Women in Technology: Missions to Mars and Internet Identity

Yesterday was Ada Lovelace Day, accompanied by a large-scale blogging exercise in which people around the world blogged about women in technology they admire. Yesterday was also a rather busy day for me, so I’m writing my entry a day late. I’m sure Ada would understand.

There are volumes to say (and that have been written) about Ada herself. She was gifted in mathematics and reasoning, and developed the first computer programs — before any computers actually existed. (She was developing hypothetical programs for Babbage’s Analytical Engine, which didn’t exist either.) Today it is challenging enough to learn languages already developed for machines that anyone can use; imagine starting from less than scratch to accomplish computational magic!

I’d like to draw your attention to two women who’ve made more recent contributions to the field of computers and technology. The first is Donna Shirley, a key player in the JPL Pathfinder mission to Mars in 1997. She led the team that built the Sojourner rover, as chronicled in her enjoyable Managing Martians autobiography. She was a trailblazer for women in high-profile (and high-stress) mission positions, but also remarkable for her accomplishments regardless of gender. She flew airplanes, became an aeronautical engineer, worked on the Mariner 10 mission to Venus and Mercury, raised a daughter, and more. I recommend this fascinating interview with her from 1998. I had the opportunity to meet her years later, when I was interviewing for jobs with my shiny new Ph.D. in 2002. At the time, she was the Associate Dean of Engineering at the University of Oklahoma, and I had a wonderful lunch with her. I didn’t end up taking that job, and she moved on a year later to start her own speaking and consulting business to encourage innovation and creativity in tech fields. There’s so much more to say about her delightful personality and her passion about space and innovation. I encourage you to take a look at her book.

Another fascinating woman in technology is Sherry Turkle. Her background is in psychology, which she’s applied to good effect in analyzing the world of technology. She wrote a book called Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet about how people interact with computers (and the Internet), and the effect that interaction has on us in return. What’s even more remarkable is that this book was published in 1995, when the Internet was still something of a foreign country that only a fraction of the population had visited. She has some very interesting things to say about identity in a virtual environment and the challenge involved in drawing a clear separating line between events in the “real” world and events that happen online. She’s put forth a host of other interesting ideas, including:

I love new ideas and thought-provoking inventions, regardless of the gender of their source. Ada Lovelace Day is a chance to put the spotlight on female contributors, with one goal being to combat the perception that tech advances are produced solely by men. So far, they’ve collected a phenomenal 1,112 posts by bloggers (men and women) about these ground-breaking possessors of double-X chromosomes. Go ahead and browse, as a list or a world map. So many of these were new to me!

1 Comment
1 of 1 people learned something from this entry.

  1. Katie said,

    March 25, 2009 at 12:46 pm

    (Learned something new!)

    Thanks for this, Kiri.

    Not being gifted in technology OR mathematics, I can’t speak from that end of things. However, technology has greatly improved communications with my friends over long distances, and I can’t TELL you how appreciative I am for the advances in photography, and computer arts programs! :)

    I couldn’t have said it better than your final paragraph!

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