Advice for the Artist When Depicting a Lady-Scientist or, Unbecoming

Ada King, Countess of Lovelace – AKA Proto-Computer Queen

So Friday was International Women’s Day – and Sunday Mother’s Day. Hurrah for women!

(I realise I’ve rather missed the boat for both, but sometimes having time to sit down and write topical poetry doesn’t quite happen, alas.)

Anyway – this week’s piece is inspired by an exhibition at Newcastle’s Discover Museum, which presents portraits of eminent women scientists. Thinking about the act of portraiture and its power, I wrote a piece which – as the title of the post suggests – is very archaic advice for the artist on how to present a lady-scientist.

And yes, that’s why I’ve used that irritating little -hyphen- in there, for these are not just ‘scientists’, they are ‘lady-scientists’. The hyphen attaches them to their gender and all its holographic-accoutrements throughout the poem and, sadly, still throughout some of the scientific world. So the poem’s about the surface notion/image (much like a portrait) of women and women-in-science which used to abound but which is hopefully – slowly – being eroded.

I used the odd word ‘unbecoming’ as the alternative title to convey the idea that a woman’s work (indeed, anyone depicted in a portrait) can be curiously undermined, undone, by how they are presented. What does it mean: ‘unbecoming’? Un-becoming what? Not-becoming who? It is only ever used in relation to women, isn’t it?

My dear friend Emma – another amazing woman – is writing a blog post every day during women’s history month to celebrate women’s achievements in many different fields (including some ‘Lady-scientists’). You should check them out: there are many amazing women to read and learn about there.

And, as it was Mother’s Day on Sunday, I’m dedicating my very tongue-in-cheek poem (I italicise for extra emphasis) to my Mum. A memory came back to me which was part of the thinking behind this: we once went to buy a family car and visited a second-hand showroom.

The salesman (yes, I know Used Car Salesmen are not usually the most progressive of beings) attempted to sell Mum a car solely on the merit of the fact that it had very shiny rings at the front. As in, “Well madam, if it’s you that’ll be driving it, have you seen these bright, shiny rings at the front? Like the ones all little girls crave to receive when being proposed to by Prince Charming? Hmm? Shiny shiny, madam?”

No, he didn’t really say that: but his insistence that the cosmetic, surface element of the car was what she’d be interested in was quite enough. We didn’t stay long and certainly didn’t buy from there. So the poem’s in his voice, but projected from last century – and dedicated to women who, like my Mum, do not suffer such fools gladly (or, indeed, at all).

I think it took a slight lead from a great poem by Sylvia Plath called ‘The Applicant’ – which uses direct address and questioning to the reader, implicating them (you decide in what – I think it’s marriage, or some sinister pact). You can hear her read it – and be chilled and delighted – here.

And so here’s my poem for this week:

 

Advice for the Artist When Depicting a Lady-Scientist

or, Unbecoming

 

Firstly, how is the subject sat? Be careful

the angle does not make her

appear too confrontational.

A slight turn, a light smile and the proper

amount of space before her

should serve to diminish any

unbecoming competitiveness

in her stance.

 

Is the subject a geologist? Unfortunate.

Try not to make any instruments she holds

appear too…hard. A petite

hammer, perhaps, or dainty brush

for indoor artefacts.  Do not depict granite.

After all, there are types of rock more becoming

for a Lady-scientist.  Softer, more sedimentary layers

must surely declare her to be dainty.

 

When painting a biologist, flowers

may seem demure – but really, is

reproduction something a

Lady-scientist should be associated with

in public?

 

That elusive creature, the Lady-physicist,

must be gently regarded with

the relevant relativity.

 

Above all, avoid anything which proves

unbecoming to the Lady-scientist: for

great strides have been made for the

fairer sex to grace laboratory floors.

And even the slightest lapse in

judgement could undo progress

to their cause.

Very Extremely Very

An artist’s impression of the European Extremely Large Telescope, to be built high up in the Andes – placed next to the London Eye, for some perspective…

Well, I’ve oscillated back from animals (Whales, T-Rexes) to SPACE again: so here’s something comic about telescopes. Earlier, I read this story on the UK’s financial commitment to the European Extremely Large Telescope (from the Guardian) – and was reminded how funny I always find the naming of telescopes. I’m pretty sure the last one was called the European Very Large Telescope. So it also begs the question of where they’ll go after ‘Extremely’…?

So that’s the starting point for this – the act of naming telescopes (and, perhaps, the difficult act of naming in something like astronomy) – and it takes the form of a conversation between two (antagonistic) astronomer-colleagues, perhaps in another telescope. The main thing is: it’s hopefully a bit of (if not Very, or Extremely) fun:

 

Very Extremely Very,

A Gazillibazoolian-Squillion

 

“BREATHTAKINGLY!” he gasped, before even a greeting, crashing the door against the wall. “That’s got to be it.”

“It’s hardly very objective,” the reply sighed. “We’re scientists, Dave – not advertisers. And good morning to you, too.”

“But that’s what I mean. ‘Extremely’, compared to what? Compared to the things we’re going to be looking at it’s not ‘extremely’ large at all.”

“We’re not comparing it to the things we’re looking at, Dave – we’re comparing it to the other telescopes. Compared to them, this one is extremely large.

A silence as both men make notes, turn dials, type furiously –   front for figuring out their next line of attack.

“By your rationale,” Simon quickly established a new angle, “each measuring instrument would then be relative to that which it measures. What would have become of the Large Hadron Collider then? The Super-Massive Underground Mega-Hoop Measurer of Ultra-Tiny But Super-Important Things?”

“Actually, that’s not a bad –

“ – oh for Heaven’s Sake.”

An impasse – the almost-daily ritual.

“I just think that ‘Extremely Large’ doesn’t do it justice. Although I guess it makes sense as part of a kind or product range, or something.” He assumes a sales-voice in the vein of QVC or similar: “If you enjoyed the features of the ‘Very Large Telescope’, you’ll just love the new features of the ‘Extremely Large Telescope’: now able to blend the distribution of dark matter and finely slice the evolution of black-holes and galaxies!”

From the other desk, he can almost hear Simon’s smile being suppressed:

“I’m not sure anyone’s going to call in and pay for it: the cost would barely fit on a TV screen.”

There is a pleasant spaciousness, both enjoying a rare intersection of humours.

“Well today,” Dave takes back up his hyperbolic cudgel, “I’m backing ‘Breathtaking’ – what else could it be described as? It’s as big as all the other ones put together. If you did that with a cake, people would be impressed. And cakes can’t see into the origins of Time itself, not that I know of.”

“That might depend on the cake. And anyway: isn’t that a compound word, ‘Breath-taking’? You’re like a kid, making up numbers to win a competition.” He assumes the manner of an eight-year-old Dave: “A squillion, a gazillibazoolian-squillion!”

A brief silence as Dave decides whether to be offended, or flattered, at the impression. Then:

“How many zeros would that have?”

“A bloobazoolian zeros, OK?”

“I see.”

The tapping of keyboards. This had become the tacit sign now that they had wasted enough time and should get on with some proper work – nebulae were on the menu today, as they had been for the last four years.

“I just think we’re not going to give the public a real sense of the scale of this thing unless the name truly reflects it. It just sounds so mid-range – like a family car: ‘extremely spacious’. We may as well call it the ‘Pretty Gosh Darn Big Telescope’”.

Now the silence of someone studiedly ignoring someone else. Then, the final barrage, the day’s last attempt:

“The Almighty Telescope?”

“Oh the Churches will love that.”

“The Strikingly Large Telescope?”

“We don’t want it striking anything or anyone except light, Dave…”

“The UNCOMMONLY-”

“Dave: get off Thesarus.com – NOW.”