A Visit From Bonnie Burton

Bonnie BurtonHey everyone, we have a visit today from Bonnie Burton, author of Crafting With Feminism. You can find my review of Crafting at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.

We asked Bonnie about crafting, feminism and her new book:


What is your favorite form of crafting, and why?


I have a soft spot for making puppets. There’s something extra rewarding about making a craft that will smile back at you. So I try to add a puppet or two in every craft book I write. For Crafting with Feminism, I made finger puppets for icons such as bell hooks, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and more.  For The Star Wars Craft Book there’s an Admiral Sackbar bag puppet, Chewbacca sock puppet, Cantina patrons finger puppets and Bith Band spoon puppets.


What makes crafting a feminist endeavor?


Crafting is at its core a DIY act. You’re using artistic skills like sewing, crocheting, knitting, felting, quilting and more to express yourself. Feminism is about expressing the need for men and women to be treated, paid and respected equally. When women’s rights — or any human rights — come under attack, we fight back in protest. And at protests, that’s where you’ll see everything crafted from DIY signs to pink knitted pussy hats. Crafting is empowering on multiple levels.


You’ve been very involved in Star Wars in several capacities. What do you think people need to learn from the Star Wars Franchise?


Star Wars teaches us that tyranny has no chance of surviving when brave individuals band together to fight injustices. Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo and Chewbacca fighting against Darth Vader and the evil empire can serve as a real-life reminder that no one should stand by when they see a leader become poisoned by his own addiction to power. Star Wars also is a great story about friendship, believing in one’s self, chasing a dream and putting one’s trust in the underdog. Everyone gets something different out of Star Wars when they need it most.


Can you give us a sneak peek into your upcoming October release? Any hints about amazing artifacts? And will I ever find a plush niffler?


My upcoming book J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World: Movie Magic Volume Three: Amazing Artifacts features information on everything from wands and racing brooms to other enchanted objects and magical devices. I explain how myriad artifacts used in the Harry Potter films and “Fantastic Beasts” were lovingly designed and crafted. It’s a fun book for fans of J.K. Rowling’s imaginative worlds that have been recreated on the big screen. I learned a lot about the level of artistry it takes to craft some truly magical props.

Cover of crafting With Feminism


L.T.’s Top Ten: Top Ten Mabel Sweaters

8a223e4761296e397639e65eb789ee31Today’s post comes from our young correspondent, Linden, who has a special Top Ten!

Hello everyone I have news! This is my FIRST TOP TEN LIST! YAAAAAAAAY!

Anyway my name is Linden and I’m Carrie’s 12-year-old daughter. You might have seen some of my reviews already, my most recent one being of My Immortal, the horrible book that made me want to stab my eyes out. I’ll be making a lot more Top Tens and reviews in the future but for now here are the top ten Mabel sweaters!

If you are reading this then you probably know about a show called Gravity Falls and if you don’t then you should go check it out. I’ll be mentioning it in the next LT’S Top Ten that I do. In Gravity Falls there is a certain character named Mabel who is one of the main protagonist in the show. She’s bubbly, optimistic, fun, and just plain AWESOME. That’s really the best way to describe all of Gravity Falls – it is just AWESOME! But I digress. Because of Mabel’s personality she was given a variety of colorful, fun, AWSOME sweaters and today I’m going to talk about the best of them all. All Top Ten lists will be made with #1 being the best in my opinion and number ten being still the best, but not the best of the best.



#10 MEOW WOW (from Episode One of Season One)

In the first episode of Gravity Falls, Mabel falls in love with someone named “Norman” and they go on a date. How does Mabel dress to impress? By wearing a glittery purple sweater with a glittery picture of a derpy cat next to the words MEOW WOW which; you guessed it are also covered in glitter! The best part about this is when Mable asks Norman “How do I look?” Norman just kind of stares at her before saying, “Shiny.”




#9 Llama Hair (from Episode 3 of Season One)

Mabel wears this one in a couple episodes I think, but it first showed up during the end credits of Episode 3. In the scene Mabel is in her room trying to decide if she should wear her sweater with the sequins or the Llama hair and decides on the Llama hair because Larry King’s head hops over and says, “The Llama hair, Llamas are nature’s greatest warriors.” You read me right: Larry King’s head! Not his body literally just his head! Hahahahahahah oh my god! It’s just its so funny I…I really love this show!




#8 Note (from Episode 5 of Season 1)

I just really like how this looks on Mable. It doesn’t really have anything about it that’s super special but I think that the colors are nice and Mable looks super cute in it. It’s not too busy and not too plain, it’s just a generally cute sweater and Mabel rocks it like a boss.




#7 Scouts Honor (from Episode Ten of Season 1)

Is it wrong for me to desperately want this sweater? Because I think it is, but I don’t care! I can’t really justify why I love this sweater so much, I guess it’s because I think it’s really clever and funny and it would come in handy in a lot of situations. Yeah you probably shouldn’t trust me too much heh heh. Oh come on you know you want it too!




#6 Horse (from Episode 4 of Season 1)

I watched this episode twice once by myself and once with my mom. The first time I watched it I liked Mabel’s sweater but I wouldn’t think to put it in a list with my favorites of all time. However the second time I watched it with my mom and she said, quote, *gasp* “Oh my god I LOVE THAT SWEATER!” and you know what? I also love that sweater, because the mane of the horse is in 3D. Also it’s just an awesome sweater.




#5 Mabel and Waddles (from Episode 18 of Season 1)

Okay okay, I know that technically this is two sweaters, but you know what too bad! They are going to be listed together because they are a set. Mable has an adorable pig named Waddles (she calls him that because he WADDLES!) and she really really loves Waddles, so she made them matching sweaters. They are only shown side by side in the matching sweaters once but I think its super cute and says a lot about Mabel’s character.



#4 Dog (from Episode 7 of Season 2)

I love this sweater because it’s a scratch and sniff! It’s a scratch and sniff! I just love that so much! It’s not just me right? The colors look great on Mabel as well. I also think it might be a nod to one of Princess Bubblegum’s shirts from one of my other favorite shows, Adventure Time.




#3 Light Bulb (from Episode 2 of Season 2)

“Isn’t that a fire hazard?” “No it’s a fun hazard.” I just love this sweater because it gives off a lot of light; witch is not only useful but also fun! It looks cute in the day time and is a night light during night time. I love how it looks on Mabel in the dark and in the sun ,and I think a light up sweater with a picture of a happy light bulb on it is a super clever and fun idea.


#2 Boom Box (from episode 1 of season 1)

I don’t know if you can tell but this sweater is a boom box that is a real boom box! No really if you press the right button, it lights up and PLAYS RAVE MUSIC! NEED I SAY MORE? No, no I don’t.


#1 (drum roll please…) RAINBOW STAR (from almost all the episodes)

Now at first this might seem like a regular unassuming sweater but this sweater is actually incredibly special and awesome. Why? Because this is MABEL’S SIGNATURE SWEATER. It’s  iconic. She wears it more then any of her other sweaters. In one episode she gets trapped in a bubble like thing… I’m not sure what its called exactly but the important part is that the design on this sweater is on it. Why? Because this is MABEL’S SIGNATURE SWEATER! But don’t take it from me, take it from these screen shots. Cue the cheesy music! (I can’t get it to play actual music so just use your imagination!)



So what did you think? Do you love one of Mabel’s sweaters that I didn’t mention? Maybe you just thought the order should have been different. Is there another list you want me to do? Let me know in the comments! BYE!!!













Guest Book Rant: A Tween Reviews My Immortal

We have a very special guest blogger today. My tween daughter read My Immortal because her clueless mom (ME) didn’t catch on to what she was reading until it was TOO LATE. I cannot recommend this book to tweens (or anyone) but I can tell you that we had many candid talks about the subject matter, we laughed a lot, and we’ve been using the word “keenly” as often as possible.

Anyway, Dear Daughter wrote this review/rant for all of you. It’s too late for her – she has already been traumatized by what has often been referred to as “The worst fan fiction of all time”. But you can save yourself! Don’t let her sacrifice be in vain!

My Immortal is a Harry Potter fanfiction and is rightfully known as the worst fanfiction ever written!  The book (if you can call it that) is about a vampire who is also a witch and goes to Hogwarts School Of Witchcraft And Wizardry. Her name is Ebony Darkness Dementia Raven Way however it changes multiple times throughout the book. (Evony, Enboby, Tebony, Ibony, Enbony, Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Terra Raven way etc…) She is a hardcore goth and a satanist and a lot of people tell her she looks like Amy Lee. She falls in love with Draco Malfoy (In the book his name is spelled Dracko multiple times) and befriends (with benefits) Vampire Potter (Harry Potter, but he got a new nickname because he likes the taste of human blood.) at some point Voldemort shows up and tells Ebony, and I quote, “Thou must kill Vampire Potter!” And when Ebony refuses to do this he says and I quote, “Thou must! If thou does not, then I shall kill thy beloved Draco!” and Ebony is faced with what to do.

The Author of My Immortal is a girl named Tara Gillesbie. However she claims she had spelling help from her friend Raven. The two girls are “goffick” and also have a youtube channel called xXblo0dyxkissxX. (Subscribe at your own risk watching these videos may cause brain cell damage/loss)

Speaking of brain cell loss just reading the fanfic will probably cause this to happen as well! The entire thing is full of bad grammar, people acting out of character, overly long and unnecessary descriptions, and even some stuff that is super offensive! For example this line I was feeling kinda depressed so I slit my wrist and read a depressing novel  and listened to GC while waiting for the blood to dry I drank some human blood, then I was ready to go to the concert. (Grammar errors made in this passage have been removed for your reading pleasure, you’re welcome.) Okay first of all, the protagonist  just casually slits her wrist because she was feeling kinda depressed. Thats offensive to anyone who struggles with depression or suicide! This is a real issue! And that’s not the only time the author casually talks about people slitting their wrist. In one chapter the protagonist is talking with her friends and they are planning what to do during the day and the the teacher (That’s right the teacher) says, “OMFG let’s have a group cutting session!” (Once again bad grammar has been removed, you’re welcome.) NO thats is super offensive to people who struggle with suicide! Also this teacher should be fired!

Like I said before My Immortal is full of characters acting out of character! For example in one scene Ebony and Draco are “Making out keenly against a tree” in the forbidden forest (I swear that’s exactly how the author writes it). When Dumbledore shows up out of nowhere and screemes, “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING YOU MOTHERF******” That’s right DUMBLEDORE says this! There are no words to describe how out of character this is! Later in an author’s note Tara claims that the only reason Dumbledore cused was because he had a headache. How stupid can you get?

Despite all of this My Immortal does have one good quality, and her name…. Is Britney. Britney is the arch enemy of the main character but she never does anything wrong. She is the only named Gryffindor character and is a “prep”. Ebony always makes sure to give her the middle finger. Britney is probably the most loved character even though she only shows up about 5 times for 2 seconds. She’s just that awesome!

I don’t think that anyone should read this. Not even Britney can save it. Like I said before it’s full of grammar errors and people acting out of character, and will probably manage to be offensive to you no matter who who you are. It’s impossible to like. It’s extremely inappropriate for children as well. If however you decide to read My Immortal despite everything i’ve just told you, know that YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED! Dont come crawling back to me begging for holy water and brain bleach. You can read My Immortal on Fanfiction.net or Wattpad (it’s an app its awesome I love it so much.) Or you can simply google My Immortal and a bunch of sites will pop up that will let you read it, not to mention some people made a movie of it and it’s on youtube.        

The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin

61rH8sThrbL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Geek Girl Heather Thayer discovered N.K. Jemisin and she has much to say!

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin is a book that I had to read twice in one week. The first time, I devoured it; I gulped it down in frantic, too-large bites. My desire to find out what happens/what is happening/what happened outpaced my ability to digest what I was reading. As soon as I finished the last page I turned back to the first page to start over, but to slowly savor this time.


Let’s start this again. The end of the prologue tells it like it is:


This is what you must remember: the ending of one story is just the beginning of another. This has happened before, after all. People die. Old orders pass. New societies are born. When we say “the world has ended,” it’s usually a lie, because the planet is just fine.

But this is the way the world ends.

This is the way the world ends.

This is the way the world ends.

For the last time.


And so it is. Or will be. We aren’t there quite yet. The book is set at a time when the Earth is plagued by earthquakes and other seismic events. Some of these events are so severe that they cause massive death and long periods of famine – often near-extinction-level events. These periods are called “seasons.” There are people — politely called “orogenes,” offensively called “rogga” — who can reach into the earth and use its seismic power. A trained orogene can do amazing things, move mountains as it were (literally). An untrained one can unintentionally cause seismic events or release/draw power that kills. Often a young orogene is discovered because someone gets killed or hurt in a moment of anger or annoyance. People are terrified of them and they are ostracized – exiled when lucky, killed when not.


The book is written in a conversational tone – it flips from past to present, third person to second, gives little hints and asides that sometimes don’t make sense until suddenly they do. One can almost picture an old auntie at a fireside telling the tale. I won’t say anything about what actually happens in the book because the inherent pleasure of the book is letting it unfold around you. It can be initially quite confusing until one gets one’s bearings, but that is part of the enjoyment – that moment of “oh, I know where we are!”


N.K. Jemisin is an author who has become famous for writing stories that feature outsiders. By creating worlds and characters that have to grapple with the idea of “other” she takes on issues of diversity and identity, without (in my opinion) getting all preachy about it. I found The Fifth Season much more compelling than her previous series, The Inheritance Trilogy, which also addressed concerns of being an outsider. I read that series recently and it was fine, but it didn’t stick with me. This book was more compelling, largely due to the writing style and an important difference. Orogenes are not a good stand-in for diversity issues facing America today — unlike non-whites, women and LGBT people, orogenes are decidedly different and have powers that can make them inherently dangerous. Of course, they can also be immensely helpful, so the story addresses how society chose to balance the two. Spoiler alert: (horrific) mistakes were made.


This book is the first in The Broken Earth series. The next book, The Obelisk Gate, is due out this year – probably in autumn. In the meantime I will undoubtedly read and re-read this wonderful book with chapter titles like “Syenite breaks her toys” and “you’re getting the band back together” to see what other gems I can find hidden in this intricate tale.


Tim Hanley Talks Wonder Woman and Lois Lane

51cwi93rReL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Tim Hanley, author of Wonder Woman Unbound, has a new book out: Investigating Lois Lane: The Turbulent History of the Daily Planet’s Ace Reporter (the highlighted links take you to my reviews of the book on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books).

You’ve written a book about Wonder Woman and a book about Lois Lane. What draws you to these iconic heroines?


On one level, it’s the stories. Both Wonder Woman and Lois Lane have decades of fantastic and/or fascinating tales with all sorts of different, intriguing aspects to dig into. With Investigating Lois Lane, while Lois hasn’t been the star of her stories for most of her history, her evolving role in the comics is an interesting progression, and the occasional tales she did headline proved invariably noteworthy. From her adventurous solo stories to her most cringeworthy romantic outings, there’s always something worth saying about Lois’s many appearances.


On another level, the superhero genre is a male dominated industry in every respect, and the male heroes get most of the fan focus. I think that the histories of female characters are just as interesting, and often more so, and it’s been a real pleasure to shine a light on these great characters who are so often relegated to the shadows. Lois especially offers such a unique perspective on the genre as a whole; she was there at the very beginning in Action Comics #1 and has been a constant presence in the world of superheroes since then, in every medium.


Lois in Action Comics #1

Lois has had her ups and downs – what do you admire most about her, and what do you think continues to endear her to readers today?


I most admire her tenacity, and I think that it’s been the core of the character from the beginning. In Action Comics #1, Lois was stuck writing the lovelorn column but she dreamed of getting a front page scoop. After Superman saved her and she got to see how powerful he was, he told her not to print the story, yet the very next panel showed Lois in her editor’s office, pitching the story. Not even Superman could deter her! That sort of tenacity has been key to the character ever since, even in comics that haven’t aged particularly well. When Lois became obsessed with marrying Superman in the 1950s, she went after him full-tilt, just as enthusiastically as she chased down big news scoops. She’s a relentless, unstoppable force, no matter the situation.


I think that tenacity is part of what endears Lois to her legions of fans today, combined with her toughness and snark, as well as her compassionate core that lies beneath her sometimes brusque exterior. Lois is brave and fearless and has no time for anyone who tries to get in her way, but it’s always in service of helping others, of landing the story that takes down the less obvious villain who’s hurting someone somewhere.


If you had to recommend one issue or storyline about Lois Lane to a new reader, which would you recommend, and why?


Picking just one is tricky! I’m going to have to do this by category. For classic Lois fun, I’d recommend the “Lois Lane: Girl Reporter” feature from Superman in the mid-1940s; a couple of the outings are collected in the recent Lois Lane: A Celebration of 75 Years volume, which is a good place for new readers to start generally. In “Lois Lane: Girl Reporter”, Lois set out to get scoops on her own, without any help from Superman, and ended up taking down all manner of thieves, smugglers, and grifters, getting a front page story out of each adventure. The stories are classic Golden Age fun, and a great showcase for Lois.


For modern comics, Lois hasn’t had a lot to do lately, but there have been some good moments. There’s a great arc in Batman/Superman Volume 3 where she teams up with Batman, and Marguerite Bennett and Emanuela Lupacchino’s Superman: Lois Lane one-shot from a couple of years back had an enjoyable take on Lois.


Outside of comics, I’d wholeheartedly recommend Gwenda Bond’s young adult novel Lois Lane: Fallout. It stars a teenaged Lois who starts at a new school in Metropolis and quickly get caught up in a serious, expansive investigation involving bullying and secret military experiments. It’s a fantastic read, and a spectacular distillation of the most iconic and enjoyable elements of Lois’s past incarnations. It’s far and away my favourite Lois Lane story of the 21st century thus far, and the upcoming sequel, Lois Lane: Double Down, is even better.


What are your hopes for Wonder Woman and Lois Lane in the movies (and if you’ve seen B v. S. let us know how you think they did with the characters!)


I saw the movie a few nights ago and while I didn’t much care for the bulk of it and its angsty, grim male heroes, I loved a lot of what the film did with Wonder Woman and Lois. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman didn’t have a huge part, but she totally stole the show, both as Diana Prince and Wonder Woman. I’ll dance around spoilers here, but whether she was outsmarting Bruce Wayne and Lex Luthor simultaneously or battling Doomsday, Gal Gadot very much captured the spirit of Wonder Woman for me. She was also the only character in the movie that was having any fun! Batman and Superman were caught up in feuding that took them both down dark paths, and I think Wonder Woman was easily the most heroic, fun character in the film.


Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman in Batman v Superman

As for Lois, it was great to see that she was in the thick of the action throughout the entire film. I felt like Man of Steel sidelined her somewhat after she had a cool role initially, but Batman v Superman had her in the mix the whole time, and often playing a key role. I would have preferred that she got to see something through to the end; most of her adventures took a dark turn that resulted in Superman having to save her. But she got to do a bit of saving too, and her relationship with Clark was sweet and endearing. I liked that she tried to keep him focused on his heroic core as the foolishness with Batman ramped up, despite the mixed results. I think that both Wonder Woman and Lois Lane were the best characters in the film, by far.


Amy Adams as Lois Lane in Batman v Superman

What is your next project?


I don’t want to be too specific because nothing’s official yet, but I’ve been working on the history of another female comic book character, this time a villain. It’s been fascinating to look at the history of superheroes through the ups and downs of a female villain. At times, she escaped the often limiting roles of comic book heroines, but at other times she ended up problematically sexualized or benched. It’s a journey that’s wholly unique, and the project has been a blast thus far.

Capsule Reviews: Heather Watches TV!

Guest blogger Heather Thayer has been checking out the new batch of science fiction and fantasy shows. Here’s her mini-revues for Lucifer, Colony, The Magicians, You Me and The Apocalypse, and The X-Files.


Lucifer, Fox, Monday Nights

This show is a hoot. Lucifer, yes THAT Lucifer, has gotten bored of hanging out in Hell, so he decides to take a vacation in LA, masquerading as a nightclub owner. He makes no effort to conceal who he is – a cop asks him how he could get shot and not be hurt he looks quizzically at the cop and says, “Did you not understand who I am? I’m immortal.” Later when she sees him get shot point blank, she asks again, and he’s all like, “what about IM-MORT-TAL don’t you get?” In the first episode a friend of his gets killed and Lucifer decides to help investigate. If this seems incongruous, remember that part of the Devil’s job is to punish sinners, and since he isn’t in Hell to do it after the guilty person dies, he figures he can do the job early while they are still alive. The character is funny and charming and naughty and is helpful in interrogations since people feel compelled to tell him their deepest desires. Then, in the blink of an eye, he is all scary avenging angel BECAUSE HE IS. It isn’t a deep show, but it is a fun romp.



Colony, USA Network, Thursday Nights


This is my new favorite show. Set in Los Angeles in a near future in which the Earth (or at least California) has been invaded by aliens. Many people died or were separated when the Visitors arrived. The human survivors of the Arrival live in smallish enclaves separated by enormous walls and policed by collaborators and drones. Our main characters, Will and Katie Bowman and their family, are trying to keep their heads down, struggling to survive. The show deals with issues of survival under unimaginable circumstances. Is it better to collaborate if it means survival of your family, or is it better to resist, even if resistance is futile? I’m not going to say more, because watching these issues unfold is what makes this show great.

Colony - Pilot


The Magicians, SyFy, Monday Nights


Based on books by Lev Grossman, this series focuses on Brakebills University, an institute of higher learning for magicians. I’ve read one of the books – a later one that takes place after Brakebills — and I recall it as an enjoyable light fantasy. Unfortunately, the show is not capturing that spirit. The fundamental problem with the show is that this is a character-driven show, but none of the characters is particularly likeable. The show seems determined to portray the worst of each of the characters, with the result that they all come across as pouty whiners, with the exception of Quentin, one of our main characters, who comes across as an incompetent boob AND a pouty whiner. And why is everyone smoking? I wanted to like this show, but I can’t stand any of these people and want to slap them all.

Carrie’s note: I haven’t watched the show, but my recollection of the books is that all of them were very cynical and all of them very intentionally feature incredibly unlikeable characters – the series is a subversion of stories like Narnia and Harry Potter, right down to all of the characters being incredibly dysfunctional. The books are well-written, sharp, imaginative, and fresh, but ugh those people!


You, Me and the Apocalypse, NBC, Thursday Nights


This is a comedy about the end of the world. The show opens with the end – an asteroid hurtling into the atmosphere (covered by CNN, of course) – and centers on some people huddled in a bunker, watching it all on tv. The show follows these folks in the last days, after the end of the world was announced. I want to like this show, I really do. The problem is that it just isn’t that funny. The tone keeps slipping into deadly earnestness and attempted heartwarming vignettes, interspersed with one-liners that could have been funny if the tone were lighter, but as it is they fall flat. The show can’t seems to decide whether it is a touching tale of people doing their best as Judgment Day approaches or whether it is a broad comedy about the ridiculousness of the End Times. It clearly wants to be the latter, but it keeps injecting the former, which throws the whole thing off. Maybe it will improve, more likely it will get cancelled.


X-Files, Fox, Monday Nights


Oh Chris Carter, what are we to do with you? What a waste of an eagerly anticipated reboot. I was hoping for six tightly constructed episodes with a compelling story arc that would bring us up to date with these characters that we love. I haven’t seen the final episode yet, but so far, the three earlier episodes written and directed by Mr. Carter are nonsensical mysticism with a heavy-handed dose of “the corporations are all out to get us” conspiracy theory mushed in. There is no defining thread that links the episodes – giving us stand alone episodes that sink or swim based on their own strengths or weaknesses. So far, all the episodes written by Mr. Carter sink like stone, and we’re glad to see them go.


The two episodes not written by Mr Carter swim. The stunning third episode “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” had me laughing and smiling and thinking and laughing and smiling again. It is an exuberant deconstruction of every monster story ever told and a delightful revisiting of the Mulder/Scully dynamic. The fourth episode, “Home Again” is a touching exploration of loss. Go ahead and watch those episodes and skip the others.


Carrie’s note: You can see more of my X-Files thoughts on Smart Bitches, Trashy BooksCan’t someone lock Chris Carter and George Lucas in a room somewhere and say, “Look guys, thanks for creating this thing, now NEVER TOUCH IT AGAIN?

Further Thoughts:


Carrie has written on The Shannara Chronicles. I agree with her completely. Other than Manu Bennett the actors were chosen for their ability to be pretty, not for their ability to act. Painful.


I wrote an earlier review of The Expanse. Having now watched the entire first season I have to give it a grudging thumbs up. The story became quite compelling as it went on. However, I recommend binge-watching as it is very difficult to follow week to week. If you haven’t read the books, expect to be lost from time to time, but it started drawing me in at the end.


I can’t wait for April and the return of 12 Monkeys (SyFy) and Orphan Black (BBC America). Squee!


History’s Hidden Heroes: Vera Rubin

My favorite thing to write for this blog has always been ‘History’s Hidden Heroes’, in which I showcased the lives and accomplishments of scientists of color, LGTB scientists, and female scientists. This feature fell by the wayside when I started writing Kickass Women for Smart Bitches Trashy BooksGuest writer Max Fagin is bringing the Heroes back with his contribution about scientist Vera Rubin. bonus – unlike me, Max is actually a scientist, so his explanations of Rubin’s accomplishments are far more sophisticated than my own, which run along the lines of, “IDK, she discovered stuff, it was cool.” Enjoy!

It’s no secret that STEM has a major problem with obtaining gender parity, and astronomy is not immune to that problem. Astronomy doesn’t have it as bad as, say, computer science (with 18% women at the PhD level) but it isn’t doing as well as biology (58% women, again at the PhD level). Astronomy sits somewhere in the middle of the STEM pack with 35% of new PhDs going to women in 2012.

But as arguably the oldest science, astronomy has also been a field of many firsts for women in STEM. America’s first woman to be hired as a college professor was Maria Mitchell, who was hired by Vassar College in 1843 as a professor of astronomy. At around the same time, the first woman to receive a salary for her work as a professional scientist was the German astronomer Caroline Herschel.

The subject of today’s History’s Hidden Heroes is one of those women: Vera Rubin. A woman who overcame the biases of her day to discover an even bigger bias in the universe itself…
Vera Cooper Rubin '48

Up until the late 1970’s, if you were to ask an astronomer what the universe was made of, a complete list would be composed of:


1) Stars (living and dead)

2) Interstellar gas and dust

3) Black holes

4) Planets

5) Whatever detritus happens to be on that planet’s surface


(Note, that last category would include us). These are the things we typically think of as “normal” matter, where “normal” means stuff composed of protons, neutrons and electrons, sometimes in the form of atoms and chemicals, or ionized plasma.

However, ask an astronomer today what the universe is made of, and you will probably hear a list containing something that isn’t on that 1970’s list: Dark Matter. Vera Rubin was the first scientist to uncover observational evidence that Dark Matter was a real thing, and to reveal that “normal” matter was far from normal, but comprised only 20% of the matter in our universe. All past detection methods had been heavily biased towards detecting this normal matter, but that didn’t mean Dark Matter wasn’t real, and didn’t mean it hadn’t played a profound part in the formation and evolution of our universe.

Vera Rubin earned her BA in astronomy from Vassar college in 1957 (the college that had hired Maria Mitchell, the first woman to hold a professorship in the United States). Vassar had been founded as an all girls school in 1861 (and would remain so until 1969) but even before going co-ed, it had a reputation for producing smart and driven graduates, many of whom has already made significant contributions to science and engineering, including Admiral Grace Hopper, one of the inventors of COBOL, an early programing language. (Vassar also had a reputation in the fictional realm as well, counting among its many fictional alumni the smartest James Bond girl, NASA scientist Dr. Holly Goodhead, who proudly represented Vassar in the stupidest James Bond movie, Moonraker.)


Rubin graduated from Vassar as the only astronomy major in her class, and went on to complete her Masters in Astronomy at Cornell (after being rejected from Princeton on the grounds that their astronomy department did not admit women). Rubin then completed a PhD at Georgetown University under the famous cosmologist George Gamow.

At this era in astronomy, before the invention of space based telescopes, cosmology was focused on studying galaxies in our corner of the universe to see what their structure and distribution could tell us about the universe at large. This was the field that Dr. Rubin made her greatest discovery in during the 1970’s, while conducting observations of galactic rotation curves.

Under the influence of gravity, objects behave in extremely predictable ways. Since the days of Kepler, it had been understood that the further away an object (like a planet) was from the body it was orbiting (like a star) the slower it would be traveling in its orbit. The embodiment of this was captured in what became known as Kepler’s 3rd law, that the square of a planet’s period (the time it takes to complete one orbit) was proportional to the cube of the object’s semimajor axis (its distance from the star).

Although the geometry was more complicated on galactic scales, these rules applied to stars orbiting around the center of their galaxies as well. The farther away a star was from the center of the galaxy, the slower it should be orbiting.

But when Rubin measured the speed of stars in the nearby Andromeda galaxy, this was not what she saw. Outside the galactic core, the stars did not continue to slow down as one looked further away from the center of the galaxy. Instead, the velocity of the stars plateaued into a flat line, all the way to the edge of the galaxy where the stars stopped and intergalactic space began.




What could cause the stars to behave like that? By playing with the distribution of mass, it was quickly noticed that this “flat rotation curve” could be explained if there was some “missing mass” distributed in a spherical halo around the galaxy. The idea that astronomers might have missed some of the galaxies mass was not so far fetched. After all, galaxies contain more than just luminous stars. They also contained giant clouds of interstellar gas and dust, which can only be seen in the visible band by the starlight it reflects, or blocks out. But astronomers knew where gas and dust tended to be in a galaxy: In the galactic plane. Much like stars, it never tended to wander very far from the flat disk of the galaxy. And besides, if the missing mass was just gas and dust, an enormous amount of starlight would be obscured. Orders of magnitude more than what was actually observed in nearby galaxies.



NGC 891: A galaxy seen edge on, where dust is clearly visible from the starlight it obscures.


Astronomers began to consider more exotic possibilities. What if galaxies were surrounded by swarms of super compact dead stars? If the missing mass was composed of very small very dense objects orbiting the galaxy in a spherical cloud, their small size wouldn’t necessarily block the light from the stars (unlike the diffuse distributed clouds of gas and dust).

But in order to account for the amount of mass that was missing, these objects (and others like them, eventually referred to as MACHOS, for MAssively Compact Halo ObjectS), would have to be so numerous that they would still occasionally transit (pass in front of) a background star, causing the star’s light to briefly fluctuate in a very characteristic way. Search after search for these transiting MACHOs over the past few decades has come up empty.

Perhaps the missing mass could be explained by some very massive subatomic particle? If it was, this particle would have to be very weakly interacting, or else we would have seen it in our detectors by now. Unfortunately, these particles (now called WIMPs, for Weakly Interacting Massive Particles) have also eluded detection by every effort mounted so far to find them.

The seeming futility of the search even drove some scientists to suggest that we don’t understand gravity as well as we thought we did. Perhaps, at galactic scales, gravity required some additional correction factor that would explain the rotation of galaxies. These possibilities (called MONDs, for MOdifications to Newtonian Dynamics) originally showed a great deal of promise for explaining galactic rotation curves, but observations in the early 00’s of galactic clusters, and of elemental abundances in the early universe effectively ruled it out as an option as well.


The bullet cluster. Two clusters of colliding galaxies, the observations of which provided some of the first evidence that modifications to gravity could not explain the behavior attributed of Dark Matter.


Our existing model of gravity has withstood the test, leaving WIMPs as the best candidate for Dark Matter (though entirely by default). In the decades since Dr. Rubin’s discovery, we have simply ruled out anything else it really could be. However we slice it, ~80% of the mass in our universe is composed of “something” that doesn’t emit or obscure light (i.e. is invisible) doesn’t decay or radiate in anyway we can yet detect, and betrays its presence solely by exerting a pull of gravity on the normal matter around it (Though the term “normal” matter could now be said to be a misnomer. If anything, the matter that makes up the stars, dust, gas, planets, rock and squishy stuff that composes us is the unusual kind of matter. Physicists now prefer the term “Baryonic matter” to describe this type of everyday matter.)

The Nobel prize in physics is the most male dominated of all the original Nobel prizes. It has been awarded to a woman only twice since it was established in 1901: Most recently in 1963 when it was shared by three physicists, including Maria Goeppert Mayer for work on deriving a successful theoretical model of the nuclear shell. Before that, the only other woman to win the prize was Marie and Pierre Curie for their work on radiation.

Dr. Rubin is perhaps the best candidate to break this 50 year dry spell, and many would say that Dr. Rubin is long overdue for her prize, the original discovery being made almost 45 years ago. Such a long wait is not unprecedented (the 2013 prize for the discovery of the Higgs Bozon was the culmination of a prediction made 50 years before the awarding of the prize). However, in 2012, the Nobel Prize in physics was awarded for the discovery of the (similarly named but entirely unrelated) Dark ENERGY. While no one in the astrophysics community doubted that the discovery of Dark Energy (which outnumbers both Dark Matter and baryonic matter in our universe by 4 to 1) was an incredibly significant discovery, many people were surprised that the prize was awarded so early. The discovery of Dark Energy was only 13 years only in 2013. Some might say Dr. Rubin and the discovery of Dark Matter is overdue for its medal.


In the meantime, Dr. Rubin has retired from astronomy, but remains an active proponent of women in STEM. I had the privilege of hearing her talk about her work when she returned to Vassar while I was a student there in 2007. It was the first time I really accepted that Dark Matter was a real thing (in my defence, early 2007 was before some of the clinching observations were made of galactic clusters and cosmology that made MOND no longer a tenable theory.) Every year, when nomination season rolls around, I hope that Dr. Rubin will receive the call from the Nobel Committee, and I still think she will. Astronomy, by the nature of the subject, only attracts those who can learn to be patient, but waiting that long for the recognition a discovery like that must be a maddening prospect, even for a mind as tuned to astronomy as Vera Rubin’s.



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