Lessons on the Internet for LAMs from The Oatmeal: Or, Crowdfunding and the Long Geeky Tail

Yesterday Matthew Inman (sole proprietor of the generally hilarious webcomic The Oatmeal) put up a post on his site to help raise funds to buy Tesla’s lab, Wardenclyffe Tower, preserve it, and make it into a Tesla Museum. At the time I’m writing this, 10,900  people have committed a total of $480,00  dollars to help make this happen.

I think folks who work at libraries, archives and museums need to pay attention to this. In particular, people who work at libraries, archives and museums that have a science and technology focus need to pay attention to this.

The Oatmeal and Tesla as the Geek of Geeks

If you don’t follow The Oatmeal you should, it’s a fun comic. If you do, you’ll know that Inman recently posted a funny and exuberant ode to Nikola Tesla as the geek of all geeks. It’s a story about an obsessive desire to make the world a better place through science and technology. (If you check that story out you should also check out this response from Alex Knapp and Inman’s critique of the critique.) The original cartoon uses Tesla to define what being a geek is. I like the sincerity in this particular quote at the front of it.

Geeks stay up all night disassembeling the world so they can put it back together with new features.

They tinker and fix things that aren’t broken.

Geeks abandon the world around them because they are busy soldering together a new one.

For someone who cares about the history of science and technology and the preservation and interpretation the cultural record of science and technology it is neat to see this kind of back and forth happening on the web. With that said, it is unbelievably exciting to see what happens when that kind of geeky-ness can be turned into a firehose of funding to support historic preservation.

How is this so amazingly successful?

As cultural heritage organizations get into the crowdfunding world it makes a lot of sense to study what about this is working so well. While one might not have the kind of audience Inman has, part of why he has that audience is that he’s a funny guy and he knows how to create something that people want to talk about all over the web. Even the name of the project,Let’s Build a Goddamn Tesla Museum, is funny. It is also participatory in the name alone. He is asking us to be a part of something. He is asking us to help make this happen.

Shortly after going up there were posts about this on a range of major blogs. It’s a great story and Inman is already a big deal on the web. Most importantly, Inman’s fans are the kind of people that can get really excited about supporting this particular cause. Aside from that, he publicly called out a series of different organizations that might get involved as sponsors. At least one of which was excited to sign on personally. Aside from getting the folks who were interested to just give money, he also asked them to reach out to the organizations. It just so happened that someone who has both Inman’s email address and the head of Tesla moters was thrileld to have the ouppertunity to connect the dots and help make this thing happen.  The project not only mobilizes supporters, it mobilizes people to mobilize supporters and in so doing lets everybody be a part of the story of making this thing happen.

Is this just a one off thing?
So Inman has been able to turn his web celebratory into a huge boon for a particular cultural heritage site. The next question in my mind is, is this a one time thing? I think there is a good reason to belive that this is actualy replicable in a lot of instances.

First off, Inman’s love for science and his audiance’s love for science isn’t an oddity. The web is full of science and tech fans and other web celebratories who might be game for doing this kind of thing to connect with fans and help support worthy causes.

Off the top of my head, here are three people I think could and very likely would, be up for this sort of thing for other projects related to scientists and engineers.

Jonathan Coulton

I would hazzard to guess that Jonathan Coulton fans would be thrilled to support at some archive to accession and digitize and make avaliable parts of Benoit Mandelbrot’s personal papers. Not sure exactly who has those papers but I am sure they are awesome, and I would hazzard to guess that the man who wrote an ode to the Mandelbrot Set and the fans who love it would come out in droves to support preserving his legacy.

If you haven’t heard Coulton sing the song take a minute and listen to it.

When you get to the end, you find the kind of sincerity about the possibility of science making our world a better place.

You can change the world in a tiny way
And you’re just in time to save the day
Sweeping all our fears away
You can change the world in a tiny way
Go on, change the world in a tiny way
Come on, change the world in a tiny way

We can change the world in a tiny way, and that is a message that Coulton’s fans want to hear. It’s really the same message for Inman’s geeks who are taking apart and rebuilding the world with new features.

Randall Munroe
I would similarly hazzard to guess that XKCD fans would follow Randall in any given campaign he wanted to start around a scientist or a technologist. You can see the same enthusiasm for science and technology in a lot of the XKCD comics. Here are a few of my favorites. For a sense of what people will do based on XKCD comics I would suggest reading the section on “Inspired Activities” on XKCD’s Wikipedia article.

For starters, there is the ever popular “Science: It Works” comic.

For a specific example of actual scientists check out this Zombie Curie comic.

Kate Beaton

Kate Beaton makes funny, clever, and rather nice looking historical comics. Many of those comics, like the comic about Rosalind Franklin below, are about scientists. I would hazard to guess that her fans would follow her to support these kinds of projects as well.

So these were just a few examples of other folks that I think could potentially pull this kind of thing off. I could also imagine all three being up for this sort of thing. In all three cases, you have geeks who have been able to do their long tail thing and find the other folks that geek out about the same kinds of things.

As a result, I think we could be looking at something that has the makings of a model for libraries, archives and museums to think about. Who has an audience and the idealism to help champion your cause? The web is full of people who care about science. Just take a look at what happened when someone remixed Carl Sagan’s cosmos into a song. There are some amazing people out there making a go of a career by targeting geeky niches on the web. If they are up for helping, I think they have a lot to offer. I’m curious to hear folks thoughts about how these kinds of partnerships might be brokered. What can we do to help connect these dots?

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.

Science Grows On Trees: The History of Science and Technology Acording to Video Games

I think historians and sociologists of science might be surprised to learn that video game designers spend a considerable amount of time and energy building playable models of the history of science and technology. In game design circles these systems are commonly referred to as “Technology Trees“. Below is an example of one of these trees from Civilization ll.

The tree provides a guide to the relationships between individual intellectual discoveries. Each box represents a single potential discovery, the other items inside that box are the benefits that technology provides.  The blue and red lines chart out lines for perquisite advances. For example, to discover writing a player needs to first discover an Alphabet. Once the player discovers writing they can start training diplomat units and building libraries in their cities. If they have also already developed a code of laws they can start to research literacy, which would allow them to build the great library world wonder.

Tech trees are a part of a variety of games. For example see Bob Bates book Game Design.

Bob Bates, Game Design, 2004, p.50

In game design tech trees provide a powerful way to create a wide range of player strategies. Scholars might find the sort of technological progressivism at the heart of this mechanic a bit discomforting, but that aside, its an interesting way to play with the history of science and technology. In many cases the trees are quite sophisticated. We can think about them in three parts; the input the system requires for advancement, how the different kinds of knowledge relate to each other, what those different pieces of knowledge contribute to game play. I will pick these apart for the earlier example from Civilization ll.

In Civilization players invest a portion of their Tax income into science and luxuries while holding onto the rest for spending on infrastructure or to weather future financial hard times. Players can also assign representative amounts of citizens in their cities to work as scientists. Both their scientists, and the funding allocated to science generate research points. The player then decides which advancement to study. Each turn the player racks up research points that are then contributed toward the advancement they’re exploring. When the player gets enough points they acquire the advancement and the benefits (new units, new buildings, new forms of government, and world wonders) it provides.

The system in Civilization is quite sophisticated, and there are other similarly sophisticated systems in different games. I think they are worth thinking about more for a few reasons. First, the chart I used in this post did not come from a game company. Civilization has a vibrant user community, one of whom created this document. Scholars working on the public understanding of science frequently bemoan how little the public understands about how science and science policy works. These games are compelling enough to get players working on mapping and thinking about this kind of knowledge. There is a chance for game designers, historians and sociologists could think about these sort of models together, I think each might get something out of it. Scholars could provide interesting ideas for modeling the history of science and technology, and designers might be able to provide gamers demands for more athuentic experiences in their games.

Disney Goes Atomic

In 1956 Disney published Our Friend the Atom as a compliment to a film and exhibition by the same name. The book uses a fable of a fishermen and a genie to explain the relation between people and atomic science, and the book strangely simultaneously offers much scarier visuals of the destructive power of atomic science than one would expect children of the fifties would have been exposed to but still manages to present a Utopian view of the future potential of the technology.

The analogy of the genie and fisherman forms the central framework for the book. The fisherman discovers a lamp which he then pries open.

With that a very menacing genie emerges from the lamp.  Not the humorous and benevolent genie Disney gave my generation but a big old nasty genie. Instead of being grateful for his release this genie is quite disgruntled. Once freed he proclaims that “because thou has freed me, thou must die. For I am one of those condemned spirits who long ago disobeyed the word of king Solomon.” The genie then asks the fishermen to “chose how he will die”.

Through some deft trickery the fishermen convinces the genie to get back into his lamp, at which point the fishermen decides to throw the lamp back into the sea. The genie pleads with him to free him once again offering him three wishes.

On the next page the story is mapped on to the history of the atom. This page promises to explain “how the atomic vessel was discovered, how man learned of its many marvelous secrets, how the atomic Genie was liberated, and what we must do to make him our friend and servant.” I highly recommend right clicking on the image below to see the whole thing. The way Disney maps the story of the genie directly onto the history of atomic science is both bizarre and fascinating.

In strange form the dark imagery of the first encounter with the genie is ever present throughout the story. While the book is ultimately about human progress via technology these dark images keep reoccurring.

Ultimately children learn that humanity has somehow tricked the atom in just the same way that the fisherman tricked the genie. For this they are granted three wishes by the atom. The atomic genie will give us power, food and health, and ultimately that power, food and health will give the world peace.


1934: A Better Time to Be A Girl Interested in Science?

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Nature Study was the cutting edge approach in American science education. Educational scholars claimed students should “study nature, not books” and education took on a much more practical bent. Some scholars have noted that this approach to science education was much more gender inclusive, that nature study invited more women and girls into the sphere of science. The following images from Science Stories, a 1934 American science textbook, would seem to support the argument that nature study was more inviting to girls. In the past fifty years various science textbooks have come under scrutiny for including only pictures of boys and men in the book’s illustrations. Take a look at the following set of pictures from the book, these representative selections show boys and girls working together, something later books have largely failed to do. If this book is at all indicative of other texts and approaches from the time it would seem to be incontrovertible that Nature Study brought about a much more gender neutral approach for presenting science to children.

Science Stories follows a group of students and their teacher through the four seasons. Almost every page includes a picture, and almost every picture that includes a boy includes a girl as well. In the picture above we can see students in Autumn looking at leaves and twigs. Many of the stories focus on students activities outside. It is also worth mentioning that the science teacher is female.

The gender equity in the pictures follows the students back into the classroom. Many images like the one above show boys and girls workign together, in this case on some sort of diorama. Almost every single image shows boys and girls working together.

Beyond dioramas the gender equity extended to working with scientific equipment (see above) and children working on their homework.

Throughout the book boys and girls work together, collaborating and exploring their natural world. Aside from being a pleasant read, filled with beautiful illustrations, the Science Stories book is an interesting example of a gender inclusive curriculum. While we like to think that science and science education have become increasingly open to women these images, work like Kimberly Tolley’s Science Education of American Girls and explorations of the nature study movement suggests otherwise. It seems that the history of gender in science and science education is much more dynamic than we previously thought.

Suprises in Early Children’s Books About Evolution

From the Scopes to Dover Area School District teaching evolution continues to be a perennial sore spot in American education. More often than not textbooks are at the center of these controversies. There are several excellent studies of the history of Evolution in text books. In Trial and Error Edward Larson argued that the scopes trial exacerbated “Existing restrictions and fears of further controversy” in teaching about evolution and ultimately “led commercial publishers to de-emphasize evolution in their high school textbooks.” In a similar vein sociologist Gerald Skoog found after the Scopes Trial “The most sensitive evolutionary topics, including the origin of life and the evolution of man, rarely appeared at all” in textbooks “Less than half of the texts even used the word “evolution”. ” Curiously, the the Scopes trial seems to have had the opposite effect on children’s books about evolution. Books directed at a much younger audience. The first time the Children’s Catalog, a guide to Children’s books for librarians, listed books under the heading “Evolution” was the year after the scopes trial.

William Maxwell Reed‘s 1929 book The Earth for Sam is one of the first American children’s books to engage with evolution. ( I have found six other books from the same time period) In an example endemic of all these children’s evolution books Reed claims; “We saw life become a cell, then a group of cells. In turn there have appeared before us the fish, the amphibian, the reptile, and the mammal.” He goes on to address human decent directly; “Finally from among the mammals there appeared the primates and from among the primates the European white primates who founded the British Empire and the United States of America.” While the textbooks were becoming conservative, often not even mentioning the word evolution, children’s books emerged boldly asserting an ancient earth, and the decent of man.

I think this example may be a fruitful one for considering the relationship between children’s books and textbooks more generally. Every student gets the textbook. I think this may well make them a much more conservative medium. In contrast children’s books can be marketed to smaller niche groups of parents and librarians; allowing them to encompass a broader range of perspectives. Because Historians and Sociologists considering the place of evolution in the history of American education have focused on textbooks they have missed some nuance in this history. Instead of Scopes forcing education to become much more conservative, the trial appears to have had a polarizing effect. Simultaneously forcing the conservative medium of textbooks to cut out evolution and in parallel creating enough public interest in the topic to substantiate a new genre of children’s literature on the topic.

Pictures from William Maxwell Reed, The Earth for Sam: The Story of Mountains, Rivers, Dinosaurs and Men. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929.

Another way to count the books

I asked a sociologist why there are more kids books about Curie than Einstein. He looked puzzled for a moment and then responded, “Of course! If your going to write a book about a scientist for girls you don’t have that many options, but if you are writing a book for boys there are so many options.” This would quite naturally inflate the number of books about the individual female scientists. In this scenario it is crucial to consider how many of the total quantity of books about each scientist are written about men and how many are written about women.

The initial data would seem to support this. While the woman and the black man are each respectively the most written about scientist and inventor, women and blacks are still dramatically underrepresented in the total quantity of books.

Children's Books in english by Gender

Children's Books in english by Race

Still, they are represented much more equitably in children’s literature than in books for a adult audience. See the charts below.

Books for adult audience sorted by the gender of their subject

Books about black scientists compared to white scientists

Final thoughts: I find it fascinating that the percentages for gender and race mirror each other so perfectly. In some sense it makes the comparison all the more powerful. While gender and race are radically different it is interesting to see that they have such a closely mirrored place in children’s books about scientists and inventors.

I think there is something to this sociologists idea but I am not sure it quite satisfies me. It is still nonetheless interesting. The next project is to historicize the information. The next way I want to play with the numbers is to see when Curie and Edison became the most written about scientist and inventor.

Why Historians Need to Be More Interested With Children's Literature

One of these things is not like the other, one of these things just doesn’t belong. This picture from the 1976 children’s book The Value of Learning: The Story of Marie Curie depicts the resolute young Curie standing her ground against a visiting Russian school inspector. (I have posted about this confrontation before) It is a ‘Value Tale‘ publication. If you aren’t particularly familiar with Curie’s life take into consideration the following. Curie, born in 1867 would have fifty by the October revolution of 1917, needless to say the Soviet Uniform worn by her harsh Russian instructor is a bit out of place. This could point to a interesting argument for why there are so many Curie children’s books, stories about harsh Russians past and present make for good stories during the Cold War.

But back to the title of the post. While The Value of Learning does not come highly recommended it is still one of the most avaliable to children around the world. I have to believe that if historians were involved in the review process for these books these kinds of kinks could be better ironed out.

Ann Donegan Johnson, The Value of Learning: The Story of Marie Curie (La Jolla, Calif: Value Communications, 1978).

Children's Books By The Numbers: Or Two Things I Learned From Franco Moretti

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of reading Franco Moretti’s Graphs Maps and Trees. If you haven’t read it I highly recommend it as a truly compelling exploration of what individuals interested in the history of literature can glean by counting. After a bit of thought I am confident that some of his approaches will be quite useful in framing our understanding of children’s nonfiction.

As previously mentioned my project began in consideration of an anomaly of numbers. There are more Children’s books about Marie Curie than any other scientist. As a start to quantifying the history of science literature for children I thought it would be worth sorting out a bit more of who the popular stars are in comparison to the major players in biographies of scientists written for a more mature audience.

For a rough start I did some quick searches on the Worldcat for juvenile and non juvenile biographies about a laundry list of popular scientists and inventors and dumped the data at swivel.

Number of Children's Books About Different Scientists and Inventors

It appears that the same trend for gender in science is mirrored in race in invention. Curie is the most written about scientist for children, and George Washington Carver is the most written about inventor. But when we take the list of books for a older audience they fall far out of their top positions. What are we to do with this? The second thing I took away from Moretti is his insistence that we should be actively looking for questions we have no answer for. While this is essentially the same question I started my undergraduate thesis with I don’t really feel I am any more qualified to answer it.

Number of Biographies of Scientists and Inventors Written For An Adult Audience

I have a few ideas but I need to spend a bit more time fleshing them out. Stay tuned for more. In the mean time, what do you think could explain this phenomena? In the next few weeks I will post some of my thoughts on this and hopefully pull together some more robust numbers about these books. I am working on a way to export a CSV file from my Zotero collection that should help me isolate when Curie and Carver became the most written about scientist and inventor for kids

But in the mean time, why is there such a large market for children’s books about Carver and Curie for a young audience, and why does that market dry up when those children grow up?

How Research Databases Changed My Life!

Does anyone else remember the joy of the first moment when you realized what Proquest’s Historical New York Times does? Sitting in a library resource presentation, the librarian clicked in the little search box and in a few seconds was searching the entire full text of the hundred some years of history of the New York Times. Not only is it a fantastic way to kill a weekend, as a historian interested in twentieth century America its a indispensable first stop for almost any research project.

In particular, these sorts of databases provide a amazing platform for jump-starting projects. For a specific example when I first started exploring children’s books about Marie Curie and Albert Einstein I made a brief virtual stop at the OCLC’s Worldcat. From their advanced search pane I was able to search for the keyword “Albert Einstein”, and only English language juvenile literature. I could then sort and search them, (This was one of those moments where Zotero would have been a godsend) but most importantly the OCLC counted them for me. When I did the same search for Marie Curie I found, much to my surprise that there are more children’s books about Curie than Albert Einstein, or for that matter any other scientist. By switching Juvenile to non-Juvenile in my search perimeters it was easy to see that this is exactly the opposite of trends in books about scientists for a adult audience. (Yes I know “Adult Audience” is a clumsy term, it is really too bad that ‘adult biographies’ sounds like something that would be bought at an adult bookstore)

With about half an hour of work I had acquired information about over a thousand books, cataloged the information, and was already brimming with questions all because of the amazing aggregate power of Worldcat. Now this was by no means definitive, and I did end up spending 7 hours paging through the 19 editions of the H. W. Wilson Company’s Children’s Catalog on a upper floor of an obscure library finding out which of these books were recommended to libraries over the last hundred years, but I may not have had the impulse to do so if not for the quick and easy search power of Worldcat.

In short both examples demonstrate the way the research database has transformed how we start projects. I will post a few more links with some other ideas for ways things have changed tomorrow!