Saturday, March 01, 2008

Women's Work

Women can do anything. That's what I've always told my daughters, and it's what I like to tell Girl Scouts and other girls I meet during educational outreach activities. The good news is that it's true, at least in many parts of the world, and there are many inspiring examples. The bad news is that some of the most visible role models for women are pretty negative - people like Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, etc. who are famous for being famous (or something - of course there are also many celebrity women who are known for their talents and good works). Fortunately there are also positive role models in the growing numbers of women in business, government, law, medicine, sports, etc. as well as in more traditional roles such as teaching. Of course there is still room for improvement, but with a woman making a serious run for President, it's clear we have made a lot of progress.

But in some fields such as science and engineering, there are still relatively few role models for women. You could point to woman astronauts like Eileen Collins and Peggy Whitson, but there are very few astronaut jobs for men or women. There are many women in non-astronaut space and astronomy roles, as Emily Lakdawalla pointed out in her recent Planetary Society post about an all-female team of Mars Rover scientists, engineers, planners, and operators. Women are doing all these things and more in science and engineering, but how can girls find out about these possibilities?

There's a new series of books and a web site from the National Academy of Sciences,, that addresses this issue. The book series is Women's Adventures in Science, and I just bought and read one of them, Beyond Jupiter: The Story of Planetary Astronomer Heidi Hammel by Fred Bortz. Dr. Hammel has specialized mainly in the outer planets, especially Uranus and Neptune, though she also was the team leader for Hubble observations of Jupiter for the "Great Comet Crash" in 1994. The nice thing about this book is that it is not only about her science accomplishments, but it also talks about Heidi Hammel as a regular person. She was a smart girl who didn't really know what she wanted to do, was encouraged to apply to MIT, got accepted, struggled with physics classes there, got interested in astronomy, and went on to get a Ph.D. in astronomy. She has done breakthrough work and has received many awards. But she has also been a musician and a Grateful Dead fan and later a wife and mother of three children. The book includes quite a bit of information on planetary astronomy to help explain the work she has done.

This is a really good book, and I strongly recommend it to parents or teachers to share with their daughters and students.


Dr. Fred said...

I just came across your kind comments about my biography of Heidi Hammel. Thank you!

Your readers might be interested in my extensive collection of web pages about the book and Heidi herself. Through those pages they can even join me on a research trip for the book where Heidi invited me to be part of her team for three marvelous nights of observing at a world class observatory at the top of Mauna Kea on Hawaii's "Big Island."

Another wide-open astronomy related field for both women and men is the "Cool Science" of Astrobiology, the subject of my most recent book.

I hope you always follow your questions!

Scientifically yours,
"Dr. Fred" Bortz

FlyingSinger said...

Thanks Dr. Fred - I really liked the book and I plan to donate a copy to my local library and to also talk about with members of my astronomy club who do educational outreach (I'm one of four JPL Solar System Ambassadors in our local club). I've also just entered a review on Amazon (not up yet) and submitted this post for this week's Carnival of Space #44 which will be up on Thursday.

Not all girls or boys can be astronauts (or movie stars or presidents), and not everyone wants to be a scientist, but your book shows that a girl who is pretty smart and works at it can accomplish great things such as being a planetary scientist, and STILL be a regular person.

Dr. Fred said...


If you don't mind, I'd like to talk/e-mail with you about outreach, including but not limited to my presentations to schools and community groups.

There's an e-mail link on my home page.