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Studying Naked

Sophie Germain (1776-1831), a great French mathematician.

No, not me. Sophie Germain. I took a study break last night and was reading about her.

Unfortunately, I got absorbed in my reading and the next thing I knew, it was 2:30am. I’ve been sleepy all day. I know that I’m too young to be “too old for this,” but today I sure felt like it.

Sophie Germain (1776-1831) was a French mathematician who overcame sexual discrimination to achieve great things. She first got interested in mathematics by reading the books in her father’s library. But her parents disapproved of her interest because it wasn’t considered suitable for a young woman. So she started sneaking the books up to her bedroom at night and reading by candlelight.

When her parents found out — well, I guess it was a different era. And maybe her parents were a little crazy. They took away her clothes and kept her bedroom ice cold, but even being naked and freezing couldn’t stop her from studying mathematics. So they gave up trying to stop her.

French society hadn’t given up, of course. The university wouldn’t admit her as a student because she was a woman. To get her education, she eavesdropped at the doors of lecture halls and borrowed lecture notes from male students.

She started writing mathematical articles, using the pen name of Antoine LeBlanc to hide the fact that she was a woman. Eventually, she wrote to the greatest mathematician of the age, Carl Friedrich Gauss. When Gauss discovered her true identity, he became her dedicated supporter. He wrote that she had “the most noble courage, extraordinary talent, and superior genius.”

Urged by Gauss, in 1831 the University of Gottingen decided to award Germain a doctorate for her work in mathematics. That was an almost unheard-of honor for a woman in a sexist society. Sadly, Germain died before she could receive the award. But her example of courage and determination can still inspire us today. Even when we’re so tired that we feel like we’re “too old for this.” 🙂

(Blog post #195!)


Copyright 2011 by Rinth de Shadley.

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I Was Berlusconi’s Love Toy

Silvio Berlusconi. Photo: Stefano Rellandini/Reuters.

Berlu-who?

And you were what?!

Silvio Berlusconi is the Prime Minister of Italy.

I was only kidding about the love toy part.

Lately, Berlusconi has been denounced because he seems to jump into bed with anything that’s female, even if it’s a minor. But in spite of his piggish and possibly illegal behavior, more than half of the Italian population still supports him. What’s going on?

What’s going on is that a lot of people still haven’t caught up with the 21st century. That doesn’t make them bad people, but it does mean that they might support bad things.

Besides being prime minister, Berlusconi owns about half of the television stations and news media in Italy. According to Chiara Volpato, a professor of social psychology at the University of Milan in Italy, that enables him to reinforce sexist viewpoints:

In Berlusconi’s media, women and minors are denigrated to a “decorative” role. This representation cements women’s subordinate position in Italian society.

As a result, the World Economic Forum’s 2010 report ranked Italy 74th in equality of women.

There’s a reason that I’ll never be anyone’s “decoration.” It’s not just that I have self-respect: that’s an effect, not the cause. The cause is that my society gives me freedom, rights, opportunities, and a status (mostly) equal to men. Women haven’t always had those things.

Let’s review human history. Up until fairly recently, societies were organized mainly by violence. People who were physically strongest, most aggressive, and most driven to dominate others were the ones who ended up running things. Unsurprisingly, they were mostly men. Not all men are like that, but more men are than women.

Violence still plays a role, let’s not have any illusions about that. But as civilization has developed, violence has gradually become less important than thinking, negotiation, and cooperation.

Men can throw a spear farther than we can. They can outrun us and overpower us physically. But when cooperation replaces violence, women become just as powerful as men, though in different ways. In general, we’re better at cooperation. We don’t care as much about “dominating” others. We just want to make sure that everyone is included and taken care of.

When civilization advances to that point, the old stereotypes and social roles begin to break down. Women are no longer forced into the roles of servant and plaything for men.

Berlusconi and other defenders of the old order are fighting to stop that evolution. But in the long run, they can’t succeed. Nobody wants to go back to living in caves: for one thing, you can’t get cell phone reception there.


Copyright 2011 by Rinth de Shadley.

How Dr. King Changed the World

Dr. Martin Luther King. Photo: Francis Miller/LIFE.

Most of us know Dr. Martin Luther King only from books and videos. We know he was a great man and an inspirational leader.

But we might not know just how big a change he helped make in our society.

Today, people of all races go to school side by side. We work and live together. Our movies and music are racially diverse. We read books by Jane Austen and Ama Ata Aidoo. We might date someone of our own race or another race; it’s not even an issue. Even the idea of race, for which people have engaged in so much hatred and bloodshed, is now almost a relic of a bygone age. Except in some medical situations*, race just isn’t a useful concept.

Things weren’t always like that. When our parents were growing up, society was a lot different. The extent of the difference shows how much Dr. King achieved.

In The Words of Martin Luther King Jr., Dr. King’s widow describes the bigotry and mistreatment that people endured because of their race:

In 1954, the United States Supreme Court ruled that separate educational facilities for black and white children were unequal and unconstitutional. Further court decisions requiring school integration produced violent reactions in the South … All public facilities continued to be forcibly segregated. High taxes at the voting polling places prevented most blacks from being able to cast their ballots.

In Montgomery, some of the most degrading facets of segregation were the rules of the Montgomery City Bus Lines. Blacks were required to sit and stand at the rear of the buses, even if there were empty seats in the front section, which was reserved for whites. Furthermore, blacks had to pay their fares at the front of the bus, get off and walk to the rear to reboard through the back door.

All that because of someone’s skin color? Were those people crazy? Well, I guess that I shouldn’t judge. I’m just happy we don’t have insulting and hateful racial discrimination like that anymore. And it’s because of Dr. King’s fight for justice.

It wasn’t just his fight, of course. Dr. King led the movement, but thousands of people, black, white, Christian, Jewish, atheist, of every color and nationality and religion, followed him and fought beside him. To them, and to him, we owe the fact that we’ve grown up in a better, more rational, more compassionate, more equal society than the one only a few decades ago. It’s far from perfect, because racism and injustice still exist. But we’ve made great progress.

Let me share a few of Dr. King’s ideas:

  • “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?”
  • “Everybody can be great. Because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve … You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
  • “As long as there is poverty in the world, I can never be rich, even if I have a billion dollars.”
  • “We must accept finite disappointment, but we must never lose infinite hope.”

I really like that last one: “We must accept finite disappointment, but we must never lose infinite hope.”

Even those of us who live today, Dr. King, who live in the kinder society you helped create: even we remember you, honor you, and thank you for what you did.

__________________
* Some diseases such as high blood pressure are more common in certain races. Some drugs are more effective or less effective depending on a patient’s race.


Copyright 2011 by Rinth de Shadley.