Saturday, 7 November 2015

It all STEMs from education, Ms Odone

I was a nerd at school. Still am. Can't remember the last time I read a novel from start to finish. Haven't been to an art gallery in decades. Don't listen to classical music. Never have.

But when I was at school I was forced to do humanities and arts. I was forced to read Shakespeare. I was forced to forced to read George Eliott and Joseph Conrad. I had Beethoven and Debussy rammed down my throat whether I was interested or not. I didn't want to do drama and I had no passion for daubing bits of paper with garish tones of pigment or shaping sloppy clay into interesting shapes.

None of that was for me. Give me a physics textbook and some equations to play with and I was a happy bunny.

And what did all that liberal arts education give me?

When I left university and finished twenty years of formal science education, I went to the non-science parts of the local library and binged. I read novels. I read history, not just the kings and queens sort, but the history of literature and art too. I ever read poetry, from Auden to Graves, Chaucer to Donne (hat tip to my friend Sheila White).  I even listened to some classical music.

Christina Odone, of the Daily Telegraph, has written an execrable piece about her daughter who has to study science because...  Well, not because the government insists and it is a ruddy good idea to have some idea about the world around you and how it functions, but because it is a feminist ideal for women to do things that men typically do and which benefit humanity in general.

The daughter seems to be some shrinking violet who cannot think for herself and just get on and learn some science.  Actually, I don't believe that. I think it is the mother who is being a bit of a bully and throwing her credentials around as a right wing commentator to make a pretty vapid point about feminism.  In doing so, she not only displays her prejudices but also her ignorance.  In Britain we have had something of an Ada Lovelace season, celebrating the mathematical talents of a woman (perish the thought, eh, Ms Odone?). We could have done the same with Rosalind Franklin's biological talent, or Dorothy Hodgkin's, and so on.

I suppose Odone looks up to the towering talents of such women as Natalie Portman, the Academy Award winning actress (Black Swan, remember?). Not only is she talented but attractive too, the latter no doubt being the important characteristic as far as Odone is concerned.  Odone has probably even seen her in films, though the boys ones, like Thor and Star Wars, might not be to her taste. Never mind. Portman is a role model,to Violet Elizabeth Botts everywhere. You can have children. You can do dressing up and pretending to be someone else. You can make pots of money and do it while being a woman as long as you stick to the arts and not mess with the laddish sciences.

Er, what's that, you say? Natalie Portman did what?  She studied for a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology and published original research in a scientific journal?  Really.  She did?

So strike Natalie Portman from Odone's consciousness because she has clearly let all of womankind down by not sticking to flower arranging and making jam while her husband is out at work and studied science instead.

If she doesn't count, what about Mayim Bialik in The Big Bang Theory? She only plays a scientist, right?  Wrong she is a neuroscientist, properly qualified, PhD and all. Dr Bialik.

Lisa Kudrow of Friends has a biology degree. Teri Hatcher studied maths and engineering. See, lots of women can actually be women, be arty and be scientific too. It's easy. In fact, I reckon it is not only easy but women do the scientific thing without realising. My hairdresser teaches me science every time she cuts my hair, because she learned the science of skin and hair when she was at college learning to do perms and streaks and blow dries.

So, Christina Odone, your daughter should do science. For one thing, she will use it, even if it is assessing the right treatment for indigestion. For a second thing, you don't know if your supposedly shrinking violet daughter might actually get interested in science, just as I got interested in medieval literature, Renaissance art and Sakespeare by being allowed to experience it at school. I learned so much at school, not because I thought I might need it or my teachers did, but because my teachers allowed me to know it existed. Does a parent really want to close off their child from an understanding of the beauty of nature, the means of thinking critically about medicine, or energy, or nutrition, or evolution, or any other scientific idea? Apparently, in this case, the answer is yes. How terribly sad?


  1. "But what about fulfilment? J K Rowling, say, strikes me as a lot happier and more successful than Alan Turing, the tortured mathematics genius who took his own life."

    Well, there you have it. Ms. Odone has closed the debate with a certain finality. Who could possibly refute an argument that sound, that coolly logical?

    Off-topic, I've read Auden, Graves, Chaucer and Donne too. Small world.

    1. I would imagine J K Rowling is happy. She has success, fame and money, not to mention the respect that comes with success. Turing had just one of those - professional success - but could not have his accomplishments during the war recognized because of the Official Secrets Act. As for tortured - I suppose having police hanging around men's toilets waiting for someone to make a pass at them so they could be arrested was an everyday hazard for gay men in the fifties. Thankfully some people show a little more enlightenment.

      My guess is that Odone doesn't know any other mathematicians, or couldn't be bothered to find the names of any, let alone biographical details. I guess she couldn't be bothered to find out much about Turing either. The whole article is sloppy journalism. She has done this job long enough to know how to do it properly. One wonders if the editor of the Telegraph needed something in a hurry and Odone had a bee in her bonnet.

      As a science teacher, I have to put up with enough girls saying they don't need science (well, yes, they do but...) without someone printing this nonsense in their newspaper which could prompt some frosty conversations on parents' evenings.

    2. Odone is one of many bad journalists well known for writing sloppy work; in her case she has less excuse because she isn't under as much pressure to crank out the words as most others.
      (See "Flat Earth news" by Nick Davies for evidence)

      In fact the Torygraph really isn't worth buying it has gone even further downhill. Or so I gather.

    3. I was alerted to it in a tweet. I tend to do the rounds of the newspaper websites to see if there is anything interested I should keep up on and to keep a sense of balance. Some papers have only a nodding acquaintance with reality.

  2. Statistical mechanics is the killer

    “Ludwig Boltzmann, who spent much of his life studying statistical mechanics, died in 1906, by his own hand. Paul Ehrenfest, carrying on the work, died similarly in 1933. Now it is our turn to study statistical mechanics. Perhaps it will be wise to approach the subject cautiously.”