Popular Science Books on My Reading List

When I first started this blog (2 years ago, can you believe it?!), I wrote a blog post about 5 popular science books that I recommend to anyone who dares to ask me about the subject. That post had a really good response, and since then I’ve been reviewing books on this blog individually after I’ve read them. I’ve been reading lots recently, but more fiction than non-fiction, which has left me with a pile of popular science books that I still need to get to. I’m not sure which I want to tackle first – I just want to read them all, so I figured I’d list them here, and then if any of you have read and enjoyed them you can let me know.

Invisible women: exposing data bias in a world designed for men by Caroline Criado Perez

From the inside cover:
“Imagine a world where your phone is too big for your hand, where your doctor prescribes a drug that is wrong for your body, where in a car accident you are 47% more likely to be seriously injured, where every week the countless hours of work you do are not recognised or valued. If any of this sounds familiar, chances are that you’re a woman.”

This. Sounds. Incredible.

(and rage inducing)

I preordered this book a few months ago and totally forgot about it. When it landed on my doorstop I did a little squeal of excitement, but now I’ve seen eeeeeeeveryone talking about it on Twitter and I’m nervous that it’s not going to live up to my expectations. Does anyone else get that?

The only woman in the room: why science is still a boys’ club by Eileen Pollack

This is another book that looks like it’s going to make me rage – there’s a theme beginning to form here..

I bought this book when I went to Powell’s City of Books in Portland last year, and despite carrying it all the way across the Atlantic Ocean, it’s been tucked away on my bookshelf since then. It looks like a book I’ll love (and again, rage as a result of), and I’m excited to get to this one. It was named one of the notable non-fiction books of 2015 by the Washington Post, and it focusses on Eileen Pollack’s quest to find out why, even now, relatively few women pursue careers in what she calls ‘the hard sciences’. I really dislike that dichotomy of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sciences, because it implies that there’s a difference in quality, rigour and as a result, respect for and value of. To be clear, I don’t think that there is; so-called soft sciences should be equally as valued as so-called hard sciences – both can be done badly, and both can be done well. Poor phrasing won’t stop me reading this though – I’ll just be mindful of Pollack’s potential biases when I’m reading it.

The war on science: who’s waging it, why it matters, what we can do about it by Shawn Otto

This is another book I carted home with me from Portland, and at 514 pages it’s not the lightest.. I think it’s size is the reason why I haven’t read it yet – it weighs a tonne and the quotes on the back emphasis how ‘well researched’ it is, which is a good thing, but it’s making me hesitate to pick it up in case it’s really dry and full of jargon. Given the subject matter, I really hope that’s not the case!

I’ve never seen anyone talk about this book either. It doesn’t have many reviews on Amazon or GoodReads, but the reviews that are there seem good.
Have any of you read it? I think I need someone to rave about it to finally convince me to start reading.

A guide to making science matter: Escape from the ivory tower by Nancy Baron

I ordered this book after speaking to Jim Handman; science journalist, Executive Director of the Science Media Centre in Canada and former senior producer of science radio show Quirks and Quarks. Jim is kind of a big deal when it comes to science journalism, so when he recommended this book I bought it straight away.
Nancy Baron is a communications coach with an incredible track record, and I am SO excited to read this. From the back, “No one understands scientists the way Nancy Baron does. This book helps connect the worlds of science, journalism, and policy in very entertaining and insightful ways. If you care about linking science with action, this is the book to read.” (Pam Matson, Scientific Director of the Leopold Leadership Program, Woods Institute for the Environment and Dean of the School of Earth Sciences Stanford University).

I already feel like I’m recommending this book before I’ve read it. This is on my April reading pile so expect a review relatively soon.

The state of medicine by Margaret McCartney

Another of Margaret McCartney’s books, ‘The Patient Paradox: Why Sexed Up Medicine is Bad for Your Health’ was included in the 5 science books blog post I mentioned earlier, and this is McCartney’s newest book. Released in 2016, this looks at the NHS – in my opinion, the best thing about the UK.
The back of the book claims that ‘the NHS is the closest thing the UK has to a national religion’, the reason behind that being that it unites people across social and class divides. This book isn’t an ode to the NHS though, it’s about the financial strain that the service is under, and the political decisions that have led to the situation we now find ourselves in.
I love Margaret McCartney, I’ve fangirled about her on this blog before, and I know this book will not disappoint.

If there are any of these books that you’d like to see me review, let me know and I’ll try to make those a priority!

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‘Science Has No Gender!’ …But Does It Have a Race?

Today, February 11th, is International Day for Women and Girls in Science. Today is a day to promote full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls. I’ve talked about women in science on this blog before, and honestly, I wasn’t planning on writing a blog post at all today. I figured I’d just be repeating myself, and at the same time I’m sort of thinking that I’m preaching to the converted – most of the people that read this (as far as I know), are pretty happy with initiatives to improve working environments and opportunities for women in science.

(A note before I start – when I refer to ‘women in science’, I mean every person that identifies as a woman, whether that’s the gender they were assigned at birth or not. To be honest, celebrating and encouraging non-binary people in science should be included in the International Day… title too, but I don’t think the world (i.e. the UN and UNESCO) have come that far yet. That’s a fight for another blog post, but know it’s something that we as a community should be aware of.)

So, why am I writing this blog post at all? Well, today I had a bloody brilliant day. I went to We’re The Furballs – the dog petting cafe that I mentioned in a blog post a few days ago. I was feeling pretty happy with myself because yesterday I did lots of cool science/art related exploration for my Fellowship, and today was a break day that featured a corgi called Waffles, a toy poodle called Lulu, and a sausage dog called Slinky. I also went book shopping, and found the local Sephora – all in all an excellent Monday. That being said, I stopped for ice cream on the way home from the dog petting cafe, and checked Twitter. At the top of my timeline was a post from Hana Ayoob (if you’re not following her, I suggest you remedy that immediately – she also has a wonderful Etsy store) drawing attention to this:

Does anything about UNESCO’s tweet look a little off to you?

No, I’m not talking about spelling errors or unfortunate hashtags, I’m talking about the fact that every single woman in their graphic is white. This made me really, really frustrated. So frustrated in fact that I pretty much forgot about the whole dog petting cafe thing for about 10 minutes.

The whole “we need more women in science” thing is one thing that irritates me on a consistently low level – telling women that we need them in science is not going to make them build a career in science. When I was a teenager choosing my options for subjects at school, the fact that I might be selecting subjects that would push me into a field where there would be less women than men did not encourage me to choose STEM subjects. I wanted to know that women in science were given the same opportunities as men, and the fact that there was (and still is) a shortage of women in science did not fill me with confidence on that front.

ANYWAY. Back to the issue with the graphic above. It’s terrifying that I feel the need to say this, but all women are not able bodied slim white women. This fact should not come as a shock.

If the 7.5 billion people in the world was represented by just 100 people:

50 would be women
50 would be men

60 Asians
16 Africans
14 people from the Americas
10 Europeans

1 would be dying of starvation
11 would be undernourished
22 would be overweight

So if we’re going by what the world looks like, even 1 out of the 5 women in the graphic being white would be an over-representation.

The representation of women in science in the media needs to change. It’s really not that hard – look at the image below.

Image credit: Intersectional Rosie the Riveter Print from Tyler Feder’s Roaring Softly Etsy store

Every single young girl should be able to find someone that she identifies with, and that she can look up to.

If you’re asked to name a woman in science, only being able to name Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin or Ada Lovelace, isn’t a good thing! All of the women in science that I’m seeing being held up as champions and ‘inspirations’ to get girls interested in science are white. That’s not ok.

I don’t want to work in an environment that is full of white women just like I don’t want to work in an environment that is full of white men. I want to work in an environment that is multicultural, heavily diverse, and full of passionate people of all genders, shapes, hues and sizes, feeling supported in the work that they are doing.

I’ve just written 300 words to explain why working in diverse environments is good for science, but I’ve deleted them because we should not be pushing for diversity because it’s good for science. We should be doing it because it’s human decency. As a cisgender able bodied white woman, I am absolutely done trying to explain the advantages of diversity to other privileged people; opening science up to everyone is just fucking ethical.

From UNESCO’s website: “This Day is a reminder that women and girls play a critical role in science and technology communities and that their participation should be strengthened. The celebration is led by UNESCO and UN-Women, in collaboration with institutions and civil society partners that promote women and girls’ access to and participation in science.

UNESCO, here’s a reminder that all women and girls play a critical role in science, not just the slim able bodied white women that you have used your sizeable platform to highlight. Do better.

Image credit: Nevertheless We Persist Print from Tyler Feder’s Roaring Softly Etsy store

Do We Still Need Ada Lovelace Day?

Every year since 2009, on the second Tuesday of October, the world celebrates Ada Lovelace Day. Ada Lovelace is widely regarded as being the world’s first computer programmer, and the day aims to raise the profile of women in STEM by encouraging people around the world to talk about the women whose work they admire. This international day of celebration helps people learn about the achievements of women in STEM, inspiring others and creating ‘new’ role models.

How did the Ada Lovelace Day come about?

From the Finding Ada website:

The inspiration for Ada Lovelace Day came from psychologist Penelope Lockwood, who carried out a study which found that women need to see female role models more than men need to see male role models. “Outstanding women can function as inspirational examples of success,” she said, “illustrating the kinds of achievements that are possible for women around them. They demonstrate that it is possible to overcome traditional gender barriers, indicating to other women that high levels of success are indeed attainable.”

So, in the tenth year of celebrations – do we really need an Ada Lovelace Day?

In a time when people can seriously suggest that ‘separate labs for boys and girls’ might be a good way to stop women crying (biochemist Tim Hunt in 2015), and others are claiming that entire scientific subjects (in this case physics) was ‘invented and built by men’ (researcher Alessandro Strumia just a few weeks ago), it is perhaps unsurprising that I think we need Ada Lovelac Day now more than ever. Though I do have a few caveats..

For Ada Lovelace Day

The general ethos behind Ada Lovelace Day is something that I completely agree with – we should be encouraging people to talk about women working in STEM subjects, and we should be working specifically to highlight their achievements. That’s not because women should be celebrated more than men; it’s because the achievements of men are already being highlighted and celebrated, and they have been for decades.

Dr Donna Strickland

A total of 209 individuals have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics since 1901; only 3 of those were women. One of those women was Dr Donna Strickland who won the award this year, the first woman to do so in 55 years. You might think that demonstrates a step forward – and perhaps in some ways it does, but if at all, it is a tiny, tiny step. To put things into perspective, Strickland did not have a Wikipedia profile at the time of the prize’s announcement.
A Wikipedia user tried to set up a page in May, but it was rejected by a moderator with the message, “This submission’s references do not show that the subject qualifies for a Wikipedia article.” It was determined, had not received enough dedicated coverage elsewhere on the internet to warrant a page. Think that through. This fantastically talented woman did not have a Wikipedia page because of her lack of internet presence.
Strickland said the achievements of women scientists deserved recognition. “We need to celebrate women physicists because we’re out there. I’m honored to be one of those women“, Strickland said by video link at a news conference following the announcement in Stockholm.

Strickland is just one example of the problems that riddle STEM subjects; women are underrepresented and undervalued in comparison to their male peers. Ada Lovelace Day encourages people to find out about women in STEM, and that is a brilliant thing.

Against Ada Lovelace Day

Ada Lovelace Day may be focussed on highlighting the achievements of all women in STEM, but the fact that the day is named after Ada Lovelace is troubling for me.

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace, born Ada Gordon in 1815, was the only child of erratic poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, and his mathematics-loving wife Annabella Milbanke. Ada had a hugely privileged upbringing; she was raised under a strict regimen of science, logic and mathematics. As a young girl she was fascinated with machines, immersing herself in the pages of scientific magazines of the time in order for her to learn more about the new inventions of the Industrial Revolution. At 19, she married aristocrat William King, when King was made Earl of Lovelace in 1838 his wife became Lady Ada King, Countess of Lovelace. Hence why she is generally called Ada Lovelace.
Lovelace moved in affluent circles, she was introduced to Charles Babbage at the age of just 18. Babbage was a celebrity of the time, and the mathematician, philosopher, inventor and mechanical engineer originated the concept of a digital programmable computer. Babbage described her as “that Enchantress who has thrown her magical spell around the most abstract of Sciences and has grasped it with a force which few masculine intellects could have exerted over it,” or an another occasion, as “The Enchantress of Numbers”.

Clearly, Ada Lovelace was lucky – she lived  relatively easy life moving in wealthy circles that enabled her to succeed. By highlighting that I am not taking away her talent, but it’s not difficult to deduce what may have happened to a person of a different socioeconomic class or ethnicity with just the same level of talent and determination. The thing that differentiates Ada Lovelace from others is privilege; her white-ness, her wealth, and her connections.

We are still living in a world where white middle class women are getting more attention that other women. Ask someone to name a female scientist and I’d put money on that woman being white, likely English-speaking, and probably from a pretty middle class background.

Early career researcher, Forbes writer, science communicator and all round inspirational human Meriame Berboucha has described herself as ‘minority squared’.

In one of Soph Talks Science’s Scientist in the Spotlight interviews Meriame explained, “whenever I give a talk, one of the most common questions I get asked is where are you from?, which when I answer West London, is then followed by but where are you actually from.” That is beyond ridiculous; why does it matter where Meriame is ‘really’ from, whatever that means? Would these people ask white women the same question? I’d guess not.

Ada Lovelace Day contributes to the continuing problem of exclusion of people of colour; let’s highlight all achievements, so how about we change things and rename the second Tuesday in October Maggie Aderin-Pocock Day, Asima Chatterjee Day, Dorothy Vaughan Day, Susan La Flesche Picotte Day, Rebecca Lee Crumpler Day, Nergis Mavalvala Day, Adriana Ocampo Day, or Mae Jemison Day?

What do you think; are you for or against Ada Lovelace Day? Leave a comment below and explain why – I’d love to hear your thoughts 🙂

Why I Think Scientists Should Take Inspiration from the Likes of Kylie Jenner

I have been gently simmering about this for over a week, so I’m getting my thoughts out – be warned, this is a long blog post. It may not be the most coherent piece of writing I’ve ever done (if anything, I hope it isn’t – that award should go to my PhD thesis – yep, still talking about it!) but I hope it gives people something to think about.

A few weeks ago the New York Daily News Twitter account shared this tweet:

People were not happy. I don’t follow New York Daily News on Twitter, but I was aware of this tweet because people that I do follow (colleagues, scientists, academics, people I think are brilliant (highlights include Louis Theroux and Stacey Dooley), and lots of PhD students) were retweeting it or responding to it. The majority of these responses were from PhD students and scientists describing what they are doing with their lives in increasingly condescending and belittling ways. I’m paraphrasing, but a lot of the responses that I saw were along the lines of:

  • “I’m in grad school working to try and find a cure for cancer.”
  • “I’m getting my PhD at X institute, and my research aims to improve quality of life for people with X disease.”
  • “I do research for X charity which is aiming to improve treatment for X disease, X many people die from it every year.”

Alongside this weird moral one-upmanship, a lot of the responses critiqued the post’s use of the term ‘self-made’.
If you don’t know who Kylie Jenner is, she isn’t someone who has grown up with nothing – she is the half-sister of media giant Kim Kardashian, and she’s featured on the show Keeping Up With The Kardashians for years. Kim Kardashian was first made ‘famous’ by the release of a sex tape in 2007. Since then, Kim Kardashian (now Kim Kardashian West – she married Kanye West in 2014) has launched various businesses, accrued 58.5million Twitter followers, published a book made entirely of selfies, been on the front cover of Vogue magazine, and lots more. It’s fair to say that Kylie Jenner has had a very privileged upbringing.

The responses that really frustrated me though, included jibes about her half-sister’s sex tape, the fact that Kylie posts revealing photographs on Instagram, and that she’s had cosmetic procedures like lip fillers.

What exactly has it got to do with us (as scientists) if she’s showing what is considered ‘too much’ on Instagram? Personally, I think it’s completely up to her, and if she feels comfortable with her body then why shouldn’t she flash a little side boob every now and again?! I don’t do that on my own social media profiles, but it’s got literally nothing to do with me what Kylie Jenner posts. In the same vein – so what if she’s had lip fillers? She was insecure about an aspect of her appearance (which likely came from years of being dragged by the media), she was an adult, and she made the decision to change that. The key bit here is that it’s her decision. Her decision has nothing to do with anyone else.
The reference to Kim Kardashian’s sex tape is troubling because initially it was leaked, she never released it herself. She initially sued the company that had it to prevent its release – she later settled out of court, but this essentially started out as a case of revenge porn. That’s not something that anyone wants, ever. Who are we to question what Kim Kardashian (and the rest of her family) then did to capitalise on it? Plenty of people have had sex tapes released to the public; very, very few of them are now as a successful as Kim Kardashian and co. Their success is not simply down to a leaked sex tape, it is down to well crafted business deals and knowing how to use the media to your advantage.

In addition to this, Kylie has made the majority of her money from her own cosmetics line; Kylie Cosmetics. Many of those same people (overwhelmingly PhD students and early career researchers) that were tweeting their moral superiority in comparison to Kylie Jenner, also regularly take part in campaigns to support women in science, to prove that women in science are just as entitled to hold prominent roles in scientific disciplines as men are, and to break stereotypes about the ‘type’ of person that a scientist is.
This time last year there was a big Twitter campaign to try and get cosmetics company Benefit to change an advertising campaign that suggested that girls should ‘skip class, not concealer’. I wrote about my thoughts on that campaign here (spoiler alert: what a dumb marketing move, girls are perfectly capable of wearing makeup (or not) and going to class as well). In response to that campaign, people tweeted their makeup filled selfies (myself included: below) and discussed how their looks are not linked to their intelligence. So, why are those same people bashing Kylie Jenner for everything she does? I understand that the wording of the original tweet that started this post wasn’t great ‘What are you doing with your life?’ is not a useful or fair quip, but the responses demonstrate that people are not just against what the New York Daily News started, they’re calling Kylie out for simply doing what she wants to. They’re being unfair and condescending to Kylie’s intelligence just as the Benefit Cosmetics campaign was condescending to women and girls that chose to wear makeup.

This constant bashing of media stars like the Kardashians and Kylie and Kendall Jenner isn’t cool. They are a family of strong and powerful women, and they have created an entire empire based on one family member’s sexual encounter with a guy I’m betting you’ve only heard of in conjunction with Kim Kardashian. I’m not saying that I’m a fan of the Kardashians or Jenner and her sister – I don’t want Keeping Up With The Kardashians, I don’t follow any of them on social media, and I care very little about what they do or say. In fact, sometimes the things that they do and say actively annoy me; I’ve previously written about how Kendall Jenner’s pushing of so-called detox teas is shite, the whole Kardashian crowd have been known to advertise vitamin gummy bears, and recently Kim Kardashian advertised the use of ‘appetite suppressant’ lollipops. None of those things are good, and the fact they regularly pedal poor science is damaging, but the backlash against the Kylie Jenner tweet wasn’t about that – scientists and PhD students were using it as a way to show their moral superiority. In the process, I argue that they lost any moral high ground they may have had.

So, instead of calling Kylie out for how she makes money, I think that there are things that scientists and researchers can and should learn from her and the rest of the Kardashian family; their success is not simply down to a leaked sex tape 10 years ago, it is down to well crafted business deals and knowing how to use the media to your advantage.

Using the media to your advantage is something that, in general, I don’t think scientists are very good at. Talking as a scientist, I think we’re too close to our research, too precious about the way that details are reported, and I think we find it difficult to let go of the fact that the public do not need (and often don’t want) to know every minute detail about what we do – often, they want a story, some emotion, and an outline of what we do that they can understand and repeat to their mates. I don’t say that in a belittling way; when I go to science engagement events that’s exactly what I want – I don’t care about how many chemicals you used or how the powder you used had to be weighed in a special container, I want to know what that should mean to me, and how your work could impact on my life.

The Kardashians and Jenners show us how to turn any situation into an opportunity, they demonstrate how women should be confident and proud of their bodies, they teach us about feminity and gender by taking ownership of their sexuality, and perhaps most importantly they are marketing magicians. Science needs more of that.

To close on a lighter note. Some responses to the Kylie Jenner tweet were brilliant, this was a personal highlight:

 

Book Review – Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong by Angela Saini

A while ago I posted about the science books that I think everyone should read – but I read a lot so that list of books has probably changed by now. In recent months I’ve seen a lot of scientists posting on various social media sites looking for reading recommendations, or giving their thoughts on what they’ve read recently. I figured I would add in some popular science book reviews into my blog in an effort to provide some more up to date reading recommendations. First up is, ‘Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story’ by Angela Saini.

What the publisher says

From intelligence to emotion, for centuries science has told us that men and women are fundamentally different. But this is not the whole story.
Shedding light on controversial research and investigating the ferocious gender wars in biology, psychology and anthropology, Angela Saini takes listeners on an eye-opening journey to uncover how women are being rediscovered. She explores what these revelations mean for us as individuals and as a society, revealing an alternative view of science in which women are included rather than excluded.

What the critics say

“Angela Saini has written a powerful, compelling and much needed account that challenges deeply rooted preconceptions about sex differences – some blatant misogyny, others buried in thousands of years patriarchy. Inferior shows that both are fundamentally flawed, and beautifully illustrates how science is just beginning to tackle this staggering imbalance.” (Adam Rutherford, author of Creation)

“An immensely readable and compelling book, providing up to date and evidence-based ammunition for readers who want to rebuff tired myths stereotyping men and women’s brains and bodies.” (Professor Athene Donald)

“This is an important book, beautifully written, and with compelling narratives and hard evidence researched through the lenses of anthropology, evolutionary history, psychology, and neuroscience. The evidence for unconscious bias is undisputed – so no matter what you think you think about gender and equality – read this book.” (Aarathi Prasad, author of Like a Virgin)

My thoughts

I listened to this book as an audiobook via Audible – I have a monthly membership that allows me to download 2 books a month; I always use these 2 credits for non-fiction, I prefer reading fiction and listening to non-fiction. Overall, I enjoyed listening to this book, but I did find that there were bits of it that were flawed.

I really enjoyed the parts of the book that were dedicated to sex differences in the brain. This is an area that I’ve always thought was simply bullshit science, but there are talented researchers working on this stuff who believe that there are fundamental differences between male and female brains. To clarify, I still maintain that this is bullshit science, but now I have a whole chapter of examples of poor quality research design to back up my thoughts. I found the final chapter very interesting too; it looked at multiple theories that aim to explain the function of the menopause.

The way that information is presented throughout this book is systematic, each chapter taking on a different concept and presenting, in detail, the research on each side of the argument. What I really liked though, was that unlike lots of other popular science books, this didn’t end with a shrug of the shoulders and a ‘well there are arguments on both sides’. Instead it made a clear statement: “There is no biological commandment that says women are natural homemakers and unnatural hunters, or that hands-on fathers are breaking some eternal code of the sexes.”

My main problem with the book was that I’m not sure how much of an impact it will have; people who are drawn to read it are likely to have the same perspective as the author, and those who believe that women are inferior to men would probably take one look at the front cover of the book, and happily skip over it. That said, maybe the book’s aim isn’t to change minds, maybe it’s just to give women, and their allies, clear evidence for future arguments.

Would I recommend it?

On audiobook, yes. I don’t think I’d have got as much out of the book if I’d read it rather than listened to it – largely because there were some parts of the text that I felt went on for too long to drive the point home that women are not inferior to men. Saying that though, I went into this book as a feminist, I am absolutely certain that women are not inferior to men; this book didn’t have to change my mind, but it did give me some good ammunition for future clashes with misogynists.

Still stuck for science book recommendations? Alice who runs the ‘Mindful of Science’ blog recently uploaded the first in a series of Youtube videos going through her science bookshelf – take a look here.