Monday, February 11, 2019

International Day of Women and Girls in Science

Today is, of course, the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. I should clarify, As I write this post, it is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. As you read this post, it may no longer be the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. This is sad, because the International Day of Women and Girls in Science should go on forever, to remind us that Science (with a capital S) is not just about guys, but it's about guys and gals. I personally would like for Science to not be just a men's club.

If you are a blog post aficionado, and you are spending your International Day of Women and Girls in Science reading blog posts about the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, I'm gonna guess that you are getting tired of reading about Marie Curie. I mean every blogger and his/her left-handed third cousin twice removed from Akron is writing today about Marie Curie. I certainly don't want to belittle her contributions to Science. I mean, there's that whole Nobel Prize thing. I guess that's kind of a big deal.

But I do want to highlight someone else, someone who has not gotten the recognition that she deserves.

My first thought was Ada Lovelace, who was the very first computer programmer. She programmed a computer developed by Charles Babbage, the Analytical Engine. She programmed the computer before it even existed. How cool is that? I'm not sure how she debugged her code.

A model of Babbage's Analytical Engine which has been on backorder since 1837 

Naaaahhhh... she's been overdone. They even named a programming language after her. Not "Lovelace". That has to do with a film that no one will admit to having watched. The language was Ada.

Then there's the early programmers of the ENIAC -- a computer which actually existed. Likely becasue of the war, these Rosie the Riveters shown below were the first to program the ENIAC. The programming on this beast wasn't done by typing in stuff like "If x = b, then ...". It wasn't even done by flipping switches for 0s and 1s. It was done with short cables that connected various arithmetic units together.

Kay McNulty, Betty Jennings, Betty Snyder, Marlyn Wescoff, Fran Bilas and Ruth Lichterman were the original programmers of the ENIAC

My next thought was Florence Nightingale. She deserves some credit, since she doesn't get the credit that she deserves. I think most people would remember her as a caring nurse at a field hospital during the Crimean War (in Turkey, circa 1856). This is true. She was a nurse to the soldiers. But to call her "just a nurse" significantly underplays her contribution to Science.

As a nurse, she saw many soldiers die, and was understandably concerned. But rather than just being compassionate, or complaining about the constant deaths of the wounded, she did something about it. She took data. She drew some cools info-graphics. I have no idea what the chart below shows, but someone told me that it is a visualization of the mortality data by month.

Early infographic on field hospital mortality

In the end, Nightingale determined that unsanitary conditions were a major deciding factor into whether a wounded soldier survived. I see this as a three-fold win. First, of course, there was the immediate short-term benefit of saving lives. And that's what war is all about, isn't it?

The second benefit is one that is clear even today when someone goes into surgery. The area of the incision on the patient is carefully cleaned. The surgeon washes his or her hands very thoroughly, and is careful not to get the hands dirty after that. Even in every hospital room, we see a hand sanitizer dispenser on the wall.

The third benefit is more nebulous. From the fact that Nightingale is remembered as a nurse, I conclude that this point may have been lost on the general public. The nebulous and under-appreciated learning from this story is that data can drive decision making. She took data, she analyzed data, came to conclusions based on that data, and those conclusions led to significant improvement to the process.

To quote William Deming, an early proponent of statistical process control, "In God we trust. All others bring data."

Then I come to the woman who I decided would be the topic of this blog post, Dorothy Nickerson. She started her work at the Munsell Corporation and went on to work the bulk of her career at the US Department of Agriculture. She was instrumental in the development of measurement of color, process control in the manufacturing of color, and development of international standards for color.

This looks like a good paper!

I wish I had started this post a few days ago, cuz I would have done a bunch of research on her and presented a really cool and compelling story. My apologies. I promise to get to that blog post some time in the future.