Thursday, December 4, 2008

Breaking a hero worship hurts us all.

I know most of the people who read this blog will disagree with me.
This is going to sound like heresy.
I won't be able to give a full argument to support my theory...and I know all it can ever be is a theory. All I can do is present a few situations and my own perspective.
Have you ever heard of Rosalind Franklin? How about Watson and Crick?
Well, if you know about Watson and Crick, you should know about Rosalind Franklin. The Nobel Prize for solving the structure (though not all the mysteries) of DNA was awarded to Watson, Crick, and Wilkins. Wilkins was a British researcher who worked with Rosalind Franklin, PhD. Wilkins shared the credit, if not the fame, of Watson and Crick. Since Rosalind Franklin died 4 years before it was awarded, she was not eligible for the prize.
You'd think it would be big news that a woman was an ESSENTIAL contributor You'd think the mainstream media would want to help us encourage our sisters and daughters to reach for the stars.
Indeed, it seems to be quite the opposite. I'm not saying the male researchers around Franklin deliberately minimized or lied about her contributions. From my own experience as a woman engineer, I can imagine that their gender biases were so deep that they really didn't see her work as being of significance...even though they helped themselves to it liberally.
Following the lead of the scientists, the media simply made Franklin a postscript to the story.
I was a senior in college before I ever heard about Franklin.
Now let's talk about that icon, the nearly mythological symbol of genius; Albert Einstein.
If you've never heard of Mileva Maric Einstein, I wouldn't be at all surprised. My own husband rolls his eyes when I bring up her name. Mileva was in school with Einstein and wound up as his first wife. It was a very sad relationship in many ways as his parents never thought she was good enough for him...and he didn't have the guts to stand up to them. Did I mention that Mileva had a limp?
You can read all about how she failed her exams and left her career behind when she married Einstein at It makes me laugh a little bit. I once received a grade of 50% on a four problem mid-term exam. The professor actually smiled at me as he handed me the result. I just took it and said, "Thanks!" In truth, I was shocked because I was sure that I had two right and thought I would get partial credit for the other two which I hadn't finished, but had most of the work done.
This professor wasn't satisfied. In front of the whole class, he asked me what I thought of my in "What do you think of that?" I replied that professors can use discretion in grading and that I just expected that sometimes I'd win and sometimes I'd lose.
I probably don't have to mention that this professor had a STATED problem with having me in the Electrical Engineering department. I passed the course anyway...with a C+.
I suspect that part of Einstein's genius was that he recognized Maric's genius while the other men around her did not. I do believe that Maric helped Einstein with his theories.
Okay, so what's the harm in all this? Let's suppose for a moment that Maric was a major contributor to Einstein's published theories. She didn't ask for credit, did she? (Who will ever know really?)
Then there's the matter of Einstein giving his wife the Nobel prize money...authorities say that it was commonplace for divorced winners to sign over the money to an ex-wife (yeah...really). Still, if you know anything about Einstein's behavior toward Maric throughout her life, you might find it terribly uncharacteristic of the fellow.
Still...who does this hurt? Women...hmm...probably.
Well, here's another little myth. I've heard over and over again that if you haven't invented/published/painted your crowning achievement by the time you're 30; you've probably passed your moment. Einstein is often cited as being incredibly productive during those crucial young years...and then it's just massaging the ideas and being generally regarded as the world's greatest mind after that. Those critical years of his greatest intellectual contribution just happen to coincide with being married to Maric.
So, is it possible that two untruths have been perpetrated on an unsuspecting and worshipful people with the lionizing of Einstein and burying of Mileva?
1.) Women are not capable of soaring intellectual achievement.
2.) Einstein (and by extension all brilliant people) peak in their mid to late 20s.
From where I sit, those untruths tell me exactly why a career in technology was so tough when I was young and nearly impossible as I've gotten older. Even worse, I have moments when I think perhaps I'm the one who is blind to her own "natural" limitations!
I'm not sure what I'll blog about next...? I'm thinking I'll do a little research on people who began doing amazing things well into their later years.

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