Hidden Figures, Detecting Distraction, and Pandemic Preservation: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week
From unsung heroes to big data, we learned a lot over the last seven days
We’re living in a world awash with content—from must-read articles and binge-worthy shows to epic tweetstorms and viral TikToks and all sorts of clickbait in between. The Elective is here to help cut through the noise. Each week, members of the Elective team share the books, articles, documentaries, podcasts, and experiences that not only made them smarter but also changed how they see the world around them and, often, how they see themselves.
(left) Jocelyn Bell, in a photograph taken on June 15, 1967, (right) Dr. Jocelyn Bell Burnell onstage at the 2018 Breakthrough Prizes at NASA Ames Research Center on November 4, 2018.
When I spoke with Ruthe Farmer a couple months ago, about building a more representative tech industry, our conversation turned to deep contributions women have made to computer science—and how they've been scrubbed from the narrative. "There are multiple ways that women weren’t just forgotten, but actively erased," Farmer said, "and there are all these examples across history where women have been major contributors but have not been considered contributors because they were classified as supporters of their male colleagues." I thought about this while watching the superb and maddening New York Times op-doc about Britain astronomer Dr. Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who discovered pulsars in 1967—then, in 1974, watched her male colleagues collect a Nobel Prize for it.
The 16-minute video hits all the sexist notes you'd expect from a story involving a female scientist working in the mid-20th century: the only woman in a class of men, catcalled by those students, labeled "girl" scientists, reporters more obsessed with her love life than her research, powerful professors abusing their position to minimize "Miss Bell, the student" in the published papers. She confesses in the film to dealing with imposter syndrome when she reached Cambridge. And when pulsars became a media sensation, "I barely rated as a scientist. It was dreadful."
But the documentary is also a profile in courage, a woman who persisted against everything to continue working, to build a life and career of exemplary quality, and to survive long enough to receive the accolades she deserved decades before. In July 2018, Dr. Bell won a special Breakthrough Prize—the "Oscars of Science"—for discovering pulsars and used the $3 million prize money to fund research studentships for minority students at the Institute of Physics. "The reason I discovered pulsars was because I was a bit of an outsider who felt maybe not entitled to be there and so on," she says. "And I thought if I could give more minority people an opportunity to do PhDs, some exciting things might emerge."
The Op-Docs program is one of the very best things the New York Times publishes, and this one dedicated to Dr. Jocelyn Bell Burnell is among the finest: a celebration of a pioneer and role model whose life and achievements have been too long overlooked. It should be required viewing in every school in the US, UK, and beyond. (And if, after watching the video, you want to learn more about women who made epic contributions to our understanding of the cosmos, I can’t recommend Dava Sobel’s The Glass Universe highly enough.) —Dante A. Ciampaglia
<information overload crashed your caption writer's capacity for pithy commentary>
Would you take a college class titled “Calling Bullshit in the Era of Big Data”? Apparently so many undergraduates at the University of Washington signed up that the course filled within minutes. "The class explores common misinformation traps, including misleading advertising, data visualization, and statistical tricks, and provides strategies for respectfully responding to people who intentionally or unintentionally spread it," writes Richard Culatta in his great new book, Digital for Good: Raising Kids to Thrive in an Online World. The professors behind the class "believe that for the safety of our future society, the skill of recognizing and addressing BS is one of the most important skills any student needs to learn in college."
It's certainly not hard to imagine use cases for that skill in day-to-day life. Culatta is eager to see a lot more students studying at the intersection of technology and society, untangling the mess that social media, misinformation, and precision-engineered distraction have made of our civil society. "We need schools and universities to prepare developers and engineers who know how to keep humans (and humanity) at the center," he writes. "This means teaching strategies to understand the societal impacts of the features that we build. For our schools and universities, this means rethinking our approach to teaching coding, business, and engineering." He'd like to see a lot more overlap between the hard sciences and humanities, more students taking classes across disciplines so that they understand the immense forces shaping our world. It echoes College Board's Two Codes initiative, which is designed to get more students taking both computer science and government classes to ensure they can shape both democracy and technology to build a better world. "Making our online world more human-friendly will not be addressed by building the technology better but by changing the society that is producing these technologies," Culatta writes. "Universities must realize that they are not just creating software engineers, but the designers of our virtual governments, digital community spaces, and online education institutions." —Stefanie Sanford
Museums and institutes might be gathering real-life ephemera documenting the covid-19 pandemic, but it's only a matter of time before some artist tries making a statement with a covid particle sculpture.
Memorializing the Unforgettable
It’s hard to imagine it now, but there will come a day when future humans might want to browse through an exhibit of covid-19 memorabilia, learning about the Great Lockdown of 2020 and the remarkable new vaccine science that (hopefully) brought the pandemic to a close. Museum curators are already thinking hard about what those collections will look like, which objects or news snippets will best tell the story of this strange chapter in world history. Puzzling out what will matter and resonate decades from now is hard when history is still happening. “Every so often, something so enormous happens that it demands to be documented in real time, collected without hindsight. Something like Covid-19,” reports the wonderfully titled Knowable magazine. “Real-time or rapid-response collecting is not easy for curators. The story hasn’t ended yet. And there are so many objects and digital artifacts that could be collected: masks, makeshift PPE, vaccine vials, testing kits, lockdown diaries, sourdough recipes, conspiracy videos, gloves, home-schooling resources. What is relevant, what is not? What must be saved now? What can be collected later? What do museums have space for?”
In the past, most museum collections were driven by the interests and holdings of rich people—patrons with the time and resources to amass their own collections of artifacts and donate them to favored institutions. That began to change over the last century, with greater interest in how world events affect everyday people. With the rise of online life and the relentless documentation of everyday existence on platforms like Instagram and Twitter or in regular emails and texts to friends, curators have a much deeper pool of material to draw from. “Perhaps as never before, citizens are also trying their hand at this creative act of curation. Covid-19 is being documented, edited, arranged and displayed online, in real time, 24-7. We have filled Instagram, Facebook and Twitter with #stayathome and #vaccinated images and commentary; we make audio journals and videos. Posts of our vaccination days, TikToks by Gen-Zers in lockdown, ‘Plandemic’ YouTube videos: Everyone is an amateur archivist now.” I’m a little ashamed to admit I’ve done almost no personal archiving of this era. I used to be an avid journal-keeper, and I have a trove of old emails from friends and family that I treasure. But I didn’t do much writing about the pandemic, and I can’t imagine sealing a mask or a vaccine card into a scrapbook. Maybe I’ll take my kids to visit a covid exhibit one day so they’ll understand all of this a little better. But for now, I’m very, very eager to let these memories fade. —Eric Johnson
Can't kids just go to lunch without having the pressure of every minute optimized for maximum earning potential later in life?
Honey, I Blew Up the Kids’ Data
Geriatric millennial that I am, I'm very much online—but I also remember and lived in a world without the Internet. I also remember a world that wasn't atomized and driven by datadatadatallthedata. Efficiencies and goal-orientated action items and spreadsheets were the domain of the office, not the kitchen table. The pandemic has given my wife and I ample time to consider our personal engagement with data and the kind of world we want to raise our daughter in. There's no going back to the '80s (and who would want to!), but maybe there's a way to bring some pre-Internet vibes into our Very Online lives? Nope! says Emily Oster in her new book The Family Firm: A Data-Driven Guide to Better Decision Making in the Early School Years. All those decisions parents make about their kids' social calendars, sports commitments, extracurriculars, and school functions? Outsource them to data-crunching apps. Scheduling when to eat dinner or hang out as a group? Consult the family's mission statement. Dreading decision fatigue—or, worse, making the wrong call? Look to the data. "Taking a cue from my past life as a business school professor, I thought about how well-run companies make important decisions," Oster writes. "They are deliberate. They have structured processes—evaluation steps, meetings, a timeline. This is what is often missing in our parenting. We face complex decisions without the deliberate processes to make choices. But if we can add those to our toolbox, our decision-making at home can improve."
Janet Manley, in her New Republic review of The Family Firm, writes that "approaching your family as a human resources department looks like a lot of work." Indeed. Call me old fashioned, but I don't think it's particularly healthy to look at families as corporations that need to be streamlined and efficiencied. I was a kid once. It was fun! But it was also messy, full of bumps and bruises and mistakes and bad choices. That's how I—and all kids—learn. It was hard for my mom (she was also a single parent raising three boys), but she gave us space to try things and screw up. What are we cultivating if we allow the algorithm to dictate what parties our kids go to based on the return of attending this one versus the cost of skipping that one? "In recent years, the parenting advice industry has taken on shades of Moneyball," Manley writes. "If we just learn how to harness the knowledge, it seems, we can be the GMs of our own winning families." Data has its place—even this old millennial knows that! (see above) But tapping it to mitigate the humanity and chance of our family lives feels like a step too far. “This isn’t a magical formula,” Oster admits. “I do believe strongly, however, that all the constraints that families face (money, time, energy) are reasons to seek out better decision making, not to give up on it.” This parent agrees. But he’ll not seek it in Slack, Trello, Google Docs, Asana, or any other productivity app you care to throw at me. Some parts of life still, and will always, need a human touch. —Dante A. Ciampaglia
Bob Moses at the event "Fifty Years After Freedom Summer and the Civil Rights Act of 1964" at the University of Virginia's Miller Center on February 26, 2014.
The Book of Moses
Changing the world for the better takes an uncommon mix of virtues: enormous patience, deeply held convictions, and a pragmatic, tactical brilliance to find the partners and compromises that can advance your cause. That’s why I love reading about successful social movements and activist campaigns—you realize just how hard it is to build coalitions and create a lasting impact. Bob Moses is one of the many unsung heroes of the Civil Rights era, and this lovely appreciation from The American Scholar explains why he’s not as well known as he should be. “Like his mentor, the human rights activist Ella Baker, [Moses] believed that an organizer should aspire to a state of near invisibility, by encouraging the skills and decision-making of others,” writes Benjamin Hadin. “I was fortunate to interview Moses on several occasions, and always had to contend with this fact of his humility. He was uncomfortable talking about himself, and so would tirelessly steer the conversation away from the personal. It was no act: he genuinely felt that an emphasis on personality hindered the course of social justice movements.”
Moses devoted his life to two seemingly separate causes—civil rights activism and math education—he saw as intimately linked, with both offering a way to bring power to the powerless. “Moses spent four years in Mississippi in the 1960s, and four decades organizing in America’s schools, mostly with the Algebra Project, a nonprofit he founded in the 1980s to improve math literacy among students in underfunded, low-performing districts,” Hadin writes. “This focus on algebra seemed an inexplicable pivot from voting rights. What united it was the question of access or, as Moses put it, ‘How do the people at the bottom get into the mix?’ Just as those who had once been denied the right to vote were shut out from the country’s political process, so too those with a substandard education were deprived of the opportunities afforded by today’s economy.” Brilliant. And another example of what great change-makers bring to a cause: flexibility. Moses was clear-eyed about goals, and open minded about the best way to achieve them. It’s a potent combination. —Eric Johnson