Challenging assumptions for Ada Lovelace Day

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Today is Ada Lovelace Day – an international day of blogging to celebrate inspiring women in science and technology. My contribution’s going to a bit sketchier than I’d originally intended as things are currently at the ‘screaming panic’ level of busy with the sky survey I work on (sometimes the biggest barrier to understanding the Universe is understanding what you’ve done to your own data!)

Anyway, when I heard about Ada Lovelace Day I have to confess that my first thought was that I couldn’t think who to write about. It’s not that I didn’t have teachers at school or university who inspired a love of science in me – it’s just that they were all male. This had never occurred to me before (and it’s not necessarily a bad thing; I never lacked encouragement, or was made to feel that studying science was a strange or unusual thing for a girl to do). However, it wasn’t long after this that I realised that there was something in my childhood which helped change the way I think about scientists, and female scientists in particular, and I thought that’s what I’d share with you today.

In 1991 the BBC broadcast a children’s drama series called Dark Season. It was notable for two reasons – it was one of the first major TV appearances for a young Kate Winslet, as well as being, I think, the first show to be written by Russel T. Davies (who would later, massively successfully, revive Dr. Who). The first three episodes focused on the plot by an Evil Corporation, led by a Mr Eldritch, to take over the minds of school children using mind-controlling computers. Of course, a band of plucky kids figure out what’s going on and try to stop them. The Evil Corporation know that the only person who can stop them is a Russian computer scientist called Prof. Bejinski, and by the final episode they’ve managed to capture him as the plucky kids couldn’t warn him in time. “You’re our prisoner Professor! Nothing can stop us now!!” All that over the top villain stuff. But hang on, the Professor doesn’t seem bothered by this. In fact it seems to amuse him. “No, not true”, he says, “for Prof. Bejinski is my WIFE”. And the scene immediately shifts to his house where the newly revealed, female, professor is getting out her computer and preparing to save the world.

“Oh”, thought 10 year old me, “women can be professors too”….

Now, I’m not claiming that I became a professional astronomer because of something I saw on TV (or even that my ‘inspiring woman’ is in fact Russel T. Davies), but I think what I’m trying to say is every little thing helps when you’re trying to change attitudes. When someone is referred to as ‘Professor’ do you immediately assume they’re a man? Dark Season helped me to see that scientists come in many different shapes and sizes and I should never assume otherwise.