Notes From A Queer Engineer: Remembering Badass Astronomer Vera Rubin, And Other Stories

Notes From A Queer Engineer_Rory Midhani_640

Header by Rory Midhani

Hello, rogue ones! I finally saw the new Star Wars movie on Christmas day with my family, and boy did that scene where they lined up the Death Star engineering team give me all kinds of feelings. On the one hand, in a franchise that is clearly pushing themselves to be more inclusive, why did casting essentially put five of the same old white guy and zero women on the engineering team? On the other hand — is the point that old white men are the ones responsible for the worst things in the universe? I can sort of buy that — but then again, isn’t it actually false and counterproductive to put women on a pedestal to say that we don’t do/make evil things, when really we’re just as fallibly human as men? Although! Do I really want to have women be included in the engineering team that doesn’t get any opportunity to speak and comes in only to be shot?

Still mulling this one over.


Elite Educated Women Face The Biggest Wage Gap In History

+ Peter Thiel is said to be playing a key role in filling science and health posts under Trump. As recently as August, he expressed a personal interest in using blood transfusions from young people to ward off old age. I bring this up because a) creepy? and b) I think it’s indicative of how well his interests align with the mainstream science community. (Not particularly well.)

+ Climate scientists are launching an anonymous hotline for government workers to report Trump meddling. That part is fine, but everything else is pretty bleak and terrible.

+ Interview with President Obama’s chief science advisor, Dr. John Holdren:

One of the things I’ve found a little irritating about the climate science discussion over the years is the discussion about when will we reach dangerous human interference in the climate system. I think it’s very difficult to argue climate change isn’t already dangerous. We’re not really in the business any longer of trying to avoid dangerous climate change — we’re already in dangerous climate change. We’re trying to avoid catastrophic climate change and I think it would be better to be clear about that.

+ Annnnnd here’s a graphic from information is beautiful on the different types of logical fallacies. Tattoo it on your chest/paint it all over town/commit it to memory.

Geekery Grab Bag

+ Hey look at this beer I’m drinking tonight! It’s fruity and it has a fist on it and it’s called “astronaut ale” for no particular reason I can discern. Just wanted to share something good.

What Doctors Can Learn From Looking at Art

+ Meet the models who code: Karlie Kloss and Lyndsey Scott

We Are Our Stories: Is Technology Rewriting Our Values? Ivette Bayo Urban at TEDxSnoIsleLibraries

+ Do you want to listen to Amy Shira Teitel talk about how she turned her weird, obscure interest into a successful career as a professional space history nerd? Well here you go.

+ And here’s Amy on Vintage Space talking about who took the famous Apollo 8 Earthrise photo.

+ A dinosaur tail was found preserved in amber and it had feathers.

Lady Scientists

+ Today I learned that the word “scientist” was coined in 1834 as a gender neutral term on behalf of a Victorian woman: Mary Somerville!

Dr. Harriett G. Jenkins, former director of the US Office of Senate Fair Employment Practices and assistant administrator for equal opportunity programs at NASA, has just passed away. Here’s an interview with her in 2011 where she discusses integrating NASA and pushing for a more inclusive culture.

+ Dr. Vera Rubin, the pioneering astronomer whose galaxy rotation-curve work confirmed the existence of dark matter, has died at age 88. She led a truly remarkable life, and illuminated the unseen universe. It is one of the great scandals of our time that this woman never received a Nobel.

Astronomer Vera Rubin at the Lowell Observatory in 1965. (The Carnegie Institution via LA Times)

Astronomer Vera Rubin at the Lowell Observatory in 1965. (The Carnegie Institution via LA Times)

+ Vera’s grandchild, Elyria Rose Little, is an agender geek, a nature writer and a poet. From Elyria’s book:

+ Here’s an infographic about Grace Hopper by Rebecca Hill:

Do Make Say Think

Hidden Figures comes out January 6 and honestly, even the trailer is making me emotional. Everyone go see it so we can talk about it together.

Notes From A Queer Engineer is a recurring column with an expected periodicity of 14 days. The subject matter may not be explicitly queer, but the industrial engineer writing it sure is. This is a peek at the notes she’s been doodling in the margins.

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Laura Mandanas

Laura Mandanas is a Filipina American living in Boston. By day, she works as an industrial engineer. By night, she is beautiful and terrible as the morn, treacherous as the seas, stronger than the foundations of the Earth. All shall love her and despair. Follow her: @LauraMWrites.

Laura has written 210 articles for us.


  1. Harriet Jenkins died?! Oh, that’s such a shame- she was close friends with my father. Fuck you, 2016.

  2. honestly i’m so upset that i just found out about Vera Rubin my small baby nerd self would’ve loved reading age appropriate biographies about her!

    • Me too. Why couldn’t we all have celebrated and been taught about her accomplishments when she was still alive?

  3. With her death Vera Rubin joins a distinguished but too-long list, women who’ve been robbed of Nobel Prizes that were given to their male collaborators instead. I’m sure the Nobel committee will get around to giving the prize for dark matter to some men in a decade or so.

    • Sadly the discussion I read yesterday on why she didn’t get it(from other commenters like you and me), is her work on Dark Matter still essentially just theory and not fully proven. Which, I still think is BS, even if it’s just theory, that alone did some advancement for science. Plus, if they were going to give it to a dude, she was working with another scientist on this topic and he too didn’t get it.

      • This is almost certainly the reason the Nobel Committee didn’t give it to her. The Nobel Committee has a well-known and, IMO, justified bias against theoretical work that hasn’t been confirmed by experiment. That said, the problem with this argument is that Vera Rubin and her collaborator, Kent Ford, were experimentalists. Regardless of whether the dark matter explanation for galactic rotation curves is correct, the discovery that galactic rotation curves don’t conform to the expected dynamics is important. It shouldn’t require direct detection of dark matter to give a prize for the discovery of that. Two recent prizes (2011 and 2006) went to research that found similarly-important cosmological phenomena (the supernova research that showed the universe’s expansion is accelerating and the discovery of anisotropies in the cosmic microwave background).

        Kent Ford is, AFAIK, still alive, so if the committee gives him the prize, or other men win a prize for direct observation of dark matter, I will stand by my statement above. The Nobel Committee likes to hide behind the justification that they don’t give prizes to dead people to defend the similar case where Watson and Crick won the prize while Rosalind Franklin, who’d died before the prize was awarded, didn’t. Given their well-known propensity for not giving living women the prize, either, though, I think they’re full of it.

  4. So sad that we don’t learn about these amazing women in school. This post inspired me to buy my niece Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World (using an Autostraddle affiliate link, of course).

    I can’t wait to take some students to see Hidden Figures. I’ve been waiting for this movie for forever it seems.

    But, Laura, where did you buy astronaut beer? And is it good?

    • I liked the beer, yes! It’s light and mango-y, very pleasant. I got it at Pemberton Farms, this cute neighborhood garden center/specialty grocery in Cambridge. Looks like Rogue’s brewery is in Oregon, though, and they have distribution in every state.

      I hope your niece enjoys the book!

    • That’s great! I should really see if I can find a translated version of this for my niece. (She’s only 1,5, so right now more interested in the animal-sound books I got her, I’ve got time)

      Her mom is working on her PhD, so I think the whole idea of women in science should not be an issue for her.

  5. “Elite Educated Women Face The Biggest Wage Gap In History” was a depressing article. And it didn’t even begin to take into consideration issues of race.

    • Yeah, I kept waiting for them to bring it up! Especially because the source data was the census. But no.

    • Thiel is a well-known crackpot. Like many crackpots, he believes that his technical skill in one domain (in his case, tech startups/venture capital) makes him qualified to reject well-established ideas in other domains. He’s wrong, of course, but overconfidence bred from success and the Dunning-Kruger effect are a toxic, powerful combination, so I doubt anyone will ever convince him of that. The good news is that the damage he can do by promoting crackpottery at some random place in Berkeley is pretty limited. The bad news is that the damage he can do by promoting crackpottery to a president suffering from the same delusions he does and a party that have made a wide variety of false beliefs a matter of doctrine is much less limited.

  6. Karlie Kloss codes? My mind has been blown! In a great way. Awesome that she’s breaking down stereotypes.

    Murray Hopper seems like a total badass.

    Waiting impatiently for Hidden Figures to come out.

  7. Hidden Figures was early released in my city and I tried to go see it over my time off from work at Christmas and every show time I could go to was sold out, which while disappointing for my viewing needs (looks like I’m going to have to wait at least a week due to my schedule), it’s very exciting for the movie/box office numbers

  8. Every time I hear about Grace Hopper it’s some new way in which she was amazing. Hoping to attend GHC one of these years…!

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