xkcd on Marie Curie as the token lady scientist

Today’s xkcd comic is about Marie Curie, Lise Meitner, and Emmy Noether:

Marie Curie

“Just remember that if you want to do this stuff, you’re not alone.”

Discuss.

Transcript below the fold, courtesy of Cheryl Trooskin-Zoller:

Panel 1: The protagonist, a stick figure with hair in a ponytail looks at a framed painting on the wall. “My teacher always told me that if I applied myself, I could become the next Marie Curie.” From offpanel: “You know, I wish they’d get over me.” Small panel, inset in the first panel; protagonist’s head whips around to face the other direction. “Zombie Marie Curie!”

Panel 2: The protagonist stick figure is joined by a second one, which trails dots behind her and has hair up in a bun. ZMC: “Not that I don’t deserve it. These two Nobels aren’t decorative. But I make a sorry role model if girls just see me over and over as the one token lady scientist.”

Panel 3: ZMC stick figure, head and shoulders, one “arm’ bent at the elbow as if the figure is pointing or gesticulating. ZMC: “Lise Meitner figure out that nuclear fission was happening, while her colleague Otto was staring blankly at their data in confusion, and proved Enrico Fermi wrong in the process. Enrico and Otto both got Nobel prizes. Lise got a National Women’s Press Club award. They finally named an element after her, but not until 60 years later.”

Panel 4: both stick figures, facing each other. ZMC: “Emmy Noether fought past her Victorian-era finishing-school upbringing, pursued mathematics by auditing classes, and, after finally getting a Ph.D, was permitted to teach only as an unpaid lecturer (often under male colleagues names).” Protagonist: “Was she as good as them?” ZMC:L “She revolutionaized abstract algebra, filled gaps in relativity, and found what some call the most beautiful, deepest resul tin theoretical physics.” Protagonist: “Oh.”

Panel 5: ZMC, head and shoulders: “But you don’t become great by trying to be great. You become great by wanting to do something, and then doing it so hard that you become great in the process.”

Panel 6: Both stick figures facing each other. ZMC: So don’t try to be the next me, Noether, or Meitner. Just remember that if you want to do this stuff, you’re not alone.” Protagonist: “Thanks.” ZMC: “Also, avoid radium. Turns out it kills you.” Protagonist: “I’ll try.”

23 thoughts on “xkcd on Marie Curie as the token lady scientist

  1. Valarissa

    For whatever reason, I always found the question “Who is your role model?” to be somewhat demeaning. When I was a child, I always just wanted to be the best at whatever it was that I was doing. I wanted to be me, not an amalgamation of other people, or a failed attempt at being one particular person. Perhaps this was an issue with my understanding of what a role model was, or perhaps it was something else.

    The point of that was that, I believe the comic makes a good point at the end, suggesting that you just do what you want to do, and not try to be someone else. However, I really don’t think it was the most inspirational piece because the predominant messages were that if you are a woman, someone else is going to take the credit for your work. Which, obviously, is problematic.

    1. Beth

      But also what has happened, over and over again. Acknowledging it may, or might not be, the first step to unerasing those women’s role, but it can also arm us so that when we look at an area and there seem to be no women in it we can recognize that, almost guaranteed, it’s a lie. I have learned from hearing stories like these to always dig deeper and find the women and the people of color and the role they played creating the touted works of white men I was taught about in school.

  2. Jessamyn

    This reads like a really condensed version of The Madame Curie Complex. The book is great for an expansion along those lines, and I like the comic strip even though it’s too brief to say everything that can be said about this.

  3. Annalee

    I wonder if Randall reads Geek Feminism–maybe it just shows up on his Google Alerts when someone ’round here mentions him. There was a post a while ago praising an XKCD strip for passing Bechdel, and to me it seems like ever since then, Randall’s been making a concerted effort to include more women in his strips.

    It could have been a coincidence, and I haven’t actually gone through the strips and run a tally, but I’ve noticed an increase lately, and I think it’s awesome. Way to be an ally.

      1. makomk

        Yeah, pretty much. The associated IRC channel also follows XKCD #322 as far as possible, amongst other things, which is sadly more unusual than it ought to be…

      2. Annalee

        The GF post I was referring to was this one: http://geekfeminism.org/2010/06/11/quick-hit-xkcd-phobia-passes-bechdel-test/ in which Skud points out strip 752, and counts back 400 strips to the previous Bechdel-passer (though there’s discussion in the comments about whether or not another intervening strip counted).

        In the 144 strips since then, I count eight solid Bechdel passes (1.798 2. 813 3.816 4. 829 5. 865 6.872 7. 877 8. 896) and three Bechdel-maybes (1. 819: “thanks for the great night” momma joke, 2. 846: woman speaking to (but not with) Ke$ha about dentistry, and 3. 867 , in which one woman responds to another woman’s presentation. Personally, I’d call those Fail, Pass, and Pass, respectively).

        I agree that he does a good job including women in general, but I’ve also really appreciated the extra effort he seems to be making to include more Bechdel-passing strips. Since 48 strips passed between the GF shout-out and his next Bechdel-pass though, it might be a stretch for me to suggest GF inspired the increase.

        1. Restructure! Post author

          Thank you for the clarification. I initially misread your comment.

          (Although I’m always doubtful when people think Randall might be going inside their heads or spying on them/us. My first reaction was that I thought it was in response to the Curie-hating misogynist at Waterloo, but then the rational part of my mind reasoned that Marie Curie isn’t exactly an obscure topic.)

    1. Dorothea

      Well, overall lady-geek count in xkcd aside, is it coincidence that this strip appears not long after Madame Curie was GF’s Wednesday feature?

      I mean, I don’t know. I have no idea how far in advance Munroe does xkcds. But it does seem an interesting juxtaposition…

      1. Meg

        If not him in particular, Geek Feminism is definitely popular among the MIT crowd which I believe he frequents. So it is definitely in the air, as it were.

  4. Shani

    I didn’t really like this comic, actually. It didn’t seem to know whether it was about women being treated badly or women being inspirational or what – not that I think those two things are contradictory, but… I didn’t really get what he was trying to say, and I got a kind of patronising vibe.

    Might be just me though!

    1. Mary

      My reaction to it was also a bit mixed. Lise Meitner and Emmy Noether are cool, but they also have high name recognition. So to me one possible reading was “there’s totally more than one historical world-class woman scientist! there were actually three!”

      I don’t hate it and I can see other readings, just, that was one I got.

  5. Thursday

    Unpopular opinion ahoy? I thought it completely hand-waved any systemic discrimination and concluded with the bootstraps argument that is always used to trivialise marginalised groups.

    1. jac

      Bluh? I thought it highlighted systemic discrimination by pointing out that there have always been women doing great things in science, but who were being conveniently ‘forgotten’ or trivialised by the male-dominant culture which seems to have either ascribed their achievements to men or deemed them unimportant.

      Oh well, I suppose there are as many ways to read a comic as there are people reading it.

    2. Katherine

      I dunno, I thought it touched on the systemic discrimination by mentioning all these women that you DON’T usually hear of, because the men around them got credit for their accomplishments or shut them out of their fields. Though it doesn’t really go either way on saying whether there are still issues today, I think it is probably hard to both comment on the issues present today and still be encouraging/inspirational in a single strip. He touches on systemic issues more in other strips.

  6. Restructure! Post author

    I really liked this comic. Maybe I’ve been reading too much MRA male geeks saying how feminists and women should thank men for science and technology, and that men’s historical dominance in science and technology demonstrates lower female variability in intelligence. Given this context, the comic is indeed inspirational.

  7. tenya

    Seems to me like it might have worked slightly better to have mentioned a litany of female scientists to prove a point about not tokenizing a single female scientists, instead of mentioning two whole more, with the multiple points of “there is more than one woman scientists, but there is also a lot of bias that worked against women scientists becoming known historically, oh and you shouldn’t strive to be like someone you should try to be yourself and really great at what you love.” Not that I think it is a bad comic, these are all good points, just a little unfocused.

  8. Cheryl Trooskin-Zoller

    Transcription for those that use them:

    Panel 1: The protagonist, a stick figure with hair in a ponytail looks at a framed painting on the wall. “My teacher always told me that if I applied myself, I could become the next Marie Curie.” From offpanel: “You know, I wish they’d get over me.” Small panel, inset in the first panel; protagonist’s head whips around to face the other direction. “Zombie Marie Curie!”

    Panel 2: The protagonist stick figure is joined by a second one, which trails dots behind her and has hair up in a bun. ZMC: “Not that I don’t deserve it. These two Nobels aren’t decorative. But I make a sorry role model if girls just see me over and over as the one token lady scientist.”

    Panel 3: ZMC stick figure, head and shoulders, one ‘arm’ bent at the elbow as if the figure is pointing or gesticulating. ZMC: “Lise Meitner figure out that nuclear fission was happening, while her colleague Otto was staring blankly at their data in confusion, and proved Enrico Fermi wrong in the process. Enrico and Otto both got Nobel prizes. Lise got a National Women’s Press Club award. They finally named an element after her, but not until 60 years later.”

    Panel 4: both stick figures, facing each other. ZMC: “Emmy Noether fought past her Victorian-era finishing-school upbringing, pursued mathematics by auditing classes, and, after finally getting a Ph.D, was permitted to teach only as an unpaid lecturer (often under male colleagues names).” Protagonist: “Was she as good as them?” ZMC:L “She revolutionaized abstract algebra, filled gaps in relativity, and found what some call the most beautiful, deepest resul tin theoretical physics.” Protagonist: “Oh.”

    Panel 5: ZMC, head and shoulders: “But you don’t become great by trying to be great. You become great by wanting to do something, and then doing it so hard that you become great in the process.”

    Panel 6: Both stick figures facing each other. ZMC: So don’t try to be the next me, Noether, or Meitner. Just remember that if you want to do this stuff, you’re not alone.” Protagonist: “Thanks.” ZMC: “Also, avoid radium. Turns out it kills you.” Protagonist: “I’ll try.”

  9. Kep

    I appreciate the message that we need more than just a few long dead (or undead) examples of women in science.

    I’m a little bit hung up on the concluding two panels, though. I’ll agree that it’s wiser — probably more fulfilling — to strive to work hard on what you love than it would be to aim for a specific target of greatness. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong to want greatness and recognition, though, especially given a history of women’s scientific accomplishments being overlooked.

    It would be foolish to aim for fame and risk falling short or missing out on the fulfilment of the work in progress, but if a woman happens on greatness, hoping for recognition shouldn’t be off base.

    I don’t think this comic is intended to say “Women’s accomplishments have been overlooked repeatedly, so don’t get your hopes up on name recognition or getting the credit you deserve”, but the conclusion of “focus on being your best rather than earning glory” seems oddly positioned after the examples of women whose work was undervalued.

    Sure, being awesome is not about the status… but recognition is nice.

    ————————————————————
    It’s late so I’m rambley. Here’s a possibly more concise version:

    I agree that glory shouldn’t be the ultimate goal, but it seems weird to say, “Look, fame has been distributed unfairly in the past,” and then “…Anyway, don’t worry about fame so much.”

    I’d rather conclude with “…and that’s pretty sucky. Keep on being awesome, and hopefully people NOWADAYS will be more appreciative of how badass you can be.”

    I’m appreciative of contemporary efforts to make living, breathing mathematicians and scientists more visible.

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