Monday, September 10, 2007

Madeleine L'Engle and Women in Science

Forgive another science fiction-related post, but the news that author Madeleine L'Engle died last Thursday at he age of 88 brought back happy memories of reading her 1962 novel, A Wrinkle in Time. It stars Meg Murry, a mousy and socially awkward high school student who is good at math. There were few books with brainy female protagonists, so Meg has been an inspiration to many a smart-yet-mousy feeling girl. To top that off, Meg's mother Mrs. Murry is a brilliant biochemist who is apparently able to satisfy the demands of both her scientific career and raising her kids by having a research laboratory in her home.

Meg and Mrs. Murry inspired many young girls in their love of science. As current PhD student MrsWhatsit writes, reading A Wrinkle in Time is what set her on her current career path:

At that time, I didn’t know what a PhD was. I had never heard of it. I had to look it up in an encyclopedia. The upshot was, I wanted one. At the age of 11, after reading this book, I had decided that I wanted a PhD. I already loved science, I loved school, I loved learning, it seemed natural to me.

And now, here I am.

Just surfing around, I found a bunch of other posts with similar sentiments from Lee Kottner, the dubious biologist, and several others rounded up by Suzanne Reisman at BlogHer. Doc Thelma has a recipe for Mrs. Murry's beef stew, inspired by this passage:
When they got back to the house Mrs. Murry was still in the lab. She was watching a pale blue fluid move slowly through a tube from a beaker to a retort. Over a Bunsen burner bubbled a big, earthenware dish of stew. "Don't tell Sandy and Dennys I'm cooking out here," she said. "They're always suspicious that a few chemicals may get in with the meat, but I had an experiment I wanted to stay with.
I would think that blue fluid in the stew is one of the reasons that a lab at home isn't always a good idea, but the Murry kids turned out OK.

As the series of books continues, Meg grows up and becomes a mathematician who helps her husband with his marine biology research. She doesn't pursue a Ph.D., though, choosing to stay home with her kids instead. I never read the later books, since they were published when I was in college, but, according to the Wikipedia summary, in A House Like a Lotus(1984), Meg plans to go back to school.
Meg is said by Maximiliana Horne, [her daughter] Polly's mentor, to be "restless" now that her children are growing older and less dependent. Polly writes that her mother intends to complete her Ph.D. once her youngest child, Rosy, is in school. Polly is aware that Meg does not want her eldest daughter to suffer the same difficult adolescence that Meg had in terms of peer relationships. Max suspects that Meg has been holding herself back professionally in order to avoid giving Polly an inferiority complex similar to the one Meg had in comparing herself with her beautiful, Nobel Prize-winning mother.
I guess I'll have to go back and read the rest of series to see if she ever does get that degree - or comes to terms with her choice to not to.

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