Hedy Lamarr, Hollywood beauty and… inventor of secret military technology?

Hedy Lamarr was one of the great leading ladies of Hollywood in the 1930’s and 40’s. Some regard her as the most beautiful woman who ever graced the silver screen. Her heyday began almost 80 years ago, but her name is still well-known, certainly to movie buffs.

Even with a passing acquaintance from film studies, I, with an interest in both classic cinema and novel technologies, missed the fact that Hedy Lamarr was also an inventor.

She was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014.

Together with a friend, she patented technology in 1941 to prevent interception of military radio signals by the enemy. Their innovation used spread spectrum and frequency hopping to obscure information. If that sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because your wifi relies upon Lamarr’s idea, as do cell phones.

Who knew?

But, then again, why are we surprised?

Perhaps Lamarr, herself, provides a clue with this quote:

“Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.”

She certainly was glamorous. Equally obvious: she wasn’t stupid.

Young women should not avoid STEM careers for fear of appearing unfeminine. Here’s a great example of a beautiful lady whose brain was as impressive as her countenance.

Another Lamarr quote provides a hint to the secret of her many successes:

“I win because I learned years ago that scared money always loses. I never care, so I win.”

Worry less about what others think, and more about what you can do. This is particularly compelling advice for women, who are likely to be judged less capable before they even begin.

You can’t win if you’re afraid to enter the race.

Smart women know what they have to offer. They should also feel free to remain attractive while they’re proving it. If that’s a distraction to the men in the room, use the advantage to move on past them while they’re addled. They can’t help it; they were born with this biological disadvantage.*

The reverse is equally true, of course. You don’t have to look like Hedy Lamarr to be a kick ass engineer, but I don’t think the internet needs an essay from me to assume a technological wunderkind looks more like Velma than Daphne.**

Apologies to Hedy Lamarr, Velma, Daphne, and the field of art in general for the quality of my sketches. No actual character, living or dead, real or fictional, is indicated by the drawings above. I was looking to illustrate stereotypes in 60 seconds with a Sharpie.

 

*I’m tired of hearing bad science spouted about biological differences. I think it’s stupid to shut down discussion of the topic. All reasonable debate of possibilities is valid and can lead to gains in knowledge. However, is an area in which theories are constantly conflated with facts. Nonsense cuts both ways.

**Scooby Doo reference; original 1969 animated series, naturally

Being good at math, also female, and why I must talk about that

We all tend to repeat our favorite stories, and I thought I’d told this one to everyone I know. Naturally, my verbal shorthand led to offense. Again. Oops!

I’m good at math; my conversational skills could use work

I’m not always great at talking to people. That’s one reason for the blog. I like taking the extra time to clarify myself in writing. One major risk factor for my verbal missteps is that I routinely take great mental leaps during the conversation without bringing my audience along.

Lots of things are “obvious” in my mental space, but require explanation when I want to discuss them.

I’ll begin by stating what I thought was crystal clear to everyone I’ve ever spent more than a few minutes with:

I’m good at math.

When I say “good at math,” I mean, “I successfully completed an undergraduate degree at a competitive US college with a major in Mathematical & Physical Sciences concentrating in Computer Science.”books math texts - 1

I have studied advanced math at the university level. I succeeded in those classes, often earning good grades. I have some innate talent in this area, and I applied concerted effort to developing these skills.

All of this “my own horn”-tooting is to make clear what I mean when I say, again:

I’m good at math.”

And now we’ll carry on to the meat of this story.

We were out to dinner with friends. Being a pair of introverts 15+ years into marriage and with a couple of kids at home, we go out like this around four times per year. Usually, we invite friends over and order pizza (because I’m bad at cooking; this post is not about how totally great I am.)

Sitting around the table, waiting for appetizers, I started telling a story about home schooling my oldest son. It’s an uncommon thing, so people often ask questions about our daily activities. Many academically inclined friends are sincerely curious: What is it like, going “back to school,” in a sense, by doing it all over again with one’s child?

I was going to tell a story about helping a friend’s daughter with math.

So I began:

“In high school, because I was a girl, naturally, I was bad at math…”

I should have used the mortifying—but edifying—air quotes gesture. This is when my friend freaked out.

“Not true! It’s nonsense! Girls are perfectly capable of…”

Right! Of course! That was my point, too, but I went into the story all wrong. I can see now that I took liberties with my audience. Hopefully I fixed it with my friend, at her birthday dinner, no less. Sheesh. Way to go, me.

Let’s call this a teachable moment. I needed a reminder of something I’ve come to take for granted.

Even though I’m sure I’ve told this story before; even though it is obvious to anyone who’s ever worked with me; even though it should be clear to any person with whom I’ve held a conversation about education.

Let me reiterate that I:

  1. am good at math
  2. worked as an engineer in the (logic-based, i.e., “math-y”) field of computer technology
  3. lean technocratic and abhor non-objective criteria for advancement of platforms or people

In spite of all this, I really can’t tell a humorous yet informative story about being “bad at math” without the usual lead-up. I must always preface this statement with the fact that I erroneously believed myself to be “bad at math”…

because society;

because gender roles;

because socialization.

I saw through part of the illusion in high school, but it took years before I really got it. I believe most people—men and women—who claim to be bad at math are really the victims of poorly implemented math instruction.

Realizing math instruction was bad, not my math ability

High school was mostly boring. I was there doing time and ticking boxes so I could get into a good college to begin my real education. I wanted to be excited about school like I was about learning, but boy did the system make it tough.

I realized that science classes were more challenging to my logic-oriented brain, and I craved real learning of the sort that revved my engine.  I registered for as many science electives as I could squeeze in, graduating with eight science credits on my transcript. I was proud of that!

And yet…

…even with eight science classes on my transcript, by the end of high school, I was failing Calculus and more convinced than ever that I was “bad at math.” I could no longer conceive of being good at math, though I “knew” this fact in grade school.

I was privileged, and smart, and relatively enlightened. Still, it was that difficult to perceive the reality of what math was, how I could engage with it, or why I should.

Failing Calculus had more to do with not doing my work than a failure to grasp essential concepts, but I didn’t clue in to that until I repeated it in college. You see, I was interested in science and computers, and spoke about these subjects at college interviews, but I doubt I ever mentioned math.

“Math” was a hurdle I would have to clear to get to these fascinating, juicy fields of study. “Math” lived in my consciousness as a threat to be avoided.

Our K-12 system gives a very poor illumination of the field of mathematics

Math is presented in our schools as a skinny, rigid ladder to be climbed. There is one straight path from ignorance to Calculus, and success is measured by computational accuracy.

Almost no effort is made to highlight the diversity of thinking in math, the creativity that goes into the work of real mathematicians, and the awesome power of mathematics to solve real world problems.

books math texts - 2Ostensibly, Common Core is fixing this problem. In practice, I have grave doubts.

I read a fascinating book about a year ago before I kept a handy reading list like I’ve posted on this blog. I think it was Jo Boaler’s What’s math got to do with it?. The most important takeaway I got from that book had to do with a learned, innate fear of math that pervades American society, and female Americans in particular

And guess who’s teaching our children math? In 2011-2012, 76 percent of public school teachers were female. Women sure as hell can do math, but teachers with unaddressed phobias often unwittingly pass them on to their students.

For decades, I’ve repeated something I heard and find powerfully telling:

Americans feel perfectly comfortable admitting that they’re bad at math. Women, especially, feel free to flaunt their innumeracy.

“Tee hee, titter, titter, I’m so bad at math!”

How many people are equally blasé about their illiteracy?

Virtually none.

Teacher training can make a huge difference in breaking this pattern. Vocal and visible advocacy by female mathematicians and engineers make a difference, too. I talk about my enjoyment of math, logic, and puzzles more often than I probably should, but I want people to hear me. I’d like to be one more pebble in the pile of evidence it takes to make a self-evident mountain.

I’m good at math. I’m female. I’m going to keep talking about that.