Today, twitter exploded with the hashtag #GirlsWithToys , showing a plethora of pictures of female scientists standing next to the tools of their trade. Telescopes, giant balloon experiments, underground neutrino detectors, imaging of an Egyptian Mummy, Blackhawk aircraft maintenance, brain simulations... the list went on and I nearly quit my own career 64 times to sign up for the next option that had just appeared on my feed.
I joined in and posted my own photograph standing next to the super-computer purchased with my grant money. It received 3 re-tweets and 11 'likes'. Hoorah! Me & my machine: it was like a sentimental pet picture where your pet's nose is occasionally swapped out for one with more memory.
... then I promptly lost the #GirlsWithToys round spectacularly because I spotted a picture of Margaret Hamilton standing beside (I kid you not) the product of her computer code that got humankind to the moon.
Let's backtrack very slightly to how this rather fabulous twitter showcase began. It was with an interview with Caltech astronomer, Shrinivas Kulkarni for NPR. In both the radio piece and summary article, Kulkarni does one thing very right and one thing very wrong:
1. He makes science sound fun. This was very very right.
2. He also (likely accidentally) made it sound like a boy's world.
The issue largely circulates around the phrase 'boys with toys'. The etymology of this saying is hardly recent, so much so that it might be understood to apply to either gender. The argument raised, however, was that gendered idioms paint a picture of a world where women don't exist.
For a young girl with scientific parents or encouraging teachers, this may make no difference. However, what about the girl whose father is a music teacher and mother is a historian? Or perhaps a girl who is the first one in her family to go to university? There's no reason to automatically consider a career in science, and the use of language that implies this is not a world girls enjoy may mean she doesn't consider it among her other options.
Which would be a pity if she had been Margaret Hamilton.
Or Marie Curie,
Or Ada Lovelace,
Or any of the women shown in the top image,
Or me, because frankly, my daily computer memory errors TOTALLY make a difference to this world!
To offset this error, the #GirlsWithToys hashtag was started by twitter-er anthropologist Professor Kate Clancy and shortly afterwards -- actually on a completely unrelated tweet -- a picture of Margaret Hamilton appeared on my feed that I was forced to declare a winner.
... in a twitter hashtag designed to show the wide and varied careers of female scientists.... not.... win. But this code sent us to the moon! It just won at life.
The fact that 90 minutes after I tweeted this declaration, the tweet had received 115 retweets and 70 favourites (and still going strong, now at 238 retweet and 158 favourites) suggests the world has concurred with this conclusion.
So who was Margaret Hamilton? Hamilton programmed the 64k memory computer that would ensure the safe touchdown of the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969. It was one of the first time software had been entrusted with such a critical, real time task. Her code performed brilliantly and automatically handled an error (involving incorrect signals from the radar three minutes before touchdown on the Lunar surface) that prevented an aborted landing.
In the picture, it is claimed that Hamilton is standing next to the code related to the Apollo guidance system, most of which she either wrote herself or oversaw. In truth, the print out is more likely to be the output from simulation results when using the code. Different versions of this image posted on the internet disagree, but a reddit reader claims that the 'Apollo 11 Owners' Workshop Manual' by Haynes describes the scene as simulation data. This book sounds sufficiently serious to be the best source I found, although admittedly not quite interesting enough to track down a copy for bedtime digestion. Either way, this was a pile of paper that would take humans to another world for the first time.
That is one hell of a toy.