Friday, July 31, 2009

Metphysicians and Engineers

I would like to take a quick break from my regular film/art/books beat to praise of some of my favorite lady scientists. A friend of mine writes the science quizzes for, and the one posted today is all about women scientists (side note: How often do you hear the phrase men scientists used in a sentence?) and it's simply every kind of awesome. I did...just okay.

I hadn't thought about Ada Lovelace in ages. She was a writer and mathematician, although she referred to herself as "an Analyst (and Metaphysician)", and was one of the first visionaries who saw the path to what we now refer to as a "computer". The only reason I had heard of her was through reading about her father, Lord Byron - who she never met, but was buried next to. Her mother, Lady Byron, must have been pretty remarkable in her own right. She was the one who made sure that Ada was educated in math and music in order to negate the dangerous poetical influence that was her paternal birthright. She died when she was younger than I am now, of cancer.

Not included in the quiz, but another minor obsession of mine is the Austrian-Hungarian film star, Hedy Lamarr. She was one of Hollywood's most beautiful glamour girls of the 1940s. Her life is completely fascinating. Born to an upper middle class Jewish family in Vienna, raised in Budapest, she worked with the legendary Max Reinhardt and became a major film star in Europe by the time she was in her late teens. She married a really creepy arms manufacturer who although half-Jewish, consorted with Hitler and was an enthusiastic fascist. He kept Lamarr a veritable prisoner and took her everywhere with him as he was a paranoid freak - including all his meetings with scientists and engineers. She learned a lot. In 1936, she fled to Paris, and from there to London and, finally Hollywood - one of the many refugees from Hitler pouring into Los Angeles. She became a major star, but was never a major actress. In the early 40s, she worked with a friend, avant-garde composer George Antheil, on what they then called a "secret communication system". It was an early form of Spread Spectrum Technology, which is used, for example, in WiFi networks and cell phones. During the war, she wanted to join the National Inventor's Counsel. They wouldn't let her. Much like another beautiful, fine-featured, dark haired movie star, she had a major shop lifting scandal which derailed her career for a while. Very late in her life she was honored for her discoveries both in Europe and in the US.

"Any girl can be glamorous. All she has to do is stand still and look stupid." Hedy Lamarr 1915-2000

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