Zombies and Narratives

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If you have never seen the ‘zombie Marie Curie’ xkcd cartoon I’d encourage you to take a look. In it Marie Curie says ‘I wish they’d get over me’ and enumerates a couple of other key women scientists who don’t get the same name recognition (specifically Lise Meitner, whose photograph is at the top, and Emmy Noether). Cartoon Marie also highlights that choosing her – or any female scientist – as a role model makes no sense if young girls think that trying to be like her is what it takes to become successful, as opposed to hard work and passion for their chosen field.

The idea of a simple narrative of a chosen life to exhort future generations receives much traction. Kids books, books for really young kids at that, now tell the stories of such hero(in)es. Marie Curie is one of the women featured in the Little People, Big Dreams: Women in Science series, a series which bizarrely also features aviator Amelia Earhart alongside Ada Lovelace. (I can think of other more convincing historical women in science who would sit more comfortably in place of Earhart, such as Mary Somerville, or Maria Goeppert Mayer; or indeed Lise Meitner or Emmy Noether.) It is clearly desirable to give young children the idea that scientists don’t have to be male and I guess this should start young.

Narratives are a convenience but can be dreadfully misleading. At Churchill College this past week, as we celebrated the life of Lise Meitner with an all-day symposium, we finished the day off with the performance of a play about the lives of Marie Curie, Lise Meitner and Hedy Lamarr (yes, Hedy Lamarr the film-star described as the most beautiful woman in the world but who also had a role to play in Bluetooth technology, even if she never made a penny out of her invention). The one-woman play, written and directed by Sandra Schüddekopf and acted by Anita Zieher, began with Marie Curie bemoaning the way her life had become such a cliché, how a simplistic rags-to-Nobel Prizes narrative hid reality and misled, a story-line that in essence expands on the xkcd Zombie Marie Curie cartoon.

Lise Meitner’s life will not be such a familiar tale as Curie’s, but has its own compelling twists. A female physicist growing up in Vienna when it was practically impossible for her to get an education, who moved to Berlin where state law initially made it impossible for her to get paid employment in a university or to teach, and a Jew by birth who only just fled Nazi Germany in time and subsequently had to forego serious experimental work in her exile in Sweden, it is a tale to move and to marvel at. She accomplished so much despite it all. But, there again, to try to compress her life into a sentence or two is to mislead. She had many supporters of great eminence, and rightly so, but was ultimately shafted by one of them (Otto Hahn) who had been a close friend and colleague for many years. She, like several other women, is perhaps best known for not getting a Nobel Prize when Hahn did, but what sort of testament is that? She should be remembered for what she did (explain nuclear fission for one thing, not a mere bagatelle), not what she wasn’t offered.

Narratives are a convenient shorthand, but as devices to inspire the next generation? I’m not so sure. Narratives of the great and good may only serve to make a career in science seem unobtainable. Who wants to spend their life in a cold shed sifting through pitchblende? Or be driven out of one’s job because of the Nazis? Historians of science rightly deplore the ‘grand man of science’ approach – be it Newton or Einstein – and I think we should equally shun the grand woman of science. But, without the shorthand of the narrative how can we inspire future generations?

I suspect there are two different strands conflated here. There is the ‘let’s inspire with the great and good’ theme and the ‘let’s normalise the idea of women in science’ one. Both, I suspect, could be better served – particularly for very young children – by simply making it possible for ‘people’ to do ‘stuff’. I was brought up on the generation of books in which Peter climbed a tree and Jane stood at the bottom looking impressed; where Jane made the tea and Peter talked to the nice policeman about the naughty robber he had caught. We maybe have moved on a little (look, we now have a female Dr Who: progress!) but research shows that even in kids’ books about animals the male of the species dominates. That embedded cultural unconscious bias is then imbibed by the children; action men (or animals) are, well, male.

Maybe my great grandchildren – it hasn’t happened in time for my grandchildren – will be brought up on a diet of books where gender (including non-binary) is no longer linked to specific roles but we are as likely to find a male nurse as a female astronomer in books. That books about Lise Meitner or Marie Curie inform us about amazing scientists whose personal lives presented challenges and yet they managed to rise above these, but in which we are not constantly told to think ‘they were women’. Reading biographies is always interesting, not least for reminding us how fashions and customs have changed. But we should recall the cartoon’s ‘I wish they’d get over me’ meme and simply expose the young to stories about people, with scientists, nurses, monsters and indeed stay-at-home parents evenly distributed between the genders, so that a 5 year old does not already think nurse equates with female and scientist (or monster) with male.

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Feeling Exhausted

This week I came across an article highlighting the accumulated evidence from multiple studies of the disadvantage women in science suffer, with specific reference to the fields of anthropology, ecology and evolution, the field the author – Kathleen Grogan – had most familiarity with. My own experience would suggest there is nothing unique about those fields. She identified all the reasons women fall out of the scientific pipeline (yes I know, not everyone likes that analogy, but I am simply quoting her) or suffer detriment during their careers plus some simple actions male colleagues could take to improve the situation.

It is, as is appropriate for an article appearing in one of the Nature’s stable of journals, evidence-driven and scholarly. Judging by the number of people who retweeted my original tweet about it, it nevertheless struck a chord with many readers. Although it does not spend time hand-wringing over the women whose lives were damaged, even those who ‘survived’ the system, we should not forget the huge waste of potential, knowledge and innovation implied by the aggregated loss of female time, energy and talent. Women get tired battling against the odds; I know I do.

Let me give you a concrete example. Suppose you are an up-and-coming researcher with some innovative ideas that challenge the mainstream. This doesn’t have to be anything as major as a Kuhn-style paradigm shift – even men have trouble getting such radical ideas accepted – but something which provides a different way of looking at things or a new factor that had been overlooked perhaps. Does Mary Smith find it easy to get her paper accepted if she is the corresponding author? Significantly less so than Mark Smith, according to the studies.

Any individual Mary may feel that she hasn’t argued it well enough or that the referees are right when they pick up on some detail (which may incidentally demonstrate that they haven’t even read the paper thoroughly). If she is brave enough, she may even try to get into correspondence with the editor. But this same Mary may find that two years down the line she has still not published this paper, wasting her time in endless rewrites and resubmissions, while her colleague Mark who (she secretly believes) is coming up with ideas of much less significance easily gets his papers accepted. Then she starts to think it isn’t her, so much as her name.

It is worth considering that full names are now very much the standard style so that it is not so easy to hide behind initials as in years past. (Although, thinking back to my ECR days, some journals expected women to give their names in full but men only their initials, thereby highlighting the difference. Male by default.) I am all in favour of uniformity but if we’re not going down the path of double blind refereeing maybe we should remove the subliminal message conveyed by ‘Mary’ as the corresponding author and leave it at ‘M’. (And let us remember that women may be just as unconsciously prejudiced against women as men.)

I could make the same arguments about grant applications, or promotions or salaries or job offers. I won’t because you can find these examples plus the evidence supporting them made expertly in Grogan’s article. Anyhow you get the message. If you happen to be called Mary you may start to feel after a while that the odds seem stacked against you in ways you had not expected. But what do you do then? Persistence and determination, resilience and courage are all very well, but it is undermining to confidence if your career is faltering for reasons that aren’t, as you first assumed, down to some internal flaw but instead arises from something external and systematic/systemic.

I first realised stutters in my own career might not be because I was incompetent when I read the 1999 MIT report on the Status of Women. Up till that point I felt the fact I never seemed to win an argument in my department about space or other resources was because I was useless at arguing. After reading the report I began to wonder. I can’t say the recognition that it might not be my incompetence causing the problem cheered me up.

Anger entered my lexicon then, although I hope not too visibly. I am not sure it has ever fully departed, however rosy my life may look. But I hope I have harnessed that anger to argue much more broadly for women’ status, position, rights (whatever word you like to use) collectively through taking on championing the issues. But anger can still surface when I see things go awry. And it isn’t always easy to use that constructively or even know when and whether to deploy it.

So, another emotional topic that Grogan does not touch on, is how to handle the male colleague – at whatever level – who is, intentionally or not, obnoxious. I don’t mean the predator or the openly aggressive, but the master of the smaller put-down. It is a troubling scenario. Do you make a fuss in public and hope others will join in? Perhaps even wait to see if they would leap in to defend you before you have to do it for yourself.

You know the kind of comment: the one that implies you’re ditzy, ignorant, naïve or incompetent without actually being openly hostile. The ones that leaving you feeling bullied or harassed without being quite specific enough to lead to a formal complaint (and who wants to go down that route with its even greater cost?). The kind that leaves you thinking ‘did that guy really just say that?’ Do you write to him privately afterwards (as I described in one of my earliest blogposts) and hope he will see the error of his ways. It might just inflame the situation if you can’t find good allies. Do you avoid him like the plague in the future, so that you are the one who loses out on opportunities to do good stuff, look after your team, get more space or whatever it might be? The time penalty in even thinking how to handle such casual put-downs costs you whatever action (or inaction) you choose. And, of course, if it happens enough it may push you out of science.

I feel exhausted when such situations arise. And they still do – to me as to every woman (and every minority scientist I’m sure). Not as often as when I was younger but often enough that the memory of the accompanying hassle does not fade.  The soul-searching – did I deserve that?; the soul-searching, friend-asking, sleep-losing hassle of how do I stop this guy getting away with such behaviour to me,  my colleagues and the students he may teach. We have to keep up the good fight. Adducing scholarly evidence is necessary if the collective world is going to take note, but each woman who is impacted is reduced by that impact and the world loses out. We should never forget.

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Creativity Mustn’t be Allowed to be Hijacked

 ‘In 2019, the “two cultures” described by CP Snow in 1959 will have finally ceased to have meaning.’

So said Russell Foster in a recent article in Wired. Russell is clearly an optimist and I fear I do not share his optimism, despite all the evidence he adduces in his piece. The examples he cites – including statistics about visitors to the Science Museum – unfortunately only refer to certain segments of our population. Just like Russell is now, in the past I have been a Trustee of the Science Museum and have seen the data compiled by them on the views of their visitors; those surveyed or more than likely to be those already regarded as ‘engaged’ (to use the audience segmentation term adopted by museums, if my memory serves me right). Such visitors are likely to be scientifically engaged but also more widely; after a visit to South Kensington’s Science Museum they might pop across the road to the V+A to look at fine arts, jewellery or costumes. Not all parts of the population seem to think in the same way, including many very well-educated people who seem determined to claim ‘vive la différence’ when it comes to arts and sciences and write about this vociferously.

Let me quote from another recent article, this time in the Guardian just before Christmas. Here Natalie Brett (head of London College of Communication and pro vice-chancellor of the University of the Arts in London) sticks up for ‘soft’ skills in the modern world of work, but then appears to lay claim to these as being learned only on non-STEM courses. To quote her article about the skills such courses teach:

Google cites creativity, leadership potential and communication skills as top prerequisites for both potential and current employees.

As my last blogpost suggests, not all lab heads are exactly full of leadership potential, nor necessarily good at communication (but then who said a history graduate or a linguistics scholar was necessarily good at this either?) but the idea that scientists are not creative is a long-term bugbear of mine (see here for instance). In talks on the subject I like to cite Peter Medawar – always good with the finely-tuned, pithy sentence – who said, way back in 1968

All ideas of scientific understanding, at every level, begin with a speculative adventure, an imaginative preconception of what might be true – a preconception that always, and necessarily, goes a little way (sometimes a long way) beyond anything which we have logical or factual authority to believe in.

That’s what creativity is all about. Let us remember that the so-called ‘creative industries’ would not contribute as much to the UK economy as they do if it were not for all those allegedly tediously uncreative techie and STEM types who are capable of writing the code for video games, considering optimum ways to create ambience by appropriate lighting of the stage in the West End or finding innovative ways to record music. Why has creativity been appropriated by certain non-STEM folk as being theirs and theirs alone?

Natalie Brett does not stop with her criticisms of science and scientists with this bending of her thoughts to creativity. She goes on to say

To return to the Google example, many of the company’s top “characteristics of success” are soft skills: being a good coach, communicating and listening well, possessing insights into other points of view, being supportive of one’s colleagues, critical thinking and problem solving, and being able to make connections across complex ideas.

Again this seems a curious misunderstanding of what scientists get up to. Surely seeing other points of view, critical thinking (which to my mind frequently seems to mean no more than being able to see through bogus arguments) and making connections across complex ideas sit at the heart of a scientist’s day job. As for problem solving…..isn’t that what we spend our lives doing from the first day of our undergraduate degree, albeit the problems may be slightly different from what she actually was thinking about? Nevertheless, she cannot pretend to be Humpty Dumpty deciding to choose exactly what the word ‘problem’ might mean regardless of other conventions.

It seems to me scientists are far more likely to want not to put boundaries between the disciplines than non-scientists. To my mind it is a great shame that anyone wants to erect such walls. What I think we should be distinguishing when we consider education is the act of knowing facts in one’s own speciality – thermodynamics, the topic CP Snow was so agitated about, or the Greek lexicon, or the life of Napoleon or whatever it might be ­ ­– from skills useful to getting on in life. Language does not help us here: calling these latter skills ‘soft’ strikes me as ridiculous. Let’s call them ubiquitous, or broad or non-specialised but we should all worry about mastering as many of them as we can.

Science communication is a ‘thing’. Some people are good at it – like Russell Foster, who amongst other roles is Chair of the Cheltenham Science Festival – some are most decidedly not, and should not be let loose on an audience of non-specialists at any price. Nevertheless that does not mean scientists, collectively, cannot communicate. Some scientists are brilliant leaders – Peter Medawar seems to have been in this category, much beloved as the Director of the Mill Hill Laboratory before his untimely death – others, as that last blogpost on jerks spells out only too painfully, are shocking at it. But that certainly does not mean that good leadership is the prerogative of those with an arts or humanities degree.

Furthermore I would hazard a guess – although I am more than happy to be proved wrong – that scientists are far more likely to read non-science books in their bath or bed than non-scientists are likely to pick up a science book, popular or otherwise. My current bath-time reading is actually Paul Warde’s The Invention of Sustainability, which has elements of science but even more of history and even philosophy within its covers. My current Kindle book is The Seabird’s Cry: The Lives and Loves of Puffins, Gannets and other Ocean Voyagers by Adam Nicholson which (forgive me), the Mail apparently said was written ‘with a heart full of poetry and a head full of science’ according to the book’s Amazon website. I like books that can’t be neatly pigeon-holed. I like my life like that. I do not appreciate being accused by non-scientists of being unable to think creatively, or to join the dots between different ideas let alone that I am incapable of listening well or supporting my colleagues: all things that Brett seems convinced of.

So, I wish I could believe that Russell Foster was right when he said there was no longer any division between the cultures. I fear his optimism has overtaken the evidence.

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Facing up to the Existence of the Jerk

As stories of harassment and bullying multiply in the media (social and otherwise), it is worth thinking about what it is in management and leadership that lets situations get out of hand. Too often I hear the phrase that someone is ‘on the spectrum’ provided as a rationale for why they aren’t too good at interpersonal relationships within a lab or team. I find the phrase objectionable of itself, but as an excuse I also don’t feel it cuts the mustard. If someone takes on a leadership role, then they need to think hard about their strengths when it comes to dealing with difficult situations and people. No one pretends it’s easy or necessarily comes naturally; it is a skill to be learned and if you can’t maybe you’re in the wrong role. It should matter to the individual and organisation to get this right. Running a team is too often seen to be only about the science, not about mentoring, developing others and ensuring everyone can work well together.

I have started asking men who champion women in science why they do it. One answer that struck me very much was the person (an extremely successful MD of a tech company who had a mathematical background) who said that it was because they were aware that they suffered from Asperger’s syndrome they knew they had to work at things that for others might seem intuitive. Putting in thought and work was exactly what made them so aware of the importance of the individual and personal if they were to get the best out of people. It made this person aware of just how hard it was for women to thrive in some workplaces.

When things go wrong in team dynamics, when bullying or harassment is suspected or proven, that the person at the top is deemed incapable of resolving the problem or, even worse, is the perpetrator, seems to me to be a collective failure. It needn’t be like this. Doing nothing – being complicit – is just one, unacceptable ‘justification’ for letting jerks rule the roost. Very often I believe the person concerned may be totally unaware of the impact of their behaviour or that they are indeed behaving like a jerk. I can think of examples of group/department/institutional leads who have overseen teams where things are publicly going wrong and yet never, for one moment, do they think they might have contributed to the mess or that they have some part to play in changing the culture. Others around have to be prepared to speak up and say something along the lines of: you may not be the guilty party, you may have nothing proven against you if complaints have been raised, but you certainly need to take the lead in improving the workplace environment. And, if you have any personal responsibility because you have been brusque (or worse) or looked the other way when complainants have come forward, you need to acknowledge this if improvement is to occur allowing everyone to move on.

The main trouble, I believe, is that so little weight is placed on leadership skills by our academic institutions, until it goes wrong or suddenly they can’t find anyone who looks remotely plausible as a departmental head. Insufficient conversations are had at senior levels about what good leadership looks like, so that, as one moves up the ladder, it can feel as if you are the only person who feels out of your depth. This does not encourage seeking help. I have talked at events for early career researchers, those who are starting to run their own groups after their postdoctoral years, and knowing how to do this well is always a key concern. Some of this (and I remember this well) is the mechanical stuff of how to build up a lab: equipment, consumables and such like. But it is also about interpersonal skills: how to criticise a weak student without making them crumble; how to choose projects so they don’t overlap; how to decide who to send to a conference and whose name goes on papers; when and how to intervene when two students are in conflict; how to spot bullying and how to respond to complaints about bullying….The list of skills goes on and on. But being an excellent scientist who has just landed their fellowship, lectureship or whatever because of their academic brilliance, is not enough to ensure good team leader skills.

And so it goes on as progression through the ranks occurs. The habit of not intervening when bullying starts, the habit of shouting at weak students or having favourites who always get sent to the best meetings, these failings can get ingrained. If the work continues to go well, if the plaudits come in your direction for the scientific brilliance, why stop to think that actually people’s lives are being destroyed? Group leaders can be totally successful (academically) and yet utter bastards. We need to change our lab cultures so that the bastards cannot thrive. (The failings do not need to be anything as egregious as formal harassment, but of course that might be included in what I’m discussing.)

It worries me that, because excellence is seen as the be all and end all so often in our universities, that it is inevitable that bullying ends up being tolerated by too many people. A head of department or institution who has reached that heady state of being able to hire and fire people, to make or break careers, may do so in ways that are shattering. Never mind that, if someone complains, it may prove necessary upon occasion to introduce a pay-off perhaps with gagging order attached, the person at the top may still be untouchable. I know it happens and the system appears to think this is a small price to pay. I don’t believe it is. It is a huge price to pay if people are casually destroyed in the process. Ah, but I hear leadership say, they are ‘small’ people who are in the way of scientific excellence. I leave you to judge if that is sufficient excuse.

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Pyramid Schemes and the Book Cover Challenge

As a child I occasionally got sucked into a strange pyramid form of exchanging postcards, an old-fashioned form of chain mail (but not of the metal variety). The details escape me but the basic idea was that you contacted half a dozen of your friends to encourage them to continue the chain and sent a picture postcard to the person whose name had reached the top of the list you yourself received. In time you were expected to receive hundreds of postcards. In practice I never received a single one from the few times my mother was willing to provide the cards and stamps to enable me to participate.

The book cover challenge doing the rounds on Twitter currently has some similarities, except it requires no stamps and is rather more interesting. I was challenged by my physicist friend and colleague, Sheffield’s Richard Jones, to post images of seven book covers of books that meant a lot to me, and to nominate seven other people to do the same, one each day. Richard, himself had been nominated by my Churchill College colleague, economist Diane Coyle. In turn I passed the baton on to seven of my Twitter followers, only one of whom declined.

What made this so painless was the fact you needed to give no justification for your choices, just a photograph of the cover of the book. This meant the book had to be in your possession and many book covers I saw on Twitter were delightfully ‘distressed’ (as antique dealers would have it), well-thumbed and clearly much loved. Even without the necessity of explaining one’s choice, I nevertheless thought hard about what books mattered to me. And what ‘matter’ means in this case is an interesting question. Was it a book I’d loved as a child (quite a lot of the ones I saw chosen elsewhere were children’s books, but I did not opt for that route for any of mine)? Or (A) ones that I read when feeling miserable and wanting a lift or a bit of escapism (several of mine fitted this category)? Or  (B) ones that I felt had made a difference to how I thought (a couple were like this)? Or (C) ones that simply were enjoyable in a more serious kind of way (one of those)? With one exception they were books I had read, reread, or dipped into multiple times.

So my choices and reasons were:

Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers – category C. Of all the Sayers’ books, this is far and away my favourite. I have read it over and over trying to work out if women’s Oxbridge Colleges really were as described here, and how accurate the psychological motivations she ascribes to the different characters actually are. I am not convinced that she has not described a very distorted view of female education establishments, but she was writing about a time some 35 years before I entered (the then all-female) Girton College. Or maybe Oxford was distinctly different all along.

The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes – category B. This is my one ‘cheat’ because I have only read this book in its entirety once. I read it at a time when I was consciously trying to read more widely about the history of science, indeed more consciously trying to read more serious books than my previous lightweight diet. It made a big impression on me and encouraged me to think further about the arts-science divisions of the last 150 years and how, at the turn of the nineteenth century, this division was faint if not non-existent. This book fed into the lecture I gave at Newnham College in 21 on Science: Awareness and Ignorance.

Persuasion by Jane Austen – category A. 20 years or more ago, I would have opted for Pride and Prejudice as my favourite Austen novel, but with years of maturity I have switched allegiance to this slightly darker novel; darker but still with a happy ending. In it the heroine’s father is said to be ‘a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour and consolation in a distressed one…’. Well, for me Persuasion is one of my select band of books which gives me consolation in a distressed hour, that I turn to when my world seems to be going sadly awry. It is of its day, though, as is all of Austen, and does not provide a good template for how to live my own life. Nevertheless it is lightly ironically amusing and demonstrates that steadfastness wins the day.
A Voice for Now Anne Dickson – category B. I wanted to choose something under the ‘gender’ heading, since over the years I have expended so much energy (and reading time) on the topic. My initial choice was Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice, which I have read several times, but curiously I could not find a copy in the house. Had I always just had it from the library? I’m not sure. The Dickson book is if you like a parable, but I first read it at a time when I felt my gender was making my life difficult, when I felt my powers to make my voice heard within the University were negligible and I liked the idea of doing things differently. Whether it actually had direct consequences for how I acted I don’t know, but it certainly resonated (and still does, even if it may look as if I don’t need it any more).

The New Science of Strong Materials by JE Gordon – category B. I nearly didn’t accept Richard Jones’ challenge because he had chosen this book himself, but he encouraged me to opt for it too. It’s a classic (and was the book cover I posted that got most response over Twitter). I read it as a teenager, probably during my A Level course, and I fell in love with the subject of Materials. As a result I chose, as the ‘investigation’ I had to do as part of the novel Nuffield Physics A Level my school was piloting, the topic of the strength of glass whiskers directly inspired by the book. The experiment, needless to say, did not come up with the canonical results (by which I mean it didn’t work, of course) but that did not put me off. I was less enthusiastic about pursuing Materials Science as an undergraduate at Cambridge, however, as I felt the first year course was rather hand-waving (when it wasn’t about the obscure relationships between planes in monoclinic crystals), but later I still worked for six years in various Materials Departments before ending up finally back in Physics. My mother was very cross with me when I did return to the Physics fold as she had spent 6 years trying to understand – and explain to her friends – what Materials Science was, but with Physics at least her non-scientific friends thought they knew what I was doing.

Checkmate by Dorothy Dunnett – category C. This book is the last in a series of six historical novels, set largely in Scotland at the time of the young Mary Queen of Scots. That set of books was my choice on Desert Island Discs – Kirsty Young kindly allowed me to take all six with me – because they are so complex I felt reading and rereading them would keep my mind in trim for however long it took to be rescued. I suspect, despite having read the whole set at least three times, there are many allusions, cross-references, plots and sub-plots that I have still not got to the bottom of, but the books are a ‘ripping good yarn’ even if I am missing 50% of the subtleties.

The Clever Woman of the Family by Charlotte Yonge – category C. Charlotte Yonge is a Victorian author who wrote many improving novels for the young female, heavily steeped in patriarchy and Christianity; she was strongly influenced and guided by John Keble. Not, you might have thought, necessarily the books that might appeal to me. But the very fact that they stand in opposition to the way I live and the things I believe in are, I think, exactly why they appeal. I am trying to understand how I might have had to live 150 years ago. This particular novel is, as the title implies, about a young woman who has more brains than the women who surround her. Despite these brains she gets duped by a con-man and is only saved by the love of a good man. He is a hero from the Indian wars, whose shockingly worldly and highly pregnant sister is polished off by falling over a croquet hoop when trying to escape a former suitor’s attentions, going into premature (and fatal) labour as result; the moral is obvious. The plot seems so fantastic it is funny and I find it a curiously soothing book to read. Much my favourite of the many substantial tomes Yonge wrote.

So there are my confessions about my choices. Other books nearly made the cut. Most notably Mike Hulme’s Why we Disagree about Climate Change which, like the Holmes, really made me think, in this case about the interplay of social science and science. I even got as far as photographing the cover before switching to the (radically different) The Clever Woman of the Family.  I was also tempted by Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking which is a wonderful book for dipping into when you want to understand just what is going on in that saucepan at a fairly scientific level. I learned a lot from that book during the years I was formally researching the physics of food.

One point I was well aware of was that of my seven choices five were by women. I don’t think that is necessarily the normal proportion in my reading; I suspect if I looked at a year’s worth of books I probably wouldn’t exceed 50% women authors. However, it is perhaps not surprising my ‘favourites’ – and in particular those in my A and C categories but less so B – are by women. Rebekah Higgit – challenged by Occam’s Typewriter colleague Stephen Curry, who was one of my nominations, also remarked on the preponderance of female authors in her choices.

However, perhaps the fun thing about the Twitter challenge was that you didn’t need to explain any of your logic. Let the tweeps make of the choices what they will.

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