Marching for the Facts

science march 2017The March for Science held yesterday in cities around the world demonstrated how many people support science, research, and the fact-based decisions. Many rallies and marches are emotional outbursts against injustice, but this one had a slightly different tone. People who marched care passionately about basing public policy on facts, not profits, not quick-fixes, but long-term solutions for our world. And judging by the enthusiastic support they received from the public and media, it seems that many Americans agree with them.

In honor of some of the pioneers who helped develop the science and technology, I am repeating a tribute to Ada Lovelace published in this blog a few years ago.

Who was Ada Lovelace and why is she celebrated? You can still get a few arguments about whether she deserves the distinction, but she certainly had an unusual life. She was born in England in 1815 and was the legitimate daughter of Lord Byron, quite a feat in itself because the famous poet fathered all of his other children with women who were not his wife. Still, being born legitimate is not an achievement for the baby, who has no choice in the matter. Ada Lovelace (born Augusta Ada Byron) had to be an unusual woman to earn a reputation of her own and gain lasting fame. And she was.

Despite having an irregular upbringing with a mother so focused on hatred for her husband, Byron, that she had little time for her daughter, Ada Lovelace had a good

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace, computer programmer

education. Her mother encouraged tutors to teach Ada mathematics as a way to ward off the tendency toward madness that she believed affected Lord Byron and his family. Ada took to numbers and became a competent mathematician as well as mastering several languages.

Ada Lovelace moved in high social circles. She became Baroness King when she married William King. The couple had three children, but Ada still had time to continue her friendships with both men and women. She became an avid gambler and tried to find mathematical models to help her and her friends find formula which would increase their winning. That, unfortunately, didn’t work and she went deeply into debt. Her love of mathematics, however, continued.

It was her friendship with Charles Babbage, the inventor of the Analytical Engine, a first attempt at a computer, which led to her developing an algorithm to allow the analytical engine to compute Bernoulli numbers. It was this which led to her being considered the first computer programmer.

Scholars have debated how much of the programming work was done by Ada and how much by Babbage, but perhaps it doesn’t matter. Whether or not she actually was the world’s first programmer, she certainly achieved far more than anyone would have expected of a 19th century woman. And all that she achieved was done before she died of cancer at the age of 36.

It is fitting that we now have an Ada Lovelace Day celebrated every year in mid-October. The day is dedicated to honoring the past achievements of women in science, engineering, technology and mathematics and to encouraging women to enter these fields. You can find a number of biographies of Ada Lovelace, many of them aimed at children and teens. It is too bad there aren’t more biographies of other women scientists. One outstanding memoir, a recent best seller, is Lab Girl by Hope Jahren. Anyone interested in knowing what it means to be a scientist will find it well worth reading.science march02 2017

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Father-Daughter Teams

White_House_North_side_-_july_2012

White House–north side

Every White House watcher has noticed by now the close relationship between President Trump and his older daughter, Ivanka. Now that Ivanka Trump has an official position in the administration and an office in the West Wing, she is expected to become even more visible to the public. What will her role be? How will she and her father work together?

History buffs scurried around to find examples of other presidential daughters who played important roles in their father’s lives. The only daughter who took over the First Lady role was Martha Jefferson, who acted as hostess for her widower father. Ivanka Trump’s role in her father’s administration is going to be far different from that of the First Lady, Melania Trump. It looks as though this administration will be setting quite a few “firsts” for presidential families.

The story that got me started on this train of thought is the story of Galileo and his older daughter as told in Dava Sobel’s book Galileo’s Daughter. It gives an eye-opening glimpse into family life in the 17th century. Despite spending most of her life in a cloistered

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Sister Maria Celeste

convent, Maria Celeste kept up with her father’s scientific discoveries and with his life in the turbulent political currents of the day. Her letters deal primarily with the mundane details of clothing and food. Maria Celeste mended collars for her father, asked him to send her fabric to make a wedding present for her brother’s wife, and prepared potions to ease his chronic aches and pains. But she also consoled him when he was persistently questioned by the Inquisition and even managed his household, from behind her convent walls, when he was imprisoned for publishing his heretical ideas.

Galileo, for his part, patiently hunted down the fabrics and other household items Maria Celeste requested and generously supported her and her convent for many years. I had never known that the families of nuns were expected to give so generously to pay for the necessities of life in the convent—food, medical care,

Galileo

Galileo

and even building repairs. Without a husband and without any means of earning a living, women were dependent on the generosity of their fathers, brothers and other male relatives. This must have led to anger and bitterness in some families, but in the case of the Galileo family, father and daughter forged a relationship that was filled with love and that must have consoled each of them for the trials and difficulties of their lives during the upheavals of their time.

Galileo’s Daughter is a book well worth reading, especiallyGalileo's Daughter book if you are a parent. You’ll learn a lot about science and perhaps even more about political and family relationships. Now that our society has moved far beyond the financial dependency of women, the dynamics of father-daughter relationships have changed, but these relationships are often stressful and difficult to maneuver. As the roles of both men and women continue to evolve, it is worth looking back sometimes on the ways families handled these challenges in the past.

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To add or subtract? The decluttering dilemma

Perhaps it is the tax season that started a rush among my friends to get rid of clutter, especially old tax forms. But getting rid of paper forms and receipts is only the start of a decluttering ritual that has been sweeping through the country. Marie Kondo’s 2014 book on decluttering started a trend.

declutter cottage

Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond

 

 

Perhaps it is the echo of spring cleaning from long-forgotten great-grandmothers that makes simplifying seem attractive. Or maybe it is memories of a high school reading of Thoreau, who urged us to “Simplify; simplify” our lives. He told us to have one meal a day instead of three; to have one suit of clothes instead of many. Few of us have gone so far. Even Thoreau didn’t go that far. While he was living in his small bare cabin in the woods, he walked home from Walden Pond many evenings to have a meal in his family home. A meal probably cooked in his mother’s cluttered kitchen.

Throughout history most people have spent their time elaborating rather than simplifying. The simple objects that we need to make life livable have become canvases for art. Just take a look at a patchwork quilt made about the time that Thoreau was preaching quilt 19 centurysimplicity. Instead of a bare necessity to keep a sleeper warm, some woman made this quilt into a feast for the eyes as well as a comfort for the body. That’s quite an achievement.

Recently I have been reading a lot about Florence, Italy, the setting for my next book in the Charlotte Edgerton mystery series. The Renaissance furniture of Italy with its unnecessarily elaborate decorations might have disappointed Thoreau, but I am glad that so many people from quilters to furniture makers over the centuries have chosen to embellish rather than strip down the household items they have made. And I certainly intend to enjoy the lovely objects that have grown out of people’s desire to make even humble objects beautiful.

declutter_chest

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Abortion through the years

Yesterday I joined a crowd of other people headed to the Berkeley Rep theater to see the play Roe, an account of the forty-year-old Supreme Court case Roe v Wade, which made abortion legal in the United States. Written by Lisa Loomer and performed by a group of

Beecham's_pills_advert

gifted actors, the play makes the twists and turns of an old legal drama completely absorbing.

The drama focuses on the effects of the trial and its aftermath on the two central figures—Norma McCorvey the plaintiff, and Sarah Weddington, the lawyer who took her case to court. Most of us in the audience already knew the story—how Norma wanted an abortion to end her third pregnancy, and how Sarah wanted a case that would force changes in the restrictive Texas abortion law. Perhaps we didn’t all remember that Norma never did get that abortion because the case dragged on so long. The baby was born and given up for adoption before the court reached a decision. Sarah, however, did set in motion the legal changes that would change the landscape of women’s rights in America.

Over the centuries from the ancient civilizations of Greece, Rome and India up until the present, women have tried to control their own fertility. Without effective contraception,

Abortion_Greek

Aphrodite freed from her chains

abortion often offered the only release from an endless series of pregnancies and births for married women, many of them from families that were ill-equipped to support another child. And most women who sought abortions were married. Even today, when contraception is much more available, cheap and foolproof, the majority of women who seek abortions, according to figures from the Guttmacher Institute,  are married women who already have at least one child.

Those of us who lived through the 1970s and were aware of the Roe v Wade case assumed that it would put an end to all the arguments and restrictions on abortion. Most countries in the developed world have accepted the fact that many women will want to abort a pregnancy that occurs at a time when they cannot bear and take care of another child. People who are strongly opposed to abortion usually claim that a “soul” enters a fetus’s cells sometime soon after conception. They therefore claim that the fetus is a person whose life must be preserved. Many other people dispute this claim. For centuries people believed that a human being becomes human when it is born and most people believe that now.

The dispute about when human life begins cannot be solved by science because it is a religious argument. Why is it that the United States is one of the very few countries where large numbers of people insist that their religious views become the law of the land? Perhaps if more people could see the play Roe they might develop a greater understanding of the arguments on both sides of the question. And perhaps more people would be content to let women control their own bodies. Medical science has given women the means to have safe and effective abortions; the decision about whether or not to have one should be left in the hands of the individual, not determined by the votes of outsiders.

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Orchids and Mysteries

IMG_0265_edited-1On a day when the news is filled with stories about a hate crime in Kansas, an assassination by nerve gas in Malaysia, and the exclusion of our most reliable news sources from a presidential briefing, it is a relief to turn to the wonders of the natural world. Along with scores of other people I visited the Pacific Orchid Exhibition in San Francisco and was refreshed by the silent, wondrous beauty of flowers.

Orchids, of course, are more than flowers. They are symbols of luxury, wealth and ambition. Perhaps because Westerners had to search so hard for them during the 19th century when they were first discovered, they have been associated with kings, queens, rich men and beautiful women. Queen Victoria had her own personal orchid hunter who scoured jungles throughout the world to find plants for the royal conservatory.

no_more_orchids_filmposterWealth and orchids often went together in early films such as Carole Lombard’s hit No More Orchids in 1932. The perfect film title to link orchids and wealth was a 1927 silent film called Orchids and Ermine, which featured young attractive girls trying to find themselves rich husbands. The movie version of a sensational World War II book (said to be the most-read book among British troops during the war) No Orchids for Miss Blandish again offered orchids as a symbol of wealth and privilege.

Novels that feature orchids usually qualify as escapist fiction and the Nero Wolfe series of books by Rex Stout certainly fits that category. I depend on the Kindle downloads from the San Francisco Public Library for much of my reading and this weekend I was lucky enough to find the Nero Wolfe story Black Orchids. It’s delightful to travel back in imagination to the 1940s and visit an orchid show in New York where Nero Wolfe and his sidekick, Archiimg_0466_edited-1e Goodwin, go to an orchid show not unlike the one I visited. The flowers there were still as beautiful, the growers as dedicated, and the visitors just as enchanted as the ones I saw. The only thing not on display at the California show was a mysterious murder. Nero Wolfe’s love of orchids lives on and so do Stout’s books about him. They are well worth revisiting.

One of the things I like best about reading mysteries, and about writing them, is the intriguing subjects I learn about. In my recently published Charlotte Edgerton mystery, Death Calls at the Palace, Charlotte and her husband discover the excitement and anger of people involved in the Chartist movement in England during the early 19th century, just as I learned about them in researching the book. Deep divisions between the rich and poor, the demand for jobs that have disappeared, and the angry demonstrations that grow out of injustice echo some of the themes we see in our world today. And so do the strong convictions expressed in this “Chartist Anthem”.

death-calls-at-the-palace-small The time shall come when wrong shall end,

When peasant to peer no more shall bend;

When the lordly Few shall lose their sway,

And the Man no more their frown obey.

Toil, brother, toil till the work is done,

Till the struggle is o’er and the Charter won.

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Seeing Danger Wherever He Looks

Who would have thought that airports with their tedious lines and endless corridors could become so exciting? This week a new presidential order denying entry to people from several Middle Eastern countries caused consternation as immigration officers denied entry to some people with valid visas or green cards as well as all refugees. Fortunately for the country, several states protested and the courts have resisted the move and put a temporary halt on the order.

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Thomas Nast cartoon-Wikimedia

Prejudice against newcomers isn’t a new sentiment in the United States. Neither is prejudice against a particular religion that is seen as a threat to the country. From Colonial times on, many Americans have suspected that Roman Catholics with their “foreign” religion were a threat to the country.

The Irish immigrants who poured into the country from the 1840s on, were often the targets of discrimination by the press and clergy. Lyman Beecher, for instance, wrote that “The Catholic system is adverse to liberty, and the clergy to a great extent are dependent on foreigners opposed to the principles of our government, for patronage and support.”

One of the few writers who believed that the despised immigrants brought value to the country was Margaret Fuller. She praised the Irish immigrants for their generosity and family feeling and told her readers that they would be of great value to America. Fuller margaret-fuller-1valued the contributions of other immigrants of the time too, including the Germans and Italians who could offer much to the country. My admiration for Margaret Fuller was what led me to write a biography of this brave woman.

Over the years, Americans learned that Catholics did not pose a threat to American values. They became a part of mainstream American life. But fearful people continue to fear. Today we are hearing echoes of Lyman Beecher as politicians talk about the threat of Muslims and of  Islamic thought. As of 2014, seven states had passed laws or ballot measures that banned Sharia law from influencing the courts. These states include Alabama, North Carolina, Arizona, Kansas, South Dakota and Tennessee. Currently the Montana legislature is arguing about the need for such a law.

President Trump appears to view the world as a threatening place and to fear that people professing a religion different from what he is used to must be dangerous. As any historian could tell him, people who are not descended from the handful of English settlers, have fdr-fearmade this country great. Fear of anyone different from ourselves leads to stagnation, not greatness. Perhaps the president should listen to a brave woman like Marie Curie who said it well: Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.

And if President Trump wants to gain wisdom from the presidents who preceded him, he might pay attention to the words of one of our greatest leaders, Franklin Delano Roosevelt who famously announced that The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

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Rachel Carson’s Tangled Web

In the midst of the deluge of news coming out of the White House this past week, many environmentalists have paid tribute to Rachel Carson, whose 1962 book Silent Spring has silent-springbeen hailed by many as the impetus that started America’s environmental movement. Carson’s book called attention to the impact of the insecticide DDT on the deaths of birds, fish, and other animals up the food chain. The book called for an end to the indiscriminate spraying of DDT on crops, in houses, and on children and other people who spent time outdoors.

After the book was published, it was predictably attacked by the chemical industry, especially Dupont  Chemical Company which produced DDT. One Dupont scientist, Robert White-Stevens, was particularly vehement: According to White-Stevens, “If man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth.” Rachel Carson was called to testify before Congress on the validity of her findings, which she defended strongly despite being critically ill at the time. She died of cancer in 1964, less than two years after the publication of her most famous book.

Silent Spring was widely publicized, appearing as a series of articles in the New Yorker as well as being the subject of a CBS documentary. The public soon embraced the idea of the rachel-carson-illusdanger of pesticides and other technological advances in science. The use of DDT on crops was banned in the United States and in 1970 the Environmental Protection Agency was set up to monitor the effect of various scientific advances on the lives of Americans.

Controversy continues, however. When Google paid tribute to Rachel Carson on the 50th anniversary of her death, Breitbart News asked the question: “Will Google be paying tribute to any of the other mass killers of the 20th century? Hitler? Stalin? Mao? Pol Pot? Probably not. But then, none of the others have had the benefit of having their images burnished by a thousand and one starry-eyed greenies.” 

The idea of Rachel Carson as a mass murderer comes from the fact that deaths from malaria, which had been decreasing with the use of DDT to kill malarial mosquitoes, began to climb. But the increase seems to have been due more to the fact that mosquitoes evolved so that DDT no longer killed them. And critics of Carson fail to recognize that she never suggested that all pesticides be abolished. Environmental issues are complex and simple solutions seldom solve them.

The truth is that science is difficult. Discovering the truth about the natural world takes time and requires the cooperation of many scientists. And trying to use the facts of science to make the world better usually has mixed results. Rachel Carson was right—pesticides do disrupt the natural order and kill birds as well as insects. And other scientists are also right in saying that malaria is a terrible disease and that killing the mosquitoes that carry the disease saves human lives. We need to find a balance between the two. Gradually scientists are finding new pesticides which are again bringing down the rates of malaria around the world.

The struggle over science continues. Climate change is one of the most hotly contested scientific issues today, especially because President Trump has said that he does not believe in the concept of climate change caused by human activities . His nominee for the head of the EPA is a man who has scoffed at the need for the U.S. and the world to make any effort to climate-changeaddress climate change. On January 24, 2017, according to the New York Times, “President Donald Trump’s administration has instructed the Environmental Protection Agency to remove the climate change page from its website, two agency employees told Reuters, the latest move by the newly minted leadership to erase ex-President Barack Obama’s climate change initiatives.”

As citizens we need to recognize the complexities of science and accept that changes are necessary even though they may be uncomfortable. Old jobs and old ways of life may disappear, but new ones will be found. We must protest when government officials forbid scientists to study how the world works and to make projections about what will happen in the future.

This blog is called Teacups and Tyrants. Most of my posts have focused on the quieter teacup parts of life, but recently the country has seen the growth of tyrants. From now on I expect to focus more on the harsher side of life and the threats that tyrants pose for our future.

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