Friday, May 15, 2015

Patently Female by Vare and Ptacek ****

Patently Female by Vare and Ptacek is their third book about female inventors. I don't know how much duplication there is, but several of the biggies made it into this volume: Marie Curie, Grace Murray Hopper, Hedy Lamarr, and Ada Lovelace. They share the book with hundreds of others of all ages and importance.

I found his book is fascinating in several dimensions. First, no book about women in science and technology can avoid the subject of prejudice and discrimination.

For example Mary Engle Pennington was refused her bachelor of science at University of Pennsylvania (1892) because she was female. Undaunted she stayed and was awarded a Ph.D. in 1895.

Another example is Patsy Sherman:
...when she told her high school teacher she wanted to be a nuclear physicist, [she] was named "most confused person" in class. ... she took the school's career suitability test for girls: it told her to become a housewife. She insisted on taking the test they gave to boys: it said she was suited to be a chemist.
She went on to work at 3M and invent Scotchgard.

Also the book is full with wonderful trivia. What is the challenge to inventing TV dinners?
trying to come up with a dinner in which all the ingredients would require the same cooking time.
Didn't think of that, did you?

In addition, I found several personal points, like the fact that early computer programming groups recruited women and musicians. I can remember this from the mid-1960s, though the practice evidently start with ENIAC in the 1940s.

Most interesting to me was the story of Lynn Conway, a computer scientist who worked at the fabled Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. I remember her well and even remember the curious discussions about her history. Xerox PARC was an elite group very interested in educational pedigrees. Lynn Conway didn't have one. For this reason and others, she was surrounded with quiet rumors about her origins. The other scientists were curious, but ultimately unconcerned. She was smart enough, or even smarter, and that was all that really mattered.

Now I read that as a boy, she attended MIT, received a BS and MS from Columbia, and did research at IBM, before she dropped out for sexual reassignment surgery. Given the times, she basically had to start over without her transcripts or resume. I'm guessing she had some help from friends who knew her history to end up at Xerox PARC soon after her surgery.

This was kept quiet, but I am proudly confident that the people at PARC would have taken it in stride ... not so sure about those outside the PARC campus. It was still the 1970s, just a few years after Stonewall.

A wonderful book of 100s of short biographies of women scientists, engineers, and inventors.

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