the value of a mother who loves technology
Today is Ada Lovelace day, and along with thousands of others, I’ve pledged to write about a woman in technology who has inspired me. I was going to write about Grace Hopper, who was the lead developer of COBOL, the first “human readable” programming language, but thinking about it on my way to work this morning, it’s obvious that the woman in technology who has inspired me the most is my mother.
My mother wasn’t allowed to study physics at school – girls did home economics and dressmaking instead. Mum studied mathematics and biology, got a PhD in genetics and taught anatomy when I was very young (I vaguely remember the smell of formalin from the dissections) but when I was in high school, she decided enough was enough and physics was what she really wanted to do. So she took high school physics in the evenings, and then went to engineering college in her forties. After she got her engineering degree, she started on a Master’s degree in physics (acoustics, to be exact) and ended up working as an engineer in the oil industry.
Mum showed me that you can choose your life at any point. If you’re not happy with your career at forty, you can switch – even if it means going back to do high school physics. There’s an amazing freedom in knowing that at such a visceral level, having seen my own mother do it.
She gave me a love of gadgets and of science for its own sake. I still remember when she bought her first “engineering pencil” and how my sister and I shared in the pleasures of its precision. Or when she was learning to build simple circuit boards and brought materials home to make sure that my sister and I also learnt to build them. Then there was the year she gave us a toy race track complete with loop-the-loops for Christmas despite our being in our early teens – she wanted one to play with herself I think, though her argument was that she was horrified that we’d missed out on the simple physical principles of velocity and how a car can go upside down if it’s going fast enough.
And of course throughout my teens I saw my mother studying – working hard at her desk with her books, engineering pencil and her graph paper. She didn’t have a room of her own – though she did banish the television to the basement so her corner of the living room was a little less noisy.
Now Mum makes sure my kids have age-appropriate books about evolution, frequent trips to the science museum, and kits for building robots and conducting science experiments. She does a fabulous job. And you know how research has found that most women mathematicians have fathers or close male family members who are mathematicians? (I’ve read research on this but right now I can only find an anecdote.) And how women need to see female role models more than men need to see male role models?
Having a mother who loves technology is a wonderful basis for loving technology yourself.