Marcia Bjornerud: Grandmothers of Geoscience

A sheepish admission:  I intermittently check the reviews of my books posted by readers on the website of an online retail behemoth.  I smile at benevolent judgments, cringe at misspellings and misreadings, wonder whether some of the more generic entries were written by bots, and occasionally obsess about comments that get under my skin.  A few weeks ago, in a generally positive review of my PUP book Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World, a reader commented that the tone of the text was “grandmotherly”.    

In an instant, several thoughts collided in my head.  The first was indignation – I’m not a grandmother!  Nanoseconds later, I reminded myself that as a fifty-something mother of three sons I certainly could be (and in fact hope to be in a few years).  Next, I chastised myself for falling into the very trap of vanity-rooted time denial that my book exhorts us all to avoid.  And then, my mind moved to the question of what exactly “grandmotherly” means in our culture, and whether a reader would apply the word “grandfatherly” to a work written by a male scientist in his 50s.  On that count, I felt less sure about the right answer.

So many words for women in our culture are tinged with accusation or insult: “mistress” is freighted in a way that “master” is not; “dame” has been demoted to slang (and has horsy connotations) but “sir” hasn’t; “matronly” is not exactly a compliment.  And I chafe, as a “Fellow” of a couple of professional organizations that there is no obvious female equivalent:  Am I a “Gal of the Geological Society of America”?

But as I turned the word “grandmotherly” over in my mind, viewing it from all sides, I saw mostly respect: acknowledgment of experience, persistence, hard-won wisdom, and the right to a voice that should be heard and heeded. 

The fact is that there are far too few grandmothers in any of the sciences and certainly the geosciences in particular.  There was Mary Anning (1799-1847) of Lyme Regis, discoverer of Jurassic sea monsters and arguably the first professional paleontologist;  geophysicist Inge Lehmann (1888-1993), who showed that the Earth’s inner core is solid, a discovery essential to understanding the planet’s magnetic field;  Marie Tharp (1920-2006) who created the first maps of the deep seafloor – more than half of Earth’s surface; Tanya Atwater (born 1942) who worked out the tectonic evolution of western North America over the past 60 million years. 

But I personally had no senior female mentors in my undergraduate and graduate school years.  And according to the American Geological Institute, even today women represent only 15% of the full professors in the geosciences in US universities[1].  I wasn’t fully aware of it as a student, but I see now that the absence of academic grandmothers was an impediment to my own development as a scientist.  There were no exemplars for how to be taken seriously in an overwhelmingly male, highly competitive work environment; no instructions for how to synchronize biological and tenure clocks; no reassurances that success was even possible.  In graduate school, the small cohort of women in my program supported each other but on our own could not allay the chronic anxieties we all shared.  How different our experiences as young scientists would have been with just one grandmotherly figure to turn to.

So, if I am now being bestowed the mantle of grandmother, honoris causa, I humbly accept.  Perhaps one day, our most esteemed scientists, both male and female, will be recognized with that most coveted of all awards: “Grandmother of the National Academy of Sciences”.

Marcia Bjornerud is professor of geology and environmental studies at Lawrence University. She is the author of Reading the Rocks: The Autobiography of the Earth and a contributing writer for Elements, the New Yorker’s science and technology blog. She lives in Appleton, Wisconsin.

#WinnerWednesday: Congratulations to Our Authors!

Congratulations to our authors who have received prestigious honors over the past week!

Winner of the 2015 Hagley Prize in Business History, Hagley Museum and Library and Business History Conference

  • Walter A. Friedman – Fortune Tellers: The Story of America’s First Economic Forecasters

“The Hagley Museum and Library and the Business History Conference jointly offer an annual prize for the best book in business history, broadly defined. The prize committee encourages the submission of books from all methodological perspectives. It is particularly interested in innovative studies that have the potential to expand the boundaries of the discipline.”

Find more information about the Hagley Prize here.

Winner of the 2015 Stuart L. Bernath Book Prize, Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations

  • Adam Ewing – The Age of Garvey: How a Jamaican Activist Created a Mass Movement and Changed Global Black Politics

“The purpose of the award is to recognize and encourage distinguished research and writing by scholars of American foreign relations. The prize of $2,500 is awarded annually to an author for his or her first book on any aspect of the history of American foreign relations.”

Find more information about the Stuart L. Bernath Prize here.

Q&A with Frank Farris, Author of Creating Symmetry: The Artful Mathematics of Wallpaper Patterns

Frank A. Farris teaches mathematics at Santa Clara University and is a former editor of Mathematics Magazine, a publication of the Mathematical Association of America. He is also the author of the new Princeton University Press book Creating Symmetry: The Artful Mathematics of Wallpaper Patterns. The book provides a hands-on, step-by-step introduction to the intriguing mathematics of symmetry.

Frank Farris gave Princeton University Press a look at why he wrote Creating Symmetry, where he feels this book will have major contributions, and what comes next.

Before and After: A Peach and a Sierra Stream Become a Pattern, by Frank A Farris

Before and After: A Peach and a Sierra Stream Become a Pattern, by Frank A Farris

What inspired you to get into mathematical writing?
FF: After editing Mathematics Magazine for many years, I developed a passion for communicating mathematics: I didn’t want dry accounts written by anonymous authors; I wanted stories told by people. I wasn’t so interested in problems and puzzles, but in the stories that bring us face to face with the grand structures of mathematics.

Why did you write this book?
FF: Many years ago, I asked the innocent question: What is a wallpaper pattern, really? Creating Symmetry is the story of my dissatisfaction with standard answers and how it led me on a curious journey to a new kind of mathematical art. I took some risks and let my personality show through, while maintaining an honest, mathematically responsible approach. I hope readers enjoy the balance: real math told by a person.

What do you think is the book’s most important contribution?
FF: Most people who see my artwork say they’ve never seen anything like these images and that pleases me immensely. Of course, people have seen wallpaper patterns before, but the unusual construction method I use—wallpaper waves and photographs—gives my patterns an intricacy and rhythm that people wouldn’t create through the usual potato-stamp construction method, where the patterns is made from discrete blocks.

What is your next project?
FF: I am working on a “wallpaper lookbook,” a book for the simple joy of looking at patterns. Creating Symmetry tells people how to make the patterns, and there’s quite a lot of mathematical detail to process. Not everyone who likes my work wants to know all the details, but can still appreciate the “before and after” nature of the images.

Who do you see as the audience for this book?
FF: There are three audiences and they will read the book in different ways. The general reader, who knows some calculus but may be a little rusty, should find a refreshing and challenging way to reconnect with mathematics. Undergraduate mathematics majors will enjoy the book as a summer project or enrichment reading, as it makes surprising connections among topics they may have studied. The professional mathematician will find this light reading—a chance to enjoy the amazing interconnectedness of our field.