Marie Curie on Ada Lovelace Day

Today is Ada Lovelace Day,  an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology. From their website, ‘Women’s contributions often go unacknowledged, their innovations seldom mentioned, their faces rarely recognized. We want you to tell the world about these unsung heroines.” I think the day is a great idea, and it offers another opportunity . Not only is it crucial to highlight the accomplishments of these tech heroines, it’s also important to make sure that memory of these women is not distorted through gendered lenses.

I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Marie Curie, one of the worlds most famous scientists. Her life story is by all accounts an amazing story of a woman’s success in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. While Curie may seem like a strange choice for a day celebrating unsung heroines, the way in which stories of her youth are generally distorted underscores a need to check up on stories to make sure they do not distort the accomplishments of women through gendered lenses. Consider the difference between different stories about Curie in children’s books.

Curie Cries

While Marie Curie is one of the most well known scientists when we tell her story to children it is generally through a deeply gendered lens. Practically every children’s book about Curie focuses on following story. In this story Manya Skłodowska (Curie’s childhood name) was the youngest and smartest student in her class. The occupying Russian forces forbid teaching children in Polish and teaching Polish history. Instead, schools were required to have children memorize Russian history and learn the Russian language. The school that Manya attended disobeyed these rules. When Russian school inspectors came to check on the school a look-out in the hallway would warn the class and the class would hide their Polish books. Once the inspector came in, the teacher would call on Manya to answer his questions. In the story, Manya succeeds by answering all of the Russian inspector’s questions in Russian to his liking. After he leaves, apparently exhausted, she cries and is comforted by her teacher.

In this story it becomes apparent that while Manya is very smart and strong she still has a kind of frailty. In this situation readers see that Manya’s knowledge gives her a kind of importance. She is called on in class because of her impressive memory, and saves the class from the inspector. While there is a clash with the authority of the inspector the story places Manya in a much more traditional relationship with the authority of her teacher, who comforts her once the inspector leaves. While the stories of Einstein were marked by an exaggeration that stressed his clashes with authority, the story of the Russian inspector is usually treated in a way that is much more consistent with the authoritative texts.

Curie The Rebel

A very different picture of Curie emerges in the other stories from Curie’s youth. These selections come from the second chapter of Eleanor Doorly’s 1939 book, The Radium Women: Madame Curie book, appropriately entitled “Rebels.”

In the Russian-run high school Manya and her friend Kazia “took delight in inventing witticisms against their Russian professors, their German master, and especially against Miss Mayer who detested Manya only a little less than Manya detested her.” Their teacher Miss Mayer stated, “It’s no more use speaking to that Sklodovska girl than throwing green peas at a wall!” On one occasion Doorly tells us of a time in which Manya was openly disrespectful, and witty. “I won’t have you look at me like that!’ Miss Mayer would shout. ‘You have no right to look down on me!’ ‘I can’t help it,’ said Manya truthfully, for she was a head taller that Miss Mayer. No doubt she was glad that words sometimes have two meanings” (1939, pp. 21-22).

In all of these other school stories the young Manya is openly disrespectful of her teachers. While the story of her encounter with the Russian inspector is interesting it should be just one of several stories about Manya’s school experience. Importantly, it is the only story that puts her in a position of weakness against the authority of both the teacher and the inspector. Other stories show the potential of portraying a Manya who is similar to the exaggerated Einstein, openly disrespectful of a rather hostile teacher.

Curie’s Curls

To highlight the extent to which current portrayals in children’s books have departed from Doorly’s 1939 children’s biography of Curie and Eva Curie’s depiction of her mother, consider the following two discussions of Manya’s curls. According to Keith Brandit’s 1983 picture book about Marie Curie,

Manya was the picture of the perfect pupil. She stood straight, her face calm and serious. Her hair was neatly braided and tied with a dark ribbon. She wore the school uniform: a navy-blue wool dress with steel buttons and a starched white collar. On her feet were dark stockings and polished, black, high laced shoes (1983, p. 35).

Here, not only is she the perfectly upright pupil, she is also the picture of the perfect student. Compare this with Doorly’s 1939 Manya.

Look at your ridiculous, frizzy, disorderly head, Manya Sklodovska! How often have you been told to confine your curls? Come here and let me brush them down and make you look like a decent school girl.” “Like a German Gretchen!” thought Manya, but she said nothing. So with the brush that brushed everybody’s hair, she set on Manya’s head with good hard blows. But however hard she brushed, the curls were rebels, still those light, capricious, exquisite curls that framed Manya’s round rebellious face (p. 25).

Putting these two texts in parallel it is hard to see them as discussions of the same individual. In the 1939 piece from Doorly, we see a witty and rebellious student far more exciting than Brandit’s 1984 “picture of the perfect pupil.” Both the story of the inspector and the other stories originate in Eva Curie’s biography of her mother. However the only story included in practically all books after 1939 depicts Manya’s power as something subject to the authority of the teacher. The Curie books ignore parts of her story to emphasize just the opposite point. All of the incidents between Curie and her teachers at the Russian school are ignored and young readers are left with only the incident with the Russian inspector. While Curie does exercise a kind of power in the incident with the inspector, it is subdued.

Recognition Is A Good First Start, But It’s Not The End

Women in science and technology are often enough uncredited, and it is important that we make sure their accomplishments are recognized. But even when they are, like in the case of Marie Curie, it is not enough. Not only is it crucial that women are recognized its also crucial that recognition is scrutinized to be sure that it is not simply recycling the gendered stereotypes.


Brandt, Keith. Marie Curie, Brave Scientist. Mahwah, N.J: Troll Associates, 1983. 

Doorly, Eleanor. The Radium Woman, a Life of Marie Curie; and Woodcuts. New York: Roy Publishers, 1939. 

This post draws on information from a larger study, published in the journal Cultural Studies of Science Education.

Omeka Not Just For Exhibits: Using Omeka To Build A Colaborative Directory

While Omeka is billed as a CMS for exhibiting cultural heritage projects it’s also a awesome platform for publishing collections of all sorts of stuff with rich metadata. Jim and I have been cracking away on our Playing History project and I thought I would share some of our experience working with and modifying Omeka to do some very un-museum-exhibit-y sorts of stuff.

You can see what we have tinkered with so far live at It’s got a long way to go, but it can give you a sense of what can happen with just spending a few hours playing around with Omeka. I spent the majority of my time learning to tweak the theme, installing and configuring a few plugins, and starting to play around with building my own little plugin, I’ll let jim explain the work he has been doing on some of the super exciting plugins he is cooking up, but here is a bit about the tweaks I made.

Here is pic of what we have so far.

I started with Ken Albers and Jeremy’s Autumn theme, it seemed to have most of the moving parts I eventually wanted for the site. I created the header and footer image by blowing up a .jpg of Megaman fighting Metalman, converting it to a .png file, and striping the color pallet down to 6 colors. I think it made for a cool effect, I like the story behind it, but I also like that it doesn’t necessarily scream Megaman.

Here’s the image I started with.

Since Playing History isn’t using collections I removed the helper function that called them in. I then added in a few new divs. Including a tag cloud and a feed from twitter feed to deliver news. Omeka has a nice helper function for tag clouds here is what it looks like on my index.php.

So far this is what the individual game pages look like.

By default the theme I worked with would show all the empty data fields. There is a great little switch you can make to hide all the empty fields.  I just needed to set `show_empty_elements` to false.

Strategy and Scope: Readings In Digital Humanities Project Management

One of the first steps in constructing a digital humanities project is to define your strategy and project scope. This week in our creating history and new media class we had a great discussion about a topic most of the class had not really considered, what I would call project management in the digital humanities. Our discussion centered on two books, Communicating Design: Developing Web Site Documentation for Design and Planning and The Elements of User Experience: User-Centered Design for the Web. Both books tell roughly the same sort of story, Communicating Design focusing more on working as part of a team and Elements focusing more on the conceptual layers involved in a digital project. Both proved to be invaluable assets to our conversation.

[openbook booknumber=”0321392353″]

The books hit home two central points for digital humanists. First, although both books are effectively about making websites the first two thirds of each book has nothing to do with (what I sense most folks think web design is about) laying out content on pages. This brings us to the second crucial point in both the books. That part of the books that isn’t about laying out content is all about users, your hypothetical users; What do they need/want? Why would they come to you instead of some other project? And a slew of other fundamental questions.

The class assignment for this week dovetails quite nicely with this set of readings. Each group’s goal was to set out their projects strategy and scope, a document fundamentally grounded in the first two thirds of these books. I have posted our groups scope and timeline below. Jim Safley and I drafted it through a Google doc. I posted some language left over from a grant application I had worked on last semester and edited it down a bit to something I thought would better fit our time constraints (little) and our funding (none). Over the last week or two Jim and went back and forth editing the doc and the timeline to refnie our conception of the project.

Strategy and Scope: Playing History

A flurry of interest has arisen around the potential of digital games, simulations and interactives to promote humanities learning, spurred in part by a growing body of research on the value of educational games. Foundations and universities have invested millions of dollars into developing these games, yet many are built, tested, and promptly shelved, played by only a handful of students during the pilot testing phase.

There is no comprehensive directory to connect teachers with these resources. If high quality educational games, grounded in current academic knowledge and at the forefront of the digital technologies, are to reach teachers and their students, there is a clear need to build a collaborative directory for sharing information.

Playing History offers a chance for the humanities to take the lead in integrating educational games in the classroom. The project team will aggregate information on approximately 30 games that are currently available online. We will make these resources available to teachers and students through Omeka, a standards based, open-source web publishing platform.

The resulting website will allow teachers to search by time period and historical keywords, helping them to integrate the games into their lesson plans. Together, these efforts will lay the foundation for a communal directory, offering teachers a place to review games, attach lesson ideas, and eventually add additional games.

Through development of this collaborative directory the project will begin to shed light on the best approaches for developing future education web community projects as well as insight into the state of historical games and simulations available to educators.

It is unfortunate that so much money is invested toward developing educational games but they are largely unknown to the teachers who could put them directly into use. With a comparatively small investment in Playing History, we can create a single place for teachers, historians, and educational researchers to find, evaluate, and use the highest quality games.

Playing History Work Plan

2/09, Create “game” data schema (see Appendix)
3/02, Install and modify omeka, map schema to Dublin Core, create “game” item type
3/11, 10 game sample set added
3/23, Sitemap and wireframes
4/06, Design rationale
4/20, XHTML/CSS mockups
4/27, GuestLogin plugin and RateReview plugin
5/03, Additional 20 games added to repository
5/04, Final Project

Recap from first Triannual Zotero Trainers Workshop

Last week I had the pleasure of running the first in Zotero’s triannual (that’s three times a year) workshops for Zotero trainers (looking for a better name for “trainer”). I had a great time, and I think everyone left with a nice balance of practical next-steps for making Zotero work at their own institutions and rabid enthusiasm for the exciting collaborative features just around the corner. I also left with a slate of new ideas for resources I can develop to help them better make the case for Zotero at their institutions. If your interested in joining in on those ongoing conversations join our google group. I am currently hammering out the details for the second workshop, which will most likely take place Emory in Atlanta this July. Stay tuned for more details. Below are some pictures from the workshop.

We started with a somewhat exhaustive run-through of Zotero’s current feature set.

We then spent some time poking around under Zotero’s hood. Getting a feel for where and how Zotero stores data and attached files, how Zotero’s site translators work, and (pictured above) making minor edits to some of the CSL files Zotero uses to create bibliographies.

On day two we spent a bit of time analyzing a few different libraries approaches to developing their own Zotero documentation for their users and hashed out some best practices for connecting efforts to support Zotero at individual institutions with the existing Zotero support networks.