Thursday, October 4, 2012

Using Minimalism to Promote Women in Science

Here's a nice idea to celebrate women in science:  minimalist posters.

The six examples you see to the right were done by Hydrogene to highlight several pioneering women in science:  Marie Curie (physicist & chemist who won 2 Nobel Prizes for work on radioactivity), Rachel Carson (marine biologist and author of Silent Spring, which kickstarted the environmental movement), Sally Ride (astrophysicist and first American female in space), Grace Hopper (computer scientist who pioneered programming language), Rosalind Franklin (biophysicist whose work laid the foundation for understanding the structure of DNA), and Jane Goodall (primatologist who did ground-breaking work with chimpanzees).

The concept of minimalism is used mostly in art and music to convey the essence of a subject.  All extraneous and distracting aspects are eliminated, leading to the core identifying elements.  It's a concept that I find to be appealing and highly effective in conveying an abstract idea, or in this case, pioneering women and their contributions to science. Some might argue that it is overly simplistic and fails to capture the complexity of these women and their contributions. However, there are other works (their publications, biographies, etc.) that accomplish those things.

What these minimalist posters do is capture the imagination of the viewer who then wonders who these women are and why their names are associated with these striking images.  Perhaps the viewer becomes curious and looks for more information about the less familiar ones.  For example, the image of a moth on the Grace Hopper poster refers to the story about how she coined the term "debugging" to describe fixing computer glitches after a real moth was removed from the innards of a malfunctioning computer (see this bio for a picture of the log entry with the actual moth taped to the page and the accompanying log entry, "First actual case of bug being found").

Of all the posters, that one is my favorite because it's the least obvious, and the link between name and image derives from a controversial story.  Apparently, there is some disagreement over whether Hopper actually coined the term "computer bug" or "debugging" in reference to computers.  You'll find several websites arguing about this point, and reading them one gets the feeling that the authors think that by discrediting this story they also discredit Hopper.  This one, for example, debunks the story but never mentions Hopper's real contributions to computer science.  Even if the intent in debunking the moth story was not to discredit Hopper, the failure to even briefly acknowledge her role as one of the first computer programmers is telling.  Whereas other blogs question the story but acknowledge (and celebrate) Hopper's work.  I did not have time to track down all the historical details, but my impression is that no one knows the real story about who coined the computer bug terminology.  Maybe Hopper didn't coin the term, but she appears to have helped spread its use by retelling the moth story.  And she certainly made other, more substantial contributions.  That's what's really important.

I'll have more to say about this general idea of minimalism in coming posts and how we might use it to promote our own science accomplishments.

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