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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