Mayer and the level of support and protection her male colleagues afforded her. Especially in Enrico Fermi’s outright refusal to allow her to put his name on her paper for the electron shell theory as he rightfully believed it would become his discovery and she would be completely forgotten.

I hope I can come out this month and discuss parasites.

I also liked the part where Fermi was very aware of how much credit he would get if Mayer included his name on her paper. And I thought the case of Rosalind Franklin was an interesting contrast, because she didn’t appear to have that supportive group of males.

Interestingly, though, Franklin has become more well known posthumously, but that may have been because of the notoriety surrounding Watson’s novel that trashed her and the follow up novel and essays describing her actual scientific contributions.

Can’t wait to see you at the next meeting!

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