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Emily Thompson | USLHC | Switzerland

View Blog | Read Bio

The Boy Scientist

I’m back home in Southern California for the holidays, and have been enjoying the sunshine in December, filling up on cheap tacos, sushi, avocados, and doing all the things I miss when living in Switzerfrance (to be fair, the day I get back to CERN I’ll probably be filling up on wine, cheese, go for a walk by the lake and do all the things I miss after a prolonged visit to the US). A few days ago was a special treat—I went for a visit with my college buddy to the California Science Center to see the Endeavour Space Shuttle installation.

A computer scientist and a particle physicist visit the Endeavour Space Shuttle

Last October, winding its way through Los Angeles, the Endeavour was towed slowly past familiar landmarks and ultimately to its last resting place in Exposition Park just south of Downtown. I watched a lot of it from Switzerland, feeling nostalgic, and remembered watching lift-offs from Cape Canaveral on the television when I was still just a small kid. Even as a scientist now, it’s still inexplicably mind-blowing to think we live in a period of history when we can send humans into space.

Of course at the end of the day, after playing around with all the other exhibits, we headed into the gift store to check out all the cool science toys. In the books section, I happened to see this:

Turning to the forward, the last sentence read “So turn the page and begin your experimenting here with the fantastic projects and exciting, new discoveries every boy scientist should know.”

me: “huh. That’s weird. [puzzled]. Maybe they ran out of ‘The Girl Scientist'”
friend: “What would be the difference?”

So I came home and googled “The Boy Scientist” to see what this series was all about. Turns out there isn’t even book for girl scientists. They do have a book entitled “The Girl Mechanic”, with this blurb on Amazon.com:

“Classic girl power is finally here! Females of all ages will celebrate the first just-for-girls entry in the Popular Mechanics classic activity series. Like its predecessors, The Girl Mechanic presents time-tested projects that build skills, enhance creativity, and provide hours of pleasure. We’ve featured choice ideas for crafts, toys, furniture, sports, and games. The standout items include doll houses (one has an actual working elevator!), jewelry boxes, picture frames, playhouses, Christmas cards, and so much more. Some activities a child can do alone, others require a parent’s help, but all of them offer a charming glimpse at the handy world of our past—and give girls essential knowledge that will last a lifetime.”

Way to go, Popular Mechanics, finally publishing classic girl power in 2009! I didn’t have this book growing up, and admittedly, I feel lacking in essential doll-house- and jewelry-box-building knowledge. What do Boy Mechanics learn?

(from Amazon.com) “It’s vintage boyhood and a miscellany of marvelous ideas: from kites and toboggans to workbenches and birdhouses, this collection of projects from Popular Mechanics’ issues of long ago captures all the appeal of American ingenuity at the start of the last century.

With the rawest of materials, a minimum of technology, and a maximum of ingenuity, men and boys in the early 1900s dedicated themselves to crafting wonderful items, both practical and fanciful. It was a highly valued skill that revealed the measure of a man, and Popular Mechanics honored it and led the way in instructing these handy creators. Take a look back at those simpler, good old days—and at what we may have lost in our high-tech era—through these engaging projects, all published in the magazine during the first two decades of the 20th century. The range is simply amazing, and bound to appeal to woodworkers who love classic ideas. They include tools, like T-squares and sawhorses; an animal-proof gate latch and a birdhouse made from an old straw hat; household gadgets and handcrafted furniture; camping gear (including a screen door for a tent); and toys and games. And many of these appealing trellises, decoys, puzzles, and tents are quite doable today. Inveterate do-it-yourselfers will be astonished at the resourcefulness required to build a stove for a canoe and even a houseboat.”

(also here's a fun sociological experiment: try to google-image search "the boy mechanic" and then "the girl mechanic")

Well gee, that sounds like waay more fun…to me anyway. Digging further in to see what Popular Mechanics was all about, I had a look at the editors page:

Well, OK, everyone knows this is a magazine by men, for men. This doesn’t bother me…there are plenty of magazines targeted just to the women demographic. On their site, they write: “Our typical reader is male, about 37 years old, married with a couple of kids, owns his own home and several cars, makes a good salary and probably works in a technically oriented profession.”

But this one book in the California Science Center really irked me…what makes something a “boy” project or a “girl” project? Blue vs pink?

One of the first toys I remember having as a small child was a paper model of the solar system that I could lay out on the floor and learn the order of the planets. Later I had legos, a chemistry set and build-it-yourself robot kits. My dad let me use all the tools in his garage workbench, and when I was old enough, he taught me how to use power tools. My mom took me to summer classes at the Youth Science Center, a local K-8 extracurricular program, where I got to hold snakes and tarantulas, make a working electromagnet and a flashlight, built a model rocket and launched it…and the list goes on. Never once was I labeled as a “girl scientist”. I was always just a scientist.

Emily the JPL rocket scientist, Halloween, age ~10.

A popular explanation for why there aren’t enough women in science cites the lack of role models, but I don’t think this is the fundamental problem. There have been many successful women in science (not saying there shouldn’t be more!): Marie Currie, Jane Goodall, Rosalind Franklin, Sally Ride, just to name a few off the top of my head. And also let’s not forget our ATLAS Spokesperson, Fabiola Gianotti, runner up of Time Magazine’s Person of the Year!

I really think the solution to the gender gap in science and technology disciplines lies with early childhood development. We need more parents inspiring their children like mine did, and as a society, need to admit that there is no place for gender labels which are destructive and backwards-thinking. The Boy Scientist. While standing in the gift shop, I tried to imagine myself as a child seeing that book sitting next to The Girl Mechanic with the doll bed, and I wondered if some small kernel of doubt would have risen up, with my robotics kits and model rockets, that I was not being the pink-loving girl I was supposed to be.

So I still can’t imagine why the California Science Center Explorastore would carry such a book, by editors who while selling “vintage boyhood” are reinforcing vintage gender stereotypes. Isn’t inspiring the next generation of scientists of all genders, races, or backgrounds what a science museum is supposed to be all about? Why take a chance that a young girl on her first trip to see the Endeavour space shuttle could see “The Boy Scientist” and wonder if science is just for the boys, even if only subconsciously planting these kinds of labels in her mind? What would Sally Ride say?

(from www.smbc-comics.com)



  • Marcos Santander

    This is an amazing post, thank you.

  • I agree .
    This topic makes me furious too. I have a 4 yo girl, and I’m tired of kids toys separated in pink and blue with the dolls in the pink section and legos and building toys in the the blue section. My daughter becomes very confused in these stores. Not to mention the pricing.. pinkified legos with about 30% fewer legos are the same price as buckets of non-pinkified lego ; you can see the marketing scam. Toy companies are trying to sell to two demographics and are mostly succeeding to put children in their pink and blue categorizations by about age 5.

    Some large and famous toy stores are beginning to reorganize their toys around themes,
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/jul/20/harrods-toy-kingdom-boy-girl-divide but as this is a worldwide phenomenon, there is a ways to go. You might want to follow the group Pinkstinks as one advocacy group seeking to change the way childrens’ toys are marketed. http://www.pinkstinks.org.uk/

  • Xezlec

    To give them the benefit of the doubt, you have to admit that the self-conscious, gender-neutral terms often sound a little less snappy, if not downright awkward. The important thing about the word “boy” in “boy scientist” is the notion of youth. It’s supposed to evoke “boy genius”, “boy wonder” and similar phrases. But “the child scientist” sounds odd, and “the boy or girl scientist” is even worse. “The young scientist” sounds too clinical. “Kid scientist” is probably the best you can do, but doesn’t call to mind the “vintage” feeling that they’re going for. I can understand their choice.

    While I think I grasp the goal of trying to change things to avoid accidentally discouraging young females with an interest in science, at the same time I’m skeptical when people try to insist that all interests and preferences are the result of social conditioning, and sex hormones do not play even a background role in influencing them. Humans appear to have evolved with entrenched gender roles as part of our survival strategy. You’ve got to expect that fighting against millions of years of instinct is going to be a bit of an uphill battle at times, just like pulling ourselves up out of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle has been (and arguably still is).

    My point is that just changing marketing is not likely to change people so dramatically that boys start buying dolls and girls start buying tinker toys in droves. More neutral marketing will therefore likely be a losing proposition, financially, compared to aggressively marketing to the most receptive demographic. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing, necessarily, but it does mean that you’re going to need something other than advocacy to do it. Without some kind of forceful, top-down intervention, companies tend to choose the most profitable course, popular opinion be darned.

  • Emily Thompson

    Dear Xezlec,

    Thanks for reading my post! While I can see why (financially) the editors of Popular Mechanics wrote this book and marketed it the way they have, I would vehemently argue that it is unacceptable to sell this book in the California Science Center. When you say that the phrase ““the child scientist” sounds odd”, it sounds odd exactly because of this kind of marketing with which we all grew up. So I’m not sure your statement holds. You could have argued that it would have been equally as “odd” to have put a black boy or a hispanic boy on this cover, as that would also not “call to mind the “vintage” feeling that they’re going for”….but a lot of advocacy over the past few decades has really made a big impact in our society, where 50 years ago the idea of a black President of the United States would have sounded beyond “odd”. I think as a society we have a duty to move forward and to speak out when something is not right and to work hard to change if the status quo makes a subset of humanity appear less equal. And this kind of marketing brings us backwards. Take a look at the back of this box for a rubber-band powered model airplane. It reads “This is a sports aerospace product which can easily be assembled. It can easily be made by girl students and low grade students.” The problem is that if we continue to use or not use phrases because they “sound right” or “sound odd”, this idea perpetuates and never changes. And I think that is dangerous.

  • Emily Thompson

    Dear Amara, Thanks for the links! I’m going to follow PinkStinks…this seems exactly what they’re advocating against =)

  • Rajesh

    Thank you for this excellent post ! I have a 6 year old daughter and we are from New Zealand. Its a Sisyphean task to see off the constant assault of popular culture,which seems hell bent on convincing her that she should confirm to stereotypes postulated by cavemen. Thank goodness for positive role models for her, like Sunita Williams, Hannah Ng, Vera Cooper, and now, you 🙂

  • Maria

    I come here to find out about interesting, recent physics.

    This website has changed a lot. It’s a shame that I have to consider moving elsewhere. I would say that I don’t think this is the place for this article, but I don’t define what belongs on this website. I do agree that there are some important aspect to be touched on, but I know a lot of my friends have stopped coming here and moving to blogs like how this used to be. A shame, but everything has to move on.

  • Gwenda Eliason

    I am glad I ran across this post. I am a 64 year old female person, who had an upbringing similar to yours, and a brother two years older. I grew up on tinker-toys, legos, Lincoln Logs, doing Popular Mechanics projects with my Dad, peering over the tool bench when I could hardly see that high, and so on. I have always had an interest in physics. I have an undergraduate “emphasis phase” (like a minor) in Physics and Physical Sciences. Recently, I thought of possibly doing some post graduate work in Quantum Physics, which fascinates me. I did a search on “Women in Quantum Physics” and was shocked. The first link was Nordstroms, then second was Women Seeking Men for Discreet Affairs, the third, something about learning Quantum mechanics on line at a 70% discount, and next, a “humorous” post comparing women to quantum physics (cannot understand either one, etc.), the next was a CD by a group called “Quantum Physics Girls”. I suppose you get the picture. It was amazingly discouraging. I actually didn’t know how ridiculous and deep the prejudice and stereotyping runs. It is ASSUMED that if you are female and interested in physics, you are a girl-nerd. You have straight brown hair, out-of-style eyeglasses, and a strange way of speaking that acts like a verbal male repellent. So much for my ranting. I am not giving up. I am just looking for a role model or two. Someone more recent than Marie Curie!

  • Marcos

    Hi Gwenda, there’s been many great women in physics besides Marie Curie. From the early 20th century I would say Lise Meitner and Maria Goeppert-Mayer were both key figures. In my opinion, one of the most important women in the history of physics was Emmy Noether, since we owe most of the foundations of modern theoretical physics to her.

    In the second half of the 20th century I think that the most important woman in physics was Madame Wu (Chien-Shiung Wu). More recently, although we have still ways to go until we get to where we would like to be, there’s been an steady increase in the amount of women doing research, and also in the amount of women doing physics communication and therefore acting as role models for younger girls who want to get into science. Good examples of this new trend are present in this website. 🙂

  • Andre

    Interesting article !

    I hope you’ll find that this show http://www.bbc.co.uk/cbeebies/nina-and-the-neurons/ , targeted at children aged 4 to 6 to teach basic science subjects and featuring a female scientist is a step in the right direction.

  • I personally cannot wait until they start combining these two distinctions so that my daughter will not have to ask me why she cannot find race cars next to her barbie dolls. This sort of sexism is really not needed.