science

Radical Woman of the Day: Caroline Herschel

On this day in 1750 was born Caroline Lucretia Herschel, German-born astronomer and first woman to be awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society. Beginning by assisting her brother Sir William Herschel—also a notable astronomer and telescope builder—by making calculations, polishing mirrors, and mounting telescopes, she went on to make significant discoveries of her own.

Herschel’s growth was stunted by a childhood bout of typhus, so she grew to only 4 feet 10 inches tall, which her family regarded as a deformity that would probably prevent her marriage. Confined to serving in the family kitchen, she eventually moved out when William invited her to live with him in England, where he was then working as a musician. The two developed their interest in astronomy together, and Herschel progressed from assisting William’s work to discovering eight comets on her own throughout the 1780s and ’90s. Her contributions gained enough recognition for the state to award her a salary of £50 per year, making her the first female scientist to be so compensated.

In 1797 William asked Herschel to cross-reference a star catalog by John Flamsteed, which contained many discrepencies and had been published in two volumes—the catalog of stars and Flamsteed’s original observations—making it difficult to follow. Herschel wrote the cross-reference, including a list of errata and an additional catalog of over 560 stars Flamsteed had not been able to include, and it was published by the Royal Society in 1798.

In 1828 the Royal Astronomical Society presented Herschel with the Gold Medal in recognition of her catalog of nebulae; no othe woman would win the award until Vera Rubin in 1996. In 1835, she and Mary Somerville became the first female honorary members of the Royal Astronomical Society, and in 1838 Herschel was elected to the Royal Irish Academy. In 1846 the King of Prussia awarded her the Gold Medal for Science. She has an asteroid and a moon crater named after her.

Baby Possibly Cured of HIV

In a medical first for an infant, the Mississippi toddler was born in July 2010 infected with HIV, treated within 30 hours of delivery with aggressive HIV therapy, which continued for 18 months. She is now considered cured of her infection, a team of researchers led by Dr. Deborah Persaud, a virologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said in a news conference at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in Atlanta on Sunday.

“From a clinical perspective, this means that if you can get an infected baby on to antiretroviral drugs immediately after delivery, it’s going to be possible to prevent or reverse the infection—essentially cure the baby,” said Dr. Steven Deeks, an HIV/AIDS researcher at the University of California at San Francisco who is attending the conference, where the case was presented to researchers on Monday.

This is huge. Hopefully the further study that will certainly result from this can find other exploitable holes in the disease.

Women Who See Themselves as Objects Are Less Able to Count Their Own Heartbeats

While a device connected to their finger measured their pulse, female university students were asked to “listen” to their bodies and silently count their own heartbeats, without feeling for their pulse. At the best, they were able to do so with 85 percent accuracy.

Then, the women responded to questionnaires designed to measure the degree to which they self-objectify – ranking how highly they value physical attributes based on appearance compared to those based on competence (for example, were they more concerned about their body shape or their energy level?).

They found a significant correlation between the participants’ ability to count their heartbeats and where they scored on the scale of self-objectification: Those who valued appearance over competence were less interospective [sic].

First of all, you can see by clicking through to the study in question that the correct word is not “interospective” but “interoceptive”, which certainly makes more sense.

More importantly, I don’t feel too confident in the conclusions the researchers drew from the study, because I feel like their methods were flawed. Doesn’t it seem entirely possible that being asked to count their own heartbeats right before filling out the questionnaires may have caused some women to experience more self-objectifying feelings because of some other factor not accounted for by the study?

Still, I like that someone is doing research into self-objectification and its effects on women’s overall health.

Radical Woman of the Day: Laura Bassi

On this day in 1778, Laura Maria Caterina Bassi, Italian scientist and the first woman ever to teach at a European university, died. Born in 1711 to a wealthy family in Bologna, she received a private education, including tutoring by Gaetano Tacconi, a university teacher and scientist.

The University of Bologna appointed her professor of anatomy in 1731, when she was only 21, and the following year she was elected to the Academy of the Institute for Sciences. At first giving only occasional lectures, she began lecturing regularly from her own home after marrying Giuseppe Veratti in 1738. Focusing primarily on Newtonian physics, she spent 28 years propagating Newton’s discoveries while also conducting her own experiments in physics.

In 1745, Pope Benedict XIV, who had encouraged the young Bassi in her studies while he was still a Cardinal, apppointed her as the only woman in a group of 25 scholars named “Benedettini”, after himself. In 1776 the Bologna Institute of Sciences appointed her to a chair in experimental physics. She was 65, and her husband served as her teaching assistant.

Bassi has a crater on Venus named after her, as well as a high school and city street in Bologna.

Science: Girls v. Boys

For years… researchers have been searching for ways to explain why there are so many more men than women in the top ranks of science.

Now comes an intriguing clue, in the form of a test given in 65 developed countries by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It finds that among a representative sample of 15-year-olds around the world, girls generally outperform boys in science — but not in the United States.

Fantastic graphical presentation of the data. The worst part, though, is that not only does the U.S. have a large gender disparity in science—it has the third largest.

Spend some time poking around with this chart; I found it fascinating.

"The Real Problem, Then, Was Rosy"

50 years later, Harriet A. Washington at Ms. debunks two popular explanations for Rosalind Franklin’s snubbing by the Nobel Committee in 1962, starting with the most frequently cited: that she was dead when the prize was awarded.

She was dead in 1962 when the DNA triumvirate received the Prize, but why was it awarded a full nine years after the discovery of DNA’s structure was reported in Nature? Today this delay sounds reasonable, because now, the committee has come to award discoveries that have withstood test of time. However the rules of Franklin’s era indicated that the award was in recognition of discoveries made “during the preceding year.” Had this rule been adhered to, the Prize would have been awarded in 1954, when Franklin was still alive.

Reading between the lines, it seems improbable that anyone deliberately excluded Franklin; more likely the pervasive sexism of the scientific community simply made it unlikely that anyone would think to include her.

Gingrey's Bad Science and Bad Logic

When I responded to Rep. Phil Gingrey’s “legitimate rape” remarks on Saturday, I focused on the subtle misogyny underlying the statement. William Saletan at Slate wants to make sure we don’t miss the bad science behind Gingrey’s claims that stress can cause infertility and that doctors frequently tell women to “Just relax. Drink a glass of wine.”

If Gingrey is telling this to his patients—and prescribing alcohol for it—he’s a quack. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, “While chronic stress, for example from extreme exposure to famine or war, may decrease a woman’s ability to conceive, there is no scientific evidence that adrenaline, experienced in an acute stress situation, has an impact on ovulation.” The American Society for Reproductive Medicine agrees: “There isn’t any proof that stress causes infertility.” Another infertility organization, Resolve, says “stress does not cause infertility.” Dr. Gingrey might also benefit from reading this 2010 paper in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology: “Acute stress may induce ovulation in women.”

Saletan also isn’t letting Gingrey slide on his reinterpretation of Akin’s original statement as a warning against false rape accusations by teenage girls afraid to admit they had consensual sex:

Really? That isn’t how Akin explained his remark. On Aug. 20, a day after the gaffe, Akin went on Mike Huckabee’s radio show. Huckabee asked Akin: “What did you mean by ‘legitimate rape’? Were you attempting to say forcible rape?” Akin replied: “Yeah, I was talking about forcible rape.” If that’s truly what Akin meant, then he was using the term legitimate to suggest that any woman impregnated by rape must have suffered statutory rape, not forcible rape.

As I’ve mentioned frequently, I grew up Republican and retain strong nostalgia and sympathy for the party. So I believe I’m decently-positioned to be fair in thinking this incident illustrates that many of the GOP establishment have gotten lost in uncritical rhetoric and thereby become incapable of not sounding like racist, misogynist, homophobic fear-mongers scrabbling to retain their dwindling vestiges of power.

Because of my also—by this time—well-known belief that most people are pretty decent and have good intentions, I think the Republican party needs to take a good hard look at itself and get educated about the true needs and perspectives of women, gays, and minorities, very quickly.

Radical Woman of the Day: Shannon Lucid

On this day in 1943, Shannon Matilda Wells Lucid was born in Shanghai, China, to Baptist missionaries Oscar and Myrtle Wells. Subsequently raised in Oklahoma, Lucid attended the University of Oklahoma, where she earned her Ph.D. in biochemistry.

Having held a number of research and teaching posts during the 60s and early 70s as a biochemist, Lucid was selected for the NASA Astronaut Corps’ first class containing female students in 1974, a year after she finished her graduate studies. She went into space five times on four different shuttle missions and a prolonged stay aboard the Mir space station, all while raising three children.

In 1996, Lucid set two different records when her return from the Mir was delayed twice. She performed a number of life and physical science experiments in space for 188 days, from March 22 to September 26, the longest time in orbit both by a non-Russian and by a woman. (The latter record was later broken by Sunita Williams in 2007.) For this accomplishment she received the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.

From 2002 to 2003, Lucid was NASA’s Chief Scientist, and from 2005 to 2012, when she retired, she was the lead capsule communicator for the Planning shift of several shuttle missions.

Via The Radical Women’s History Project.

Being a Better Ally to Trans People

A long, thorough response from Tim Chevalier at Geek Feminism to a question about hearing trans* people referred to as “unnatural”. Even if you’re skeptical about the morality or legitimacy of this issue, you should at least wrestle with the information he presents. Particularly, make sure you click through to the article linked by the word “phalloclitoris”.

Jewish Views on Reproductive Technology

Part 1 of a planned series from Ellen Painter Dollar. I don’t know that I would base any of my ideology or beliefs on this information, but it’s still interesting. For example:

Judaism does not perceive fertilized eggs as fully human in the way that the Catholic church and many other Christian traditions do. Thus, Judaism does not share Christian concerns that techniques such as IVF and PGD manipulate and/or destroy human embryos. Jewish authorities have laid out very specific timelines of fertilization, implantation, gestation, and birth, making determinations at each stage as to the moral status of the developing baby and the relationship between the baby’s moral status and the mother’s.