Ada Lovelace Day: Satisfy your curiosity, Don’t conform

As you may or may not have heard, today is Ada Lovelace day – a day to celebrate, encourage, highlight and prompt discussion on women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths). As you’ll have guessed from my site name, I am pretty passionate about all things STEM, and being female, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to offer my thoughts on women in these magnificent fields.

Before I begin, Ada Lovelace was a mathematician who is best known for writing a comprehensive article on Charles Babbage’s ‘Analytical Engine’ (a general-purpose computer which was proposed 100 years before one was actually built). What was so special about her article is that she was able to articulate the possibilities that lay in computing, taking it far beyond number calculations into the realms of complex problem solving and sheer creation. Her description of how the machine could compute Bernoulli numbers is considered to be the first publication of a computer algorithm – making her widely recognised as the first computer programmer.

I’ve always been a little bit hesitant when it comes to talking about women in STEM, mainly because I am lucky in that I don’t feel I have truly felt the consequences of the problem. I mean, there were more guys than girls in my physics lectures at university, but in maths lectures I remember it being pretty even. When I worked as an analyst at an investment bank, I was one of very few girls on the scheme, but it’s not something I really thought about until someone outside of work asked how many fellow females there were. I’ve been to plenty of talks and events and competitions on STEM subjects over the years, but I guess looking around and taking note of the gender of the attendees was never really something I did – though I’m sure, looking back, I would have been in the minority.

It’s not that I don’t think the problem exists (there are plenty of stories, schemes and statistics that cannot be argued with), but I guess because STEM has always been my passion, I’ve not really known what it’s like to not be part of this incredible world, or thought deeply about what it’s taken to get me here.

I was a total tomboy at school. I got teased a lot for it – I went from a small primary school where we were naïve but anything was accepted, to a big high school where my love of competitive sport and quick calculations resulted in some imaginative nicknames – but for the most part I stuck to my guns, and with the support of an awesome set of parents, I continued feeding my ‘traditionally male’ academic passions.

But no wonder so many girls end up with a lacking passion of STEM.

So many times I could have fallen out of love with what was ‘me’ and conformed to ‘being a girl’ – I could have made those choices to be part of the ‘in crew’ as oppose to taking the harder ‘different’ path. I grew up playing football and rugby, so walking into a room dominated by men didn’t faze me, but what if I’d been put off at an earlier age? What if my mum had wanted a ‘good little girl’ instead of a ‘completely herself boisterous kid’?

It makes you realise how much bigger ‘women in STEM’ really is – it’s not just about getting companies closer to 50:50, it’s about changing attitudes towards what is expected of boys and girls, of all ages.

I wrote a post a few weeks ago about why science needs advertising (spoiler: because it’s just so bloody wonderful, I want more people to be as excited by it as I am) so my main hope for Ada Lovelace day is that it does all the wonderful stuff like showing girls the opportunities that lie in STEM, like championing women whose contributions have been diluted because of their gender, like encouraging women to pass on their knowledge to one another…but above all, I’d love for it to give all women a taste of that sensation of wonder, of new-found knowledge and of mind-opening realisation, so that no matter what anyone said, they’d just HAVE to satisfy their curiosity and get to be a part of the cracking world of STEM.

Why science needs advertising

When did Technology become so sexy?

The world of complicated wires, circuit boards, indecipherable code and ugly machines has graduated from the awkward reclusive teenager to the entrepreneurial Silicon Valley 20-something.

And that’s brilliant.

But why is science, technology’s long-standing partner in crime, still perceived as an activity reserved for kids in classrooms or ultra-intelligent lab-coat-sporting researchers? Why do science lovers feel the need to almost be apologetic in their ‘nerd’-dom? When will science be cool?

We’re living at a point in time where technology looks like this:

Technology

While science looks like this:

Science

Both are generalisations of course, and neither capture all the intricacies and wonder of the two topics, but on first look it’s clear what the difference in perception is: technology takes me into the future; science takes me back to school.

The theoretical physicist Edward Teller said: ‘The science of today is the technology of tomorrow’, but sometimes this is taken too literally when it comes to showing everyone what science is all about. People get exposed to the finished good which technology brings us – and rightly so; turning a learning in science into a tangible, marketable product is no mean feat – but the incredible discoveries and how the application of science into game-changing technology came to be never seems to make news.

Let me give you an example of what I mean: the iPhone 5s fingerprint scanner. The functionality of this neat piece of tech has been widely reported – it is amazing that a fingerprint scanner has been incorporated into a smartphone; it is incredible that radio signals are transmitted into the skin to work out if the finger is actually attached to a living body; and it is useful that you can scan your finger to authorise payments in the app store. All these accomplishments in technology make for a great product and I’m so glad that it’s not seen as geeky to use the touch of your finger to unlock your phone.

But what I think is truly remarkable is the science behind that tech. Did you know that the scanner is made up of lots of tiny little cells, all smaller than the width of a ridge of your fingerprint (look at your finger right now – that’s pretty damn small) and when you put your finger on the circle, certain cells come into contact with your finger (the ones touching the tops of the ridges), whilst the rest stay inactive? The active cells complete a circuit (so there are lots of possible circuits which could be completed with the number of cells on the scanner), but if the correct finger is touching the scanner, the particular circuit which matches your personal fingerprint will be active, and lead to the phone being unlocked.

And do you know the reason why fingerprints are all unique and not one other human being on this planet has the same one as you? (Not one other person!) It’s because DNA dictates generally how skin forms (which, of course, is the same for most people), but the particular ridges of your fingerprints are determined by your position in the womb and the exact composition and density of the amniotic fluid that surrounded you when each ridge was formed. The chances of this happening twice, even with identical twins, is so low that it’s deemed impossible.

Is it just me that finds all that totally astounding?!

There’s the argument that people don’t want to know the inner workings, the ‘science-behind’ and the raison d’être of technology when they’re simply reading their newspaper on Sunday or their smartphone on their commute. There’s the argument that people just want to play with their new toy, or push the limits of their new sound system, or put their feet up while their new robot hoover cleans their flat – they’re not bothered about what goes on inside.

Well I say that’s rubbish.

Why do block-buster movie DVDs include the director’s commentary and the deleted scenes?

Why do we make documentaries on the life and times of serial killers?

Why are programmes like ‘Grand Designs’ and ‘Megastructures’ such hits?

Why do conspiracy theories gain such tract with the media?

We humans love finding out what goes on behind closed doors. We humans love stories, and telling stories for that matter. We humans love dreaming and being inspired and knowing things and thinking ‘what if?’

Science just needs to be communicated in a way that allows anyone, not just those who are knowledgeable on the subject, to tune in easily and see the wonder for themselves.

It’s all fine and well finding people who can simplify the mechanics of science into a few easy to digest paragraphs, but it’s the incorporation of those messages into iPhone fingerprint scanner press releases; it’s the communication of these facts bundled up as part of the story as opposed to a separate ‘in depth’ box at the side of an article; it’s the use of aspirational wording and the choice of great photography; it’s the design beautification and user-experience optimisation of science-related websites and magazines…that brings science out of its exclusive after-school club into the free-drinks-for-all street party.

And that’s where advertising comes in. Advertisers are experts at changing perceptions. Advertising is built upon facts and research and testing and case studies, and you’ll hear most industry experts stating that the one thing you need to do is tell a compelling story to keep your audience engaged. Brands exist only in the consumers’ mind – so if you want your company to succeed, you better start listening to those you’re talking to.

We need to stop assuming people don’t want to know; we need to stop ring-fencing the inspiring science communication for schools and young people; we need our strongest communicators, along with our cleverest scientists, to be given more freedom to talk on the matter; we need to find humour and humans – they do exist in the sector! – when we talk about science; we need to be inspired ourselves and use good old-fashioned enthusiasm and its contagious nature to fuel passion and wonder amongst everyone.

I’m not suggesting universities and science labs and newspapers and broadcasters all hire advertising agencies, as it’s not like there’s a particular product to be sold, but everyone can learn from the consumer-centric nature of communications which are successfully produced by the best agencies. It’s not a case of dumbing down, it’s framing messages in a way that will make people want to listen, become empowered and go on to discuss without feeling like they have no place talking about it.

Science is incredible, and really, it’s just such a shame that not everyone gets to experience that wonder. Yes, we want to get into schools and ‘get them while they’re young’, but wouldn’t it be remarkable if we could, not just once but all the time, get people excited and simply, in awe, of the world around them?

It’s what they did with technology after all…

Geek Girl Meetup: ‘The Magic of Machine Learning’

This week I went along to the popular London Geek Girl Meetup monthly breakfast which provided me with some delicious fruit, great company and an early morning dive into machine learning.

Geek Girl Meetup is a Swedish initiative, founded in 2008, which was set up to address the phenomenon of the short ladies’ toilet queue at tech conferences, through monthly events and an annual ‘unconference’. This breakfast meetup, ‘The Magic of Machine Learning’, was informal, inclusive and included 4 speakers – all speaking for only 5-10 minutes each – who merely scratched the surface of their subjects, but opened up my imagination and curiosity to the world of machine learning.

Machine learning is a branch of computer science which deals with the theory and application of computer systems that can learn from data, as oppose to human-engineered sets of rules. It’s truly incredible stuff which, with our understanding of the field increasing rapidly, is changing the way our technology performs. You know when Amazon recommends that book you’ve been thinking about buying, or how your email filters out that spam that you really didn’t want to read…that’s thanks to machine learning.

The meetup was hosted at the offices of Swiftkey, a London Start-up which has created a ‘mind reading’ keyboard app for Android (I really hope the iOS version is released soon, as I really love the idea of using a keyboard which can predict what I’m going to type based on my previous writing activity…)

Catalina Hellett – a language engineer at Swiftkey – opened the morning with an introduction to machine learning. For me, this was much needed as, despite knowing what machine learning is and being aware of its usage and predicted growth in today’s world, I didn’t have a clue when it came to the theory behind it all. Catalina broke everything down into a simple, though not dumbed-down, explanation including Hello Kitty references and digestible charts.

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We heard about 2 of the strands of machine learning (supervised and unsupervised – basically 2 different ways of setting up the learning in the first place), and the difficulties with classification (how do you explain sarcasm, for instance, to a machine? What are the rules you follow to classify speech as sarcastic…?) The intro was perfect in that it prompted further thought – it left questions unanswered which, for I’m sure a large number of the women attending, would have forced us to go find out more.

She was followed by Anna Alfut, UX Designer at Swiftkey, who put forward the strong case (through some beautiful slides!) that everything built needs to keep the user in mind. We went straight from the scientific theory to talking about an end product, reminding us that to make machine learning beneficial in a commercial sense, we must always go back to what purpose the product serves for the consumer.

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Chloe Hajnal-Cereb from EDITD gave us a quick-fire case study of how machine learning is employed in this fashion retail startup. It seems machine learning really does have the power to overhaul entire industries, which made it all the more valuable and intriguing to be focusing on the subject right now.

The final talk was from Mital Kinderkhedia of UCL, a machine learning research student embarking on her PHD. She spoke to us about a more complex level of machine learning called ‘Deep Learning’, which moves the topic closer to Artificial Intelligence. It uses a set of algorithms (as opposed to just one in particular, selected for the job at hand) to perform more complicated tasks such as recognising an image. At first I wondered how hard it could be for a computer to, for example, recognise a picture of a car, but what Mital explained is that the computer only sees pixels and colours and which coloured pixels are next to which other coloured pixels. A computer would have to be programmed on several layers – to recognise colour, to recognise a collection of coloured pixels forming a line, to recognise a line forming a circle, to recognise that a circle with lines inside is a wheel, to recognise that this particular type of wheel is a car wheel…the list goes on. I really do have a newfound respect for the face-recognition feature of my iPhone camera.

The breakfast ended with a room full of energised women (and a few men!) chatting machine learning, Artificial Intelligence, upcoming technology events, collaborative opportunities and the tasks for the day ahead (for a night owl like me, it already felt like lunch time…) It was an effortless morning full of inspiration and education – which was basically free as the £5 ticket paid for the food and coffee – so I will be looking out for the next Geek Girl Breakfast Meetup with much anticipation.

 

 

(I’ve also bought a ticket to their annual conference – this year it’s ‘Ubiquitous Technology’ – which you can find out more about here)

Science Museum Lates

On Wednesday night I stood in a very long queue, full of interesting-looking young people, to get into the Science Museum. Once in, I stayed (with the vast majority of the other visitors) right up until it closed at 10pm.

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I can’t tell you how happy that makes me feel to write that.

I discovered Science Museum Lates (monthly 18+ nights hosted by London Zoo, the Natural History Musuem and the Science Museum) a few weeks ago after Googling ‘science events London’*…and I must admit I was sceptical. Surely these nights are just another ploy to get young people drinking and spending their very little money, with ‘doing something different’ simply being the marketing bait to lure them in? Wouldn’t it just be another ‘London attraction’ for the tourists who want something ‘off the beaten track’, and it’d be horribly busy with millions of cameras in tow, right? And the science won’t be real science – it’ll just be the popular subjects dressed up in fake lab coats and lens-less black rimmed glasses: ‘geek chic’ if you will…?

Well I’m so very pleased to admit that I was wrong.

Thousands of us piled into the magnificent Science Museum eager to make the most of the packed programme of talks, interactive displays and demonstrations. Thousands of us surrounded the exhibits (normally crowded by school groups) taking in their majesty, brilliance and beautiful stories. We lined up outside the various lecture theatres and briefing rooms and hidden corners of the museum to hear experts and comedians talk about the theme of the month – the science of hedonism.

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Yes, we had a drink or two. Yes, there were DJs. Yes, the majority of the talks scratched the surface of their topic without delving into the complexity behind them. But my god, what a breath of fresh air!

I was overwhelmed by the number of visitors, the energy in the building, the array of topics on show, the lack of cynicism amongst the crowd and the fact that so many of the people who’d turned up looked just like me! (I’d foolishly expected a relatively low-key affair with very few 20-somethings…)

But what made me really excited and feel almost a sense of pride (GO SCIENCE), is that the people wanted to be there. They asked questions. They laughed at the nerd jokes. They looked happy and inspired and interested. Science was cool for the night, but because it was true and wonderful, not because it was a fad. There was no classroom hierarchy of cleverness, swattiness, geekiness… It was as if it wasn’t even (what most people think of as) science – it was just ‘amazing stuff’.

There was one presentation in particular where I felt this the most. Eighty of us were ushered into an intimate space in the ‘Science in the 18th Century’ section where we sat on the floor and on surrounding benches and were encouraged to gather in closer to the presenters – it felt more like a chat in a quirky bar than a talk in the Science Museum. The 30 minute slot was described thus: ‘Hooks are the foundation of hit singles, but what makes a good hook?’ and we were given an incredible insight into #HookedOnMusic – a citizen science experiment which sets out to discover what makes songs catchy. Comedian Helen Arney hosted the talk, providing us with plenty of laughs and stirring thoughts, joined by Ashley Burgoyne (the scientist behind the experiment) and Marieke Navin (from Manchester Science Festival – the producers). It was a privilege to hear about such an interesting endeavour, and the data and science and experimental background was fascinating, but what really got me was the audience. Predominantly young, people were laughing and nodding and engaging. Discussion was prompted. Questions, which there was no shortage of, were pondered. It was incredible to be in a setting where having a think, an open chat and an opinion on science was not only welcome, it was bloody trendy.

And anyone could pipe up – you didn’t have to be an expert on music or citizen science or data. It was as if someone had injected us all with a level of confidence, we were all experts and all our opinions counted. I felt like I was part of something – when I asked a question, I felt the kudos from the rest of the audience (which was so unlike the sneers I received when I wanted to find out more during physics classes at school…) The floor was just so open to our thoughts and suggestions, it really did feel like we were capable of shaping and building and puzzling over another project, just by sitting in that room and bouncing ideas off one another…

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And oh how I wish that’s how science was all of the time – delivered with energetic dialogue and plenty of infectious enthusiasm, but more importantly, open for all. These days, we know better than ever that collaboration is a powerful seed for new ideas, new thoughts, new discoveries – that session felt like a science incubator, like a start-up, like a group of people who wanted to do something, and what a buzz it gave me…

So thanks Science Museum Lates – you’ve given me a taste of something I want more of. It feels like the start of a journey into not only feeding my own love of science and technology, but of exploring the ways in which others can be convinced of its wonder, everyone can get involved in the current conversations and science could, without losing its integrity, be brought to the masses…as you certainly did a cracking job of it on Wednesday night.

 

*Yes, I googled ‘science events london’. What of it?!

For more info on #HookedOnMusic, take a look here