I have a friend in the science writing game (many actually; I’m a wealthy man that way). This particular friend has built a career out of writing about physics, mostly, along with a bit of math,* all with a truly distinct style, voice, and stance. The work begins from the true premise: physics and the habits of scientific thinking penetrate (or should) every aspect of experience. Science ain’t just for the boffins — it’s of value and available to anyone willing to crack a book and wind their brain.
My friend has lots of strengths as a writer, full stop, and as a writer about science. It’s not just the catchy and earned interplay the work achieves between popular culture and real scientific concepts. What I love as I read books and articles from my friend is the way each piece is built experientially. The ideas emerge as the narrative voice lives, does actual stuff (road-trip to Vegas! drop acid! check out the rides at Disneyland!). This is a writer who wants readers to feel their new knowledge down to the bone. And to have fun with it while they’re at it.
So my friend put out a book a couple of years ago that showcases all this fine writerly stuff on a topic that doesn’t usually make most folks’ lists of beach reading. Titled The Calculus Diaries it tells the story of what happens when a fully grown adult — a former English major –sets out to master calculus, both for the beauty of the math involved and to discover its power as a guide to just about whatever one may encounter in daily life.
My friend has lots of friends, as it happens, many of whom we share. One of those was talking to yet a third party a few nights ago, and told that person about the book. The next day, some of the details had vanished, as they are wont to do. And so this last person in the chain did what anyone would: ask the magic Google machine to find that tome about the English major who decided to learn calculus.
Then this happened:
Or rather, what’s telling is that plenty of folks are pissed off at the Google-bot’s assumption here, but no one, I think, is even remotely surprised. Ben Lillie — the man behind Story Collider, by the way — is the person who told McManus (whom I don’t know) about The Calculus Diaries, by Jennifer Ouellette, possibly also known to some of you as Jen-Luc Picard, proprietress of Cocktail Party Physics.
Ben wrote up a lovely post for his Tumblr on all this, with at least two motives behind the writing, both of which I share.
One is simply to make sure that our mutual friend Jennifer gets all the credit she deserves for having written a wonderful tale and guide-for-the-math-perplexed that I believe serves as a great gateway drug to really important mathematical ideas. Also, maybe, this’ll help sell some books.
The other is to use this bit of search-algorithm-“optimization” to cast the obvious sidelight on the fact of embedded sexism in tech — and really society at large. That pathology is easy to see when you get dudebros making obvious and public tools of themselves. But (and of course you see this in the way racism persists) when you set the non-sexist/racist/bigot/asshole bar at the level of not being that guy, not using the c word or the n word, or what have you, the deep social and cultural conditions in which actual racism, sexism, discrimination makes itself felt don’t get touched. Ben wrote a line I can’t beat on this theme:
One of the wonderful things about relying on computers to help us is that if we’re not careful they’ll tell us who we really are.
And so they do. And what this one little story means as a practical matter is that as long as the assumption that men do math and women don’t runs so far below the surface that even the Google breathes it back at you….then that’s how you know the war on women, like plenty of other battles, ain’t close to over. La lucha continua, as we used to say.
Discuss — and go buy some books.
*There’s been a recent detour into mind-brain stuff, but we all have our briar patches, don’t we?
Image: François de Troy, Astronomy Lesson of the Duchess du Main, 1702-1704