Shallow Thoughts : tags : chix

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing, Science, and Nature.

Tue, 24 Mar 2009

For Ada Lovelace Day: Vera Rubin

For Ada Lovelace Day I'm honoring Vera Rubin.

In 1948, when she applied to Princeton as an aspiring astronomy grad student, they wouldn't let her in because women weren't allowed. (They finally started admitting women in 1975.) Fortunately, Cornell was more accommodating.

For her thesis, she worked on a project that seemed useful and uncontroversial. She took other people's data on the redshifts of galaxies, and catalogued them to see how fast they were all moving away from us.

Except something unexpected happened. She found that galaxies in one direction weren't moving away as fast as galaxies in the other directions. The universe was supposed to be expanding evenly in all directions -- but that's not what her data showed.

In 1950 she presented her results to a conference of the American Astronomical Society. The results were not promising. Famous astronomers she'd read about but never met stood up in the audience to ridicule her paper and say it couldn't be true. No one would publish her master's thesis. It wasn't a good start to her career. She decided to try to find something less controversial to study.

Her husband finished at Cornell and moved to Washington, D.C.. Rubin and her new baby moved with him, and she enrolled as a PhD student at Georgetown. They had two children by now; her parents watched the kids while she took night classes.

She hooked up with George Gamow at Georgetown. He called her to ask her about her research -- but said they'd have to talk in the lobby, not in his office, because women weren't allowed in the office area of the building.

After Rubin finished her PhD with Gamow in 1954, Her experience trying to present her 1950 paper made her leery of confrontation. She's said, "I wanted a problem that no one would bother me about." Working with Kent Ford at the Carnegie Institute in Washington, she helped design a super-sensitive digital spectrograph, and they set out to make a huge catalog of data on boring "normal" galaxies no one else was looking at. They started with the Andromeda galaxy, M31, the closest large galaxy to us (and the easiest one to see with the naked eye, if you go somewhere away from city lights).

And right away they found something weird. Normally, you'd expect the outer parts of the galaxy to be rotating a lot slower than the inner parts. Think of our solar system: Mercury goes around the sun really fast (a Mercury year is only 88 days), Earth goes not quite as fast, and when you get all the way out to Pluto, it takes 247 years to go around the sun once. It's not just that it has farther to go to make a circuit around the sun; it's that the sun's influence is so weak way out there that Pluto goes a lot slower in its orbit than we do.

Galaxies should be the same way: stars in the center should just whiz around in no time, while stars at the outer edge take forever.

But Rubin and Ford found that Andromeda wasn't like that. When they started looking at the stars farther out, they were all going about the same speed. If anything, the stars at the edge were going a little faster than the stars in the center.

That made no sense. It didn't follow any normal model of gravity or galaxy formation. They published their results in 1970, but no one took them seriously. They decided that maybe something was wrong, or their equipment was faulty. They decided to try studying a simpler problem: just measure the redshift of some faint galaxies and make a catalog of those.

That went well for a while -- except that pretty soon, they ran into the same thing Rubin had discovered as a graduate student back at Cornell. Galaxies in the direction of Pegasus were moving away from us at a different speed from galaxies in other parts of the sky. She and Ford tried again to present that, but the reaction wasn't any more positive this time.

Discouraged, they went back to trying to measure galaxy rotation, hoping Andromeda had just been a fluke. But every galaxy they studied looked the same as Andromeda, with the stars far out near the edge of the galaxy rotating as fast, or faster, than the stars near the hub.

There were only two possible explanations. Either the law of gravity doesn't work the way we think it does ... or there's a lot more matter inside a galaxy than what we see with a telescope.

When they tried to present this result, no one believed it, so they kept measuring more galaxies, always with the same result.

By 1985, they had enough evidence that people finally started paying attention. As their results got talked about more and taken more seriously, they came up with a name for the extra mass that makes the galaxy rotation flat: "dark matter". Yes, the dark matter you hear about that apparently makes up more than 90% of all matter in the universe. Not a bad discovery for someone who was just trying to lay low and catalogue a lot of data that might be useful to other people! (Rubin's first graduate project, on the rotation of the universe, has also since been vindicated.)

Vera Rubin is still working at the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism. Her intellect, hard work and perseverance are an inspiration, and I salute her on Ada Lovelace Day. (You can read other people's Ada Lovelace Day posts in the Ada Lovelace Day Collection.)

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[ 19:12 Mar 24, 2009    More science/astro | permalink to this entry ]

Sat, 26 Apr 2008

Republicans fight to preserve gender pay gap

Dahlia Lithwick wrote a terrific article in yesterday's Slate about the shameful behavior of the Republicans in the Senate in blocking a bill that would have allowed women to sue for pay discrimination.

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was written in response to the case brought by Lilly Ledbetter against the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. Courts had found that she was definitely the subject of discrimination: her pay was as much as 40% less than men doing a similar job (despite her excellent reviews), one year she was actually paid below Goodyear's own minimum threshold for that position, she had been explicitly barred from discussing salary with her coworkers (this is apparently legal, at least in Alabama), and she had been told explicitly by a manager at Goodyear that that the "plant did not need women, that [women] didn't help it, [and] caused problems."

No one at any level has disputed that Ms. Ledbetter was discriminated against -- even the Supreme Court. However, the Supremes threw out her appeal last year on the basis that the statute of limitations had run out and she should have filed her case within 180 days of receiving her first paycheck. In other words, as long as you don't know when you're hired that your pay is discriminatory, it doesn't matter if you find out later; it'll be too late then, so forget it. Pay discrimination is fine, and not actionable, as long as you can delay the victim's finding out about it for a few months.

Senate Republicans believe so strongly in a company's right to discriminate that they not only argued against the bill, they actually filibustered against it!

For more gory details of the case, read Lithwick's excellent Slate article. But even if you don't, be aware if you're considering voting for John McCain in November that although he was campaigning instead of voting on this bill, he proclaimed agreement with the rest of his party in opposing the Fair Pay Act.

So if you're against pay discrimination ... or if you're a woman and might be the victim of such discrimination ... be aware that John McCain is not on your side.

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[ 19:26 Apr 26, 2008    More politics | permalink to this entry ]

Tue, 23 Oct 2007

She's Geeky tech unconference

I just got back from She's Geeky. What a rush! It'll take me a while to wind down from this fabulous all-women meeting.

I have to admit, I was initially dubious. A conference for geeky women sounded great, but it struck me as kind of expensive -- $175 (with a $125 early-bird rate). That's very cheap as tech conferences go, but for a two-day "unconference", it was enough to turn off most local techie women I know: nearly all of them knew about She's Geeky and said "I'd love to go but I can't afford it." Full disclosure: I said the same thing, and wouldn't have gone myself had I not gotten a "scholarship", for which I am immensely grateful. (In retrospect, considering how well run it was, it probably would have been worth the early-bird price. But that's not easy to tell ahead of time.)

Monday consisted of lunch and informal discussion followed by two sessions of scheduled talks. I particularly liked the afternoon schedule, which included two different sessions of speaker training: the theory being that one factor holding women back in technology jobs is that we don't make ourselves visible by public speaking as much as we could. I went to the "Lightening (sic) Talks" session, headed by Danese Cooper. It didn't make me lighter, but we got some great advice at giving conference talks (lightning and otherwise) plus two rounds of practice at three minute talks. I'm not sure what I enjoyed more, the practice and useful feedback or the chance to listen to so many great short talks on disparate and interesting subjects.

Tuesday started way before normal geek time, with bagels and espresso and an explanation by conference organizer Kaliya Hamlin on how we'd use the Open Space process. Sessions would be an hour long, and we had eight rooms to work with, all charted on a huge grid on the wall. Anyone could run a session (or several). Write it (and your name) on a card, get up and tell the group about it, then find a time and space for it and tape it on the grid. Rules for sessions were few. For session leaders, Whoever comes to your session is the right audience, and whatever happens is what should have happened. For people attending a session there's the Rule of Two Feet: if you're not getting anything out of the session you're in, you should get up and get yourself to somewhere where you're contributing and/or learning. Not hard when there are seven other sessions to choose from.

This all worked exactly as described. Whatever hesitance many women may feel toward public speaking, there was no lack of volunteer session leaders on a wide variety of topics, both technical and social. I signed up to give a GIMP session before lunch; then in a morning session on server and firewall configuration given by fellow LinuxChix Gloria W. and Gaba, I noticed a few people having a lot of general Linux questions, in particular command-line questions, so I ran back to the wall grid and added an afternoon session on "Understanding the Linux command line".

Easily my favorite session of the conference was the Google Maps API talk by Pamela Fox of Google. I've been meaning to experiment with Google Maps and KML for a long time. I even have books on it sitting on my shelf. But I never seem to get over the hump: find a project and a specific task, then go RTFM and figure out how to write a KML file from scratch to do something fun and useful. Pamela got me over that in a hurry -- she showed us the "My Maps" tab in Google Maps (you have to be signed on to a Google account to use it). It includes tools for generating some starter KML interactively, and it even has a polygon editor, all implemented in AJAX (Javascript) and running in a browser. Wow! What a great way to get a running start on map mashups. There's also a whole open source Javascript API and set of libraries for writing creative web mapping apps. I'm sure I'll be experimenting with this a lot more and writing about it separately. Just this talk alone made the conference worthwhile, even without all the other great sessions.

But I didn't get a chance to experiment right away with any of that cool mapping stuff, because right after that session was one by speaker and comedian Heather Gold. Heather had given Saturday night's evening entertainment, and I am very sorry to have had to miss the show to go to a night class. The session was on self confidence, getting over fear of speaking, and connecting with the audience. Since the allotted space was noisy (the same one I'd ended up with for my GIMP talk, and the noise was definitely a problem), Heather led our small group out onto the balcony to enjoy the warm weather. The group was diverse and included women at very different levels of speaking, but Heather had great tips for all of us. She has great presence and a lot of useful things to say, and she's funny -- I'd love to see her on stage.

Everybody had a really positive attitude. At the Lightning Talks session on Saturday, Danese stressed "No whinging" as a general rule to follow (in talks or anywhere else), and I'd say the whole conference followed it. While we heard about lots of serious topics women face, I didn't hear any whining or "men are keeping us down" or that sort of negativism. There were some bad experiences shared as well as good ones, but the point was in finding solutions and making progress, not dwelling on problems. This was a group of women doing things.

There are only two changes I can think of that could have improved the conference at all. First, I already mentioned the cost. While it was fair considering the fantastic organization, great people, plus catered meals, it still lets out some of the women who could have benefitted the most: students and the un- and under-employed. A few of us LinuxChix talked about how much we'd love to see a similar conference held at a cheaper facility, without the handouts or the catered meals. Maybe some day we'll be able to make it happen.

Second (and this is a very minor point), it might have been helpful to have runners reminding people when sessions were ending, and perhaps making the sessions 55 minutes instead of an hour to encourage getting to the next session and starting on promptly.

Even without that, people mostly stuck to the schedule and Tuesday finished right on time: pretty amazing for a conference whose agenda had been made that morning with cardboard, tape and marking pens. I've seen unconferences before, and they're usually a disorganized mess. This one ran better than most scheduled conferences. Kaliya and her fellow organizers clearly know how to make this process work.

We all pitched in to clean up the room, and I braved the rush-hour freeway. And arrived home to find that my husband had cooked dinner and it was just about ready. What a nice ending to the day!

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[ 23:01 Oct 23, 2007    More misc | permalink to this entry ]

Tue, 15 Mar 2005

The Talking Dog at the Men's Club

Dave and I went flying (radio controlled model airplanes) at Baylands last Saturday.

Dave got to the tables first, with the toolbox and one plane. I followed, carrying two of my planes. As I walked up to the table, some guy I hadn't seen there before chuckled, indicated Dave and said "Heh, I see he's got someone to carry his stuff for him."

I gave him a strange look and a "Huh?" and then "No, he can carry his own stuff."

It eventually dawned on the guy that those planes I was carrying were my own, and I was going to fly them (perhaps the transmitter hanging from its strap around my neck was a clue?), and he apologized.

It's amazing how often this happens; about every other time I fly there, there's some guy reacting like "Unbelievable! She has breasts, yet she flies airplanes! How can this be?"

It's not that they're unfriendly -- usually they're much more complimentary than this particular fellow. But it can get old being the phenomenal talking dog week after week. I'm reminded of the recommendation in Val's "How To Encourage Women in Linux" document: "Don't stare and point when women arrive". Fortunately, the Bayland regulars aren't like that, so it's not quite that "stranger walks into a bar" scene mentioned in Val's howto. But it's frequent enough that I bet it discourages women newbies.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised, based on the state of model airplane magazines, which are still stuck at that pleistocene "Each month's cover shows a different scantily clad bimbo with big tits and lots of lipstick, posing with an airplane" stage from which most other male-dominated hobbies graduated ten or fifteen years ago, or longer.

I was thinking about that today after class when, as I was getting ready to ride home, a woman walking to her car hailed me with some bike questions, and we had a nice talk about motorcycling.

She said her boyfriend thought she might be too short to ride (she was about my height, possibly a little shorter) but she'd seen a Rebel at a Honda dealer and was pretty sure she could ride that. I assured her a Rebel should be no problem, nor should a small sportbike like a Ninja 250. I offered to let her try straddling my CB-1 (about the same height as a Ninja 250), but she declined -- on her way somewhere, and perhaps nervous about sitting on someone else's bike.

Anyway, she had already decided to take the MSF course and get all the safety gear before buying a bike -- she'd obviously thought it through, and had come to all the right conclusions on her own. You go, girl!

(I probably should have thought to tell her about the Short Bike List FAQ.)

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[ 22:40 Mar 15, 2005    More misc | permalink to this entry ]

Fri, 18 Feb 2005

Sign of the Times

Lina discovered this.

Google for "matriarchal".

Google asks:

Did you mean: patriarchal

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[ 10:12 Feb 18, 2005    More misc | permalink to this entry ]

Sat, 07 Aug 2004

Picnix 13

Hey, cool! The Linux Picnix 13 T-shirts came in a women's version! Looked like they had a bunch -- I hope they don't end up with too many extras and regret making them, 'cause they're very nice and I'd love to see this catch on. (It's black, so maybe not too useful outdoors, but it looks great.) (Followup: actually it's very thin fabric and even outdoors it's okay.) The picnic was fun, too, and well organized. Oracle sponsored the food. Thanks to Google, Oracle, and the Linux Picnix crew (Bill Kendrick, Bill Ward and whoever else helped out).

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[ 23:05 Aug 07, 2004    More linux | permalink to this entry ]