Joan Slonczewski: March 2013 Archives

While Charlie's away, Joan and Stina appreciate the chance to fill in. Picking up on Elizabeth's thread:

So where "on the map" are women in science and science fiction?

A startling study in PNAS tests how male and female lab directors hire a lab manager. Both male and female scientists are more likely to hire a male than a female. "Analyses indicated that the female student was less likely to be hired because she was viewed as less competent" -- although the study design had presented candidates with identical qualifications. Similar studies show that both male and female reviewers are more likely to review favorably a paper by a male author. And a recent issue of Nature reviews the whole disturbing picture.

The dearth of women in engineering and Silicon Valley is no surprise. And in related technical fields, the climate remains harsh. Stina recalls how she worked at Motorola as a graphic designer. "My first experience with gender bias was while working at Motorola. They paid me $48k per year and made out like they were verging on overpaying. (This, with six or seven years experience working for Motorola as an illustrator/designer.) Mind you, I'd designed the covers for their award-winning PowerPC user manuals. Eventually, I got a $2,000 merit raise. They then promptly hired a male graphic designer fresh out of college for $65k. I was not happy when I found out. I'll add that at that time there was an older male manager known for sexually harassing the female staff--an incident in a cab was particularly frightening. There were enough complaints documented that rumors of a lawsuit surfaced. That was when personnel took notice, and I was interviewed. (I’d had my own incident with the manager in question.) In the end, personnel chose to protect the manager. He got a transfer to another department."

But the findings reported by PNAS and Nature are more surprising because they focus on the biological sciences, where women arguably seem to
have made the greatest strides. In biology classes of undergraduate and
graduate schools, women now often outnumber men. A student of Joan's recently interviewed at a top grad school where he was the only male candidate, with a dozen females. But who are their professors? There, it's a different story.

Remember that it's been barely a generation since women in most Western cultures, educated or not, were expected to stay home. Those of us who first pursued careers had to fill the roles that male communities assigned. Thirty years ago, Joan recalls sitting in the office of a female mentor who had done her graduate work with James Watson, and who lacked confidence in young Joan. When Joan burst into tears, her mentor paused and reflected, "That happened to me in Watson's office." The mentor--like her own former mentor, Watson--had been trained to devalue her female students.

It's tempting to think, "We've Outgrown All That." There are indeed many mentors, including males, who effectively support women students
and writers. And there always have been--John Bernal, for instance, a contemporary of Watson's who effectively mentored several female crystallographers, including Nobel-winner Dorothy Hodgkin. Today, perhaps it's too easy to say "We support women," or "We interview women" (though they don't quite get the job.) The PNAS and Nature stats cannot be written off. Is it possible we've taken our modernity for granted? Are our modern biases so skillfully hidden from ourselves that we don't even see?

Try this test and find out. Do you personally associate science with male more than female? What about race, ethnicity, orientation? Most of us who take this test find that our minds still deeply associate male/science and female/family. Is it reasonable to think such associations don't affect our professional judgments?

The gender bias exists in fiction too. It's well known that reviews are what give authors a leg up in the literary world. However, male authors are statistically more likely to get coverage than female authors by a large margin. According to data collected by VIDA (an organization for Women in the Literary Arts):"The New York Review of Books (89 reviews of female authors in 2012 to 316 of male authors), the London Review of Books (74 female authors to 203 male) and the Times Literary Supplement (314 female authors to 924 male authors) fared especially ill."

If you think that SF and F are free of this bias, think again. The cover of our own SFWA Bulletin (the 2013 Spring issue that just arrived) only lists articles by male authors. Meanwhile inside the magazine, there are no less than forty-three cover images of novels by male authors as opposed to five by female authors. (One of those five was clipped in such a way as the name of the author was removed from the image.) In the Fall of 2012 issue, the numbers were male: twenty, female: twelve--and that was in an issue that highlighted female SFF authors. Reviewers of the women-centered anthology The Other Half of the Sky praise the "female protagonists ... just as incredible and compelling as their male counterparts." How long will we have to go on proving this point?

These stats are of particular interest for those of us in research science, where objectivity is the coin of our realm; and in science fiction, which claims to reach beyond “mundane” assumptions. Overcoming gender bias, and assumptions in other dimensions, can only lead to more creative science and fiction.

So what can we do about it?

(Note for newcomers: Stina Leicht is the author of two novels published by Nightshade Books, Of Blood and Honey, And Blue Skies from Pain and has a new short story appearing in the anthology Rayguns Over Texas this fall. Joan Slonczewski authors the Frontera series and conducts microbiology research funded by the US National Science Foundation.)

So the Salt Being is back. Bwa-ha-ha! More microbiology.

As Charlie points out, there are lots of ifs and buts about the coming singularity, the day when machine intelligence finally overtakes the human mind. But what if the singularity is already underway? And if it is--what does it look like?

Suppose it looks like mitochondria. Suppose we're becoming the mitochondria of our machines.

How did mitochondria get to what they are today? The (now classic) theory of endosymbiosis began as a New-age feminist plot by Lynn Margulis, a microscopist known for setting paramecium videos to rock music. Around one or two billion years ago, a bacterium much like Escherichia coli took up residence within a larger host microbe. Either the larger tried to eat the smaller (like amebas do), or the smaller tried to parasitize the larger (like tuberculosis bacteria do). One way or another, their microbial descendants reached a balance, where the smaller bacterium was giving something useful to the host, and vice versa. In fact, this sort of thing happens all the time today. If you coculture E. coli with amebas, an occasional ameba will evolve with bacteria perpetually inside--and the evolved bacteria can no longer grow outside. They are slipping down the evolutionary slide through endosymbiosis, to eventual become an organelle.

But the price of endosymbiosis is evolutionary degeneration. Genetically, the mitochondrion has lost all but a handful of its 4,000-odd bacterial genes, down to 37 in humans. Most of these genes conduct respiration (obtaining energy to make ATP). From the standpoint of existence as an organism, that seems pathetic. The mitochondrion is a ghost of its former identity.

But is it so simple? Did mitochondria really stay around just for that one function? If that’s all the genes that are left, then how do mitochondria contribute to tissue-specific processes such as apoptosis (programmed cell death), production of oxygen radicals, and even making hormones?

Surprise--about 1,500 of those former mito genes are alive and well in the nuclear chromosomes. How did the genes get there? First, mitochondrial DNA replication is error-prone; errors accumulate there much faster than in the nuclear DNA. Second, DNA replication often duplicates genes--the leading way to evolve new functions. Suppose a duplicated gene ends up in the nucleus. It will stay there, while the mitochondrial original decays by mutation. Thus, over many generations, the mitochondria outsource their genes to the nucleus.

Is this starting to sound familiar? As Adam Gopnik writes, "We have been outsourcing our intelligence, and our humanity, to machines for centuries." Long ago, since Adam and Eve put on clothes (arguably the first technology) we have manipulated parts of our environment to do things our bodies now don't have to do (like grow thick fur). We invented writing, printing and computers to store our memories. Most of us can no longer recall a seven-digit number long enough to punch it into a phone. Now we invent computers to beat us at chess and Jeopardy, and baby-seal robots to treat hospital patients.

As we invent each new computer task, we define it away as not "really" human. Memory used to be the mark of intelligence--before computers were invented. Now it's just mechanical--but as Foer notes in Moonwalking with Einstein, memory is closely tied to imagination. Once we can no longer remember, how shall we imagine? And if all our empathy is outsourced to dementia-caring robots that look and sound like baby seals, what will be left for us to feel? Poetry and music--don't mention it, computers already compose works that you can’t distinguish from human.

Yet we humans still turn the machines on and off (well... sometimes). The machines aren't actually replacing us, so much as extending us. That's the world of my Frontera series. Humans still program the robots and shape the 4D virtual/real worlds we inhabit. But those worlds now shape us in turn. Small children exhibit new reflexes--instead of hugging their toys, they poke and expect a response.

The real question is, what will be the essential human thing left that we contribute to the machines we inhabit? Will we look like the "brainship" of Anne McCaffrey's The Ship who Sang--or more like the energy source of the Matrix? Mitochondria-hosting cells ushered in an extraordinary future of multicellular life forms, never possible before. Human-hosting machines may create an even more amazing future world. But if so, what essential contribution will remain human?



About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries written by Joan Slonczewski in March 2013.

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