World’s best link to prepare you for Halloween!

You have 31 days to get your Halloween costume ready, and I found this site that made me so excited I was making these squeaking noises of joy at my computer screen.  I give you:

Take Back Halloween:  A Costume Guide for Women With Imagination

This site has mini-biographies of women along with suggestions of where to buy costume items if, like me, you stink at making stuff (or if, like me, you put off making stuff until the last minute and then you don’t have time).  There’s also do-it-yourself tips for the craftier people among us (Hi, Mom, thanks for making my Regency dress this year!).  The list of women profiled is lengthy and diverse.  The categories are Glamour Grrls, Notable Women, Queens, and Goddesses and Legends.  Some of these women are well-known and some are not – all are fascinating!

Here’s a partial list of costume ideas from the site:

  • Ada Lovelace (scientist)
  • Jane Austen (author)
  • Anna May Wong (actress)
  • Chalchiuhtlicue (Aztec Goddess)
  • Madame C.J. Walker (entrepreneur)
  • Grace O’Malley (pirate queen)

This site is a great resource for anyone who wants to learn more about women in history, whether you like playing dress up or not.  Be sure to check out the blog in addition to the costume ideas.  It’s funny and informative and entertaining and creative.  Have fun!

Friday Book Club: A Short Film About Annabel Lee, Plus Links!

Annabel Lee

Art by luciediamonds

This short film was part of The Poe Project:  a chance for Sacramento area filmmakers to submit short films inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe.  This film imagines the story of Annabel Lee, based on Poe’s poem of that name:

During our real live book club, the one where we are face to face as opposed to online, we had a great discussion about the issue of race in Poe’s works.  One of our members sent these links to some thought provoking essays on race in Poe’s stories.  Check them out!

“Edgar Allan Poe’s True Horror:  Racism” by Andrew Belonsky,

“Tell-Tale Art:  Antebellum Racism in the Fiction of Poe”, by John Adam Shelton

Starting next Friday, we’ll be examining Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula.  Be prepared to think about the roles of women in Victorian times, Victorian fears about immigration, Victorian fears about disease, and how those fears still apply today.  Or, you know, just hang out for the excitement of the gory, creepy, disturbing story that has influenced culture from the Victorian Age right up until today!

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: This week’s best lines

Agents of SHIELD logoThere are so many websites that provide high quality recaps of S.H.I.E.L.D. that I’m going to forgo the full recap and just give a few highlights every week.  As a Joss Whedon fan, y’all know I’m not going to pass up the chance to write something about this show every week!

So, let’s discuss the pilot.  Did you love it?  Hate it?  I thought it was…OK.  I enjoyed the dialogue and I thought the pilot did a good job of setting up the story.  Of course the characters are completely undeveloped but they are all, well, lined up, ready for Things To Happen.  Were I not already a Marvel/Whedon fan, I’m not sure this pilot would have made me feel compelled to start watching the show.  Since I AM a Marvel/Whedon fan, of course I can’t wait for next week.

ID cards of SHIELD agents

Oooh, looks at the above handy image, which makes it so very easy to remember everyone’s name.  Here’s the outline of the pilot:  SHIELD (which I will henceforth be spelling without the pesky polka dots) is an agency that handles all this weird new superhero stuff that has become public since the events of the Avengers movie.  We have a mismatched team of people who don’t get along well – so a Whedon show.  Here’s this week’s best lines:

Grant Ward to Maria Hill:  I don’t think Thor’s technically a God.

Maria Hill:  Then you obviously haven’t been near his arms.

Maria Hill and Phil Coulson

Does anyone feel a sudden, terrible urge to start shipping Maria Hill and Phil Coulson? No? Just me, then?

Phil Coulson, referring to his dramatic entrance:  “I’m sorry, that corner was really dark, and I couldn’t help myself.  I think there’s a bulb out.”

Phil Coulson, referring to Maria Hill’s assessment of Grant Ward’s people skills:  “Under ‘people skills’ she drew a little poop, with knives sticking out of it.  That’s bad, right?”

incidentally, I’m sure that eventually I’ll be all in to Grant Ward and his childhood traumas, but right now I find him incredibly boring.  Pretty, but dull.

Yes, I know - he's very pretty and he speaks French.  and yet, I do not care.

Yes, I know – he’s very pretty and he speaks French. and yet, I do not care.

Skye:  “Yes, I have an office!  A mobile office…a van…in which I live…BY CHOICE!

Oh Skye, everything you say is adorable.  Never change, you overly cutesy and clever girl, you.

Yes, Skye, we get it - you are a nut.  But a funny nut!

Grant Ward, under the effects of truth serum:  “I try to mask my pain in front of beautiful women because it makes me seem more masculine.  My God, this stuff works fast!”

Also, one word:  “Grammy?”

This whole scene was just glorious.  Oh look, he’s kinda cute when he’s all confused:


And word about props – hey, it’s Coulson and his megaphone!  And the car!  LOVE THE CAR!

One thing I notice in typing these out is how very dry the humor is and how much it relies on the actors to deliver the lines just right to get the joke across.  Stay tuned next week for more jokes that you probably had to be there for, and to see if the following things happen:

  • Skye and Grant’s instant dislike of each other turns into a huge crush
  • My dislike of Grant morphs into a huge crush (NEVER!)
  • Melinda May gets more than two lines
  • Ron Glass ruins all the scenes he’s in by inadvertently causing me to scream with delight whenever he shows up, thus ensuring that I miss all the lines.  How soon will that wear off, do you think?
Ron Glass in SHIELD

Oh, don’t be mad at me, Ron! I’m only screaming as a sign of joy!

Super Displays and Stupid Decisions: It’s Banned Books Week!

Banned Books Week adGeez, we haven’t had any Library Love on this blog for AGES!  So here ya go – a display from Sacramento Public Library for Banned Books Week.  Is this not awesome?  See it below:


Terrible photo, great display

Let’s try something less blurry, shall we?  Here’s a great display from The Twin Hickory Public Library in Virginia:


Congratulations, Twin Hickory, you won the Internet.

Lest we forget, the most frequently banned or challenged book of 2012 was Captain Underpants.  Want to read my review, first posted when the 2012 Banned Books list was released by the American Library Association?  You can find it here!

Book Review: Archangel

cover of ArchangelArchangel is a slow-paced, thoughtful  collection of character studies by the ever-wonderful Andrea Barrett.  All of the characters are involved with science in some way, and these short stories are very much about science’s limits.  The stories are infused with empathy and kindness even as they are all quite sad.  They are also about the way scientific beliefs change as new evidence is considered, and how painful that process of change can be.  Here’s a breakdown of the stories:


The Investigators

Set in 1908, this tells the story of a little boy who is sent away from his abusive home to live with a group of inventors.  He’s enthralled by their attempts to build an airplane but he can’t permanently escape his home, where, as his uncle says, “Your mother needs you”.

The Ether of Space

This story is set in 1920, and tells the story of a widow who write science articles and books for laypeople.  She is struggling to explain Einstein’s theory of relativity while contrasting it with another scientist’s belief in a world of ether in which we can communicate with the dead.  This story contains my favorite passage, from an essay written by the widow’s son:

I don’t understand the physics behind Einstein’s theory, and I don’t believe in the existence of a spirit world, but my introduction to Lodge’s work changed the way I think.  I don’t know, and I don’t believe there is sufficient evidence yet to prove, whether the ether is real the way the atmosphere is real, or the way the equator is real.  Whether Einstein’s theory has been proven, or Lodge’s theory of survival of the personality after death, or neither, or both.  I don’t know whether my father exists in some ethereal form or only in my heart.  What I do know is that the questions we ask about the world and the experiments we design to answer them are connected to our feelings.

The Island

A woman goes to study with a naturalist who has an open, academic feud with Darwin.  The student starts to examine her own assumptions, read Darwin’s work, and realize that the naturalist was wrong, even as she has to acknowledge that he is a great naturalist.  Nothing “happens” in this story and yet everyone changes enormously.  It has some of the most beautiful language in the book as the natural world is described.  This story is set in 1873.

The Particles

This is a cautionary tale about assumptions.  Set in 1939, it opens on the deck of a ship that has just rescued shipwrecked survivors (the first false assumption is that it is safe to be on a boat on the eve of WWII).  The lead character is fond of coming up with ideas and publishing them before they have been properly tested.  Over and over again, in his story and in the stories of other scientists that are mentioned, we are reminded that hypothesis without proof is meaningless.  A the same time, the main character makes assumptions about the relationships in his life without proof, and ultimately those relationships are challenged.


The first story in this collection is about a little boy who dreams of being saved by science, but isn’t, not because the science doesn’t work but because the scientists fail to protect him.  The next stories deal with what happens when a current scientific theory is proven wrong and replaced with a new one.  In Archangel, the little boy from the first story is a soldier in Russia with a mysterious wound.  Once again he turns to science, in the form of X-rays, to help him, and once again the technology works but the human will does not.  This story is set in 1919.

History’s Hidden Heroes: The Girls of Atomic City

GirlsofAtomicCity300px-1This month’s installment of “History’s Hidden Heroes” does double duty as a book review.  The Girls of Atomic City, by Denise Kiernan, sheds remarkable light not only on the women who worked as scientists to develop the atomic bomb, but on the tens of thousands of people, many of them women, who worked behind the scenes to make it happen.

The Girls of Atomic City tells the story of the women (and men) who moved to the fabricated town of Oak Ridge, Tennessee during WWII.  This town housed three huge factory plants that ran around the clock, seven days a week, and yet never seemed to make anything.  It housed 70,000 people at its height, none of whom knew why they were there or what they were working on.  All they knew was that they were working on a government project that would hasten the end of the war and that was top-secret.  The women that Kiernan focuses on include a janitor, a secretary, a plant worker who checks enormous pipes for leaks, a nurse, a chemist who works directly with yellowcake uranium, and a statistician.  Along the way, she also talks about some of the female scientists who worked more directly with the theories behind atomic fission, including Ida Noddack, Lise Meitner, and Elizabeth Graves.

Women at gauges

The Oak Ridge site was part of a massive government project to develop an atomic bomb.  In order to make the bomb go boom, the scientists working on the project needed to separate the isotope uranium 235 from natural uranium.  Jobs at Oak Ridge were carefully separated so that very few people could figure out what they were doing.  For instance, here’s what the panel monitors knew:

You wanted your R high.  That was better than Q.  There was a charge near the bottom of the D unit.  Something was vaporized.  There was a Z.  The E box caught everything.  Open the shutters.  Maximize the beam.  Supervisors spoke of striking a J…and if you got your M voltage up and your G voltage up, then Product would hit the birdcage in the E box at the top of the unit and if that happened, you’d get the Q and R you wanted.

Sign from WWII warning against loose lips

The Girls covers a lot of ground.  I could easily write a full essay about any one of these topics as dealt with in the book:

  • Racism.  African-American workers were segregated.  They could not use the pool or the movie theater or most of the recreational facilities.  They could not work alongside white workers.  The nuclear scientist J. Ernest Wilkins, Jr. was unable to work at Oak Ridge because he was African-America.  Married couples who were African-American were not allowed to live together, visit each other at each other’s residences, or bring their children.
  • Science and ethics.  Obviously this is an issue given the fact that the entire purpose of the project is to devise a weapon that can vaporize tens of thousands of people in an instant.  But in addition to this obvious problem, there’s horrifying descriptions of unethical testing of the effects of plutonium on a black man named Ebb Cade.  HORRIFYING.  With regard to the ethics of the bomb, the book is non-judgmental but it does address the deep ambivalence that many workers felt once they realized what they had been working on.
  • The Mommy Wars.  I’m using this term somewhat incorrectly – it’s not suggested that women who “worked” thought they were better than women who were there as housewives, or vice versa.  But what is suggested is that the women who were stay at home moms (and all moms were stay at home moms unless they had left their children with family elsewhere to come work) felt lonely and isolated, and, after the war, felt unappreciated for their contributions.  Here’s a great quote by Vi Warren, the wife of the Project Medical Chief:

Good morning, friends.  The housewives of Oak Ridge are speaking to the outside world from beyond the barbed wire fence.  Yes, we’re still here.  did you forget about us?  We just wondered, because we didn’t find ourselves mentioned in the Smyth Report.  We are the ones who do the chores for the men who make atomic bombs, and we bring up their children, bomb or no bomb.  The kids are two years older now, and we are at least ten.  That’s the way you grow old – fast, when the going is tough.


Where this book really shines is showing us how many hidden heroes of science there are – not just in terms of pivotal scientists who are not well-known, like Noddack, Meitner, and Wilkins, but in terms of all the people behind the scenes who make science possible.  We have a mythos of the lone scientist, toiling in his laboratory.  But in real life science is a communal effort, even if it’s guided by a single mind designing the experiment.

There are two problems with calling this column “History’s Hidden Heroes”.  First of all, many scientists are actually very well known in their fields and in their countries, just not in the Western public eye.  Second of all, the title suggests that these scientists are, in fact heroic, and science often has either unintended results or results that seem beneficial at the time but not so great in hindsight.  Girls of Atomic City takes a non-judgemental approach to the development of the atomic bomb, but the last section of the book deals with the mixed feelings of pride and horror that many people felt – from President Truman, who had no regrets, to J. Robert Oppenheimer, who supported the use of the bomb against Hiroshima but not against Nagasaki, to the many Oak Ridge workers who were relieved that the war was over, proud of their contribution to the war effort, and saddened over the loss of civilian lives in Japan.  Although the author spends little time discussing the effects of the bomb on Japan, two things are clear:  The use of the bomb caused horrific levels of death and suffering, and the use of the bomb permanently changed the face of politics and science.

Although the author steers clear of this conclusion, I would argue that one lesson of the book is that blind obedience may make you complicit in atrocity.  For me, one message of the book is that it’s important to ask questions, make noise, and refuse to be a cog in a machine that you don’t understand.

But the other, and more explicit message of the book, is that cooperation and dedication are powerful things.  They can make bombs but they can also make and process and distribute the polio vaccine, and build International Space Stations, and invent the Internet.  And that’s amazing.