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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)