This article was originally written for the ScienceRewired blog in the lead up to their launch event, “Connect, Collaborate and Communicate for Change” at the Science Exchange in Adelaide on October 11, 2012. It is reprinted here with their permission, in part as a late tribute to Ada Lovelace Day – the team behind the Curiosity twitter account are certainly all women I consider heroines of science!
The Curiosity mission is one of the great successes of current science. Oh, sure, it’s impressive they landed a nuclear-powered science-lab-in-a-robot safely on the surface of Mars – but I’m talking about their success at capturing – and more importantly, keeping – an audience.
Millions of people around the world stopped to watch, listen or read about the Curiosity landing as it happened (or rather, about 14 minutes after it happened; Mars is a long way away). But many – myself included – knew about Curiosity’s safe set down thanks not to television, radio or even world wide web – but straight from the rover herself, via Twitter:
I'm safely on the surface of Mars. GALE CRATER I AM IN YOU!!! #MSL
Now, of course Curiosity isn’t composing and sending tweets across those 570 million kilometres (though it’s a tiny data packet, so I suppose she could if she wanted to), but the official Twitter account was a stroke of genius: @MarsCuriosity picked up over half a million extra followers on the day of the landing, and continues to grow in popularity. She’s made it into the top 1,000 most followed Twitter accounts, with nearly 1.2 million followers.
As if that weren’t enough, Curiosity’s twitter account also succeeded in that other important Twitterati metric: spoof accounts. Spoof accounts subsist on the popularity of their target; sometimes they are loving, sometimes scathing, but the Curiosity spoof accounts all served to boost the signal of their parent – and none more so than the still very successful @SarcasticRover. With almost 100,000 followers, it’s doing its bit to connect real science to everyday people – with jokes.
What if it's a red sky at night and in the morning?! WHAT THEN SAILORS?
…okay, most of its tweets aren’t about actual science. But the jokes do often reflect the images sent back from (and tweeted by) the real deal, and it adds extra emotional context to the mission.
And that’s what makes these fake Twitter accounts of a real robot on another planet succeed: emotion. Personality. After all, it’s the characters that really make a story connect with us: no matter how well told the tale, it’s when we care about the people in it that we truly care about the story. You see it in the continuing cult of personality surrounding the few true celebrity scientists; in the fond memories people share of The Curiosity Show; in “NASA Mohawk Guy” (aka Bobak Ferdowsi) stealing the show during the live video stream of the Curiosity landing. And you definitely see it in the way people love an anthropomorphised Mars exploration robot, mediated by Courtney O’Connor, Stephanie L. Smith, and Veronica McGregor. Facts are important, and science should aim to be objective, but science engagement succeeds best with a personal, emotional tone – something at which social media, and Twitter in particular, excels.
On Friday I was privileged to be MC for the launch of Geek Mook, the latest anthology of new writing from Vignette Press, edited by the very talented Aaron Mannion and Julian Novitz. I tried to help out as much as I could for the launch, and one thing I realised as we were about to start having people arrive was that we needed house music! (By this, I mean music played when the house lights are on and the audience are entering, mingling or leaving, not the Chicago-born genre of electronic music.) I sprang into action – which is to say, I took out my trusty 64GB iPhone (I bought the largest size specifically so it could carry my entire music collection) and set to work making a quick tracklist of appropriately geeky-yet-eclectic music.
This is that list. It’s short – only 19 tracks – but played on repeat and shuffle it did the job. It’s been a while since I posted, so I thought I’d write about these tracks, why they’re geeky, and why I picked them for the night. So I’ve put them on shuffle and I’m listening to them while writing this, in the order they come up.
The Transformers (Theme) – Lion
There are two great things about the Transformers: one is the toy line itself, a genius idea that, in its original incarnation at least, was incredibly well realised. We all wanted an Optimus Prime. But the other thing is Transformers: The Movie, which before Michael Bay and Steven Spielberg, took a bunch of robots which could turn into trucks, jet planes and dinosaurs and told a truly epic story of heroism and sacrifice in the face of potential apocalypse. (It was famously Orson Welles’ last film; he provides the voice of the gigantic, planet-eating antagonist, Unicron.) This version of the original cartoon theme song, but Lion, gets it exactly right: it truly rocks without taking the piss, and incorporates new lyrics drawing on the plot and themes of the film. The rest of the soundtrack is pretty good too, both the score and the music, which includes the unforgettable “The Touch” by Stan Bush. You know the one: “You’ve got the touch…you’ve got the pooweeeeeeeer…”
Life’s a Happy Song – Mickey Rooney, Feist, Amy Adams, Jason Segel & Walter
One of my rules in life is not to trust anyone who doesn’t love the Muppets. While it wasn’t to everyone’s tastes, I thought the recent The Muppets movie really nailed the essence of the loveable little felt monsters. Brett McKenzie – who, incidentally, I’m very excited to be seeing in concert tonight – won an Academy Award for one of the other songs in the film, Man Or Muppet?, but for my money this big showtune from the start of the film is the killer number. Just try singing it and not being filled with joy. I dare you.
Thanks for Your Time – Gotye
Wally De Backer released two albums before Somebody That I Used To Know propelled Making Mirrors to the top of the charts across the world, and this track is a great sample of his nerdy obsession. From his second album, Like Drawing Blood, it’s a distillation of every frustrating moment we’ve ever spent on hold trying to speak to someone at any large company. If you’ve ever had to phone Telstra or Optus, or worked in a call centre, you’ll immediately identify with this beautifully layered track, featuring samples, dialogue and great harmonies.
Game of Thrones Theme – WhiteNoise Lab
A rock cover of one of the greatest television themes in recent history. I wrote about it last year, and for those keeping score, iTunes says I’ve now listened to it 224 times. Here’s the YouTube video:
The Mesopotamians – They Might Be Giants The Else
Of course I had to include something from the original geek rock band, They Might Be Giants. This track is my favourite from 2007’s The Else, one of the first albums I ever bought as a download. I picked it because it’s incredibly nerdy, super catchy, and a great excuse to mention that you should head to Melbourne Museum to check out their current special exhibition: Mesopotamia.
Who Needs Sleep? – Barenaked Ladies
I was introduced to the Barenaked Ladies back in the late 90s, not long before the release of Stunt, the album which featured their first big-outside-of-Canada hit, One Week. Before then, none of their albums were released in Australia; I remember the Australian One Week single included four additional tracks, one lead single from each of their four previous albums, as a way of saying “see what we’ve done?” But even the juggernaut that was One Week didn’t bring this folk rock powerhouse into the mainstream, and their subsequent albums never got a local release. Still, I love them, even if they have lost their iconic lead vocalist Steven Page. This track is also from Stunt – for a few years my favourite BNL album, until the release of Everything to Everyone – and it features a slight disconnect between the lyrical content and the mood of the music, something very typical of the band and one of the reasons I’m such a fan.
Jimmy Olsen’s Blues – Spin Doctors
The Spin Doctors were that 90s rarity – a three-hit wonder. This song, Two Princes and What Time Is It? all did really well, and all came from the same album, Pocketful of Kryptonite, but afterwards they vanished without a trace. The album gets its title from this track, about a Jimmy Olsen in love with Lois Lane who laments that he is competing for her affections against a literal Superman. (It’s a bit of the archetypal nerd vs jock story, though of course in this story, both are genuinely nice guys.) There’s a pretty rich tradition of songs about Superman, but this one is the only one I know to be written from another character’s perspective.
Code Monkey – Jonathan Coulton
Jonathan Coulton is the king of geek rock, having risen to fame on the Internet by writing and recording a new song every week for a year after quitting his job as a programmer. This song is probably his most famous, and is – as he says at the start of this slower, more heartfelt live version from Best. Convert. Ever. – “how it feels to write software for a living”. It speaks to the IT professional experience on many levels, not least the frustration at doing what should be recognised as a creative job in a bureaucratic and soulless environment where no-one in charge really understands what you do. It’s a sweet song, while not overly romanticising the fast-food-eating, disrespectful-of-his-boss, awkwardly-hitting-on-the-receptionist protagonist.
The Ballad Of Osiris Stark – Scott Edgar and the Universe
Scott Edgar is, of course, one third of Tripod, but this is from his other band, the Universe, whom I also love. The Ballad of Osiris Stark is an ode to one of Scott’s Dungeons & Dragons characters – possibly his first, if I remember the pre-song banter correctly – but he plays it straight, with the result that this is a truly lovely tribute to a beloved hero. Playing an actual campaign RPG, you spend more time with your own characters than any you can encounter in film or television (well, maybe with the exception of the Doctor), so it’s hardly surprising this comes so clearly from the heart. I’m not sure why, but I always think of Osiris as a Drow (Dark Elf) Ranger…perhaps it’s his backstory of being exiled from his home, though his home seems to be above ground, so that’s probably wrong. You can find it on the Universe’s self-titled debut album.
(I’m the One That’s) Cool – The Guild
This was the first track to go into this list. Produced to celebrate the launch of Felicia Day and Wil Weaton’s Geek & Sundry online channel of nerdy television, it’s an out-and-out, unapologetic geek revenge fantasy. “Try and cop my style, but I’m the real thing: while you played sports I played Magic: The Gathering” sings Day, in lyrics expertly rhymed by Jed Whedon, explaining that now “geek is chic” the people who bullied her in school are now out of style and shouldn’t try to get in on the nerd fashion action. I think it could have benefited from a little more introspection and a little less nerd-was-bullied-now-bullies-norms (“prom queen bitches” still seems too harsh, but maybe it’s the gendered insult that bothers me), and if you’ve ever heard me talk about geeks and nerds, you know I think our strength is bucking the very nature of “cool”. Still, it’s a rocking great tune that anyone who was ever picked on for being a nerd will love.
Katamari on the Rock – Masayuki Tanaka
The fairly bizarre “puzzle-action” game Katamari Damacy is…well, it’s hard to know where to start. You play as one of the sons or nephews of the King of All Cosmos, who after a galactic bender, has accidentally knocked all the stars out of the sky. For some reason, the only way to fix them is to roll your “katamari” – a sort of magical spiky ball thing – around planet Earth, picking up random objects as you go to increase the katamari’s size until the King is happy with your progress. This is as bonkers as it sounds, but is also immensely entertaining and a visual treat for the eyes – and to go along with the visuals is an amazing soundtrack. I have the soundtrack albums for the first two games in the series, but this track is the shorter, in-game audio from the intro video to the original game, which I found on the Internet somewhere. It’s brilliant. Oh, and did you know that “Katamari Damacy” roughly translates as “soul clump”? Of course you did.
Princes Of The Universe – Queen
It’s Queen. It’s the best track from the Highlander soundtrack. It will rock your face off. Find it, along with the other songs from Highlander, on It’s A Kind of Magic.
The Power of Love – I Fight Dragons
I heard about I Fight Dragons long ago; someone linked them to Dungeon Crawl for some reason. I forget, but I never listened to any of their music until this track was featured on a recent Huey Lewis episode of my favourite music podcast, Coverville. IFD expertly combine traditional “chiptune” sounds – music made with the kind of music technology found in the 8-bit era of videogames – with traditional instruments and a great lead vocalist. This track even incorporates an a capella rendition Alan Silvestri’s iconic Back to the Future score in the intro. Highly recommended; you can find it on their EP Welcome to the Breakdown.
Maybe I’m A Lion – THE BLACK MAGES
Nobeo Uematsu is the genius composer behind the amazing music you hear during most of the Final Fantasy games, and I have a few of his soundtracks, including an album of him playing the songs on real instruments (the earlier games, especially, use software synths, rather than pre-recorded music). This, though, is a little different – one of the most rocking battle themes from Final Fantasy VIII, played by The Black Mages, a rock band formed by Uematsu and two other composers working for Square Enix, the company behind the Final Fantasy games. It’s a bit hair metal, a bit prog rock, but all badass. This one is from their second album, The Black Mages II: The Skies Above.
Some Things Man Was Not Meant To Know – The Darkest of the Hillside Thickets
H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos is never far from the mind of most of us who’ve read any of it; indeed this morning I tucked into some delicious Anathoth jam, and couldn’t help but wonder if it had anything to do with the foul star daemon Azathoth, mentioned in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. Canadian punk band The Darkest of the Hillside Thickets have embraced the rich themes of cosmic horror – that there are vastly powerful, unknowable beings beyond our understanding, the very knowledge of whom may drive us mad – and have made it into a darkly humorous career. This track is from their latest album, and my favourite, The Shadow Out Of Tim, which is sort of a rock opera/concept album adapted from my favourite Lovecraft story, The Shadow Out of Time. It’s a slow, brooding track, forming a sort of combined overture and epilogue to the story, and I picked it as a change of pace from some of the other stuff in the list.
Ghostbusters – Run-D.M.C.
Angela Meyer, one of the Geek Mook contributors performing at the launch, wrote her piece about her and her sister’s mutual obsession with Ghostbusters. While I didn’t have the original Ray Parker Jr. theme in my library – something I’ve since remedied – I did have the soundtrack to Ghostbusters II, which features this new version by Run-D.M.C. It’s pretty great, frankly, considering how perfect the original was. Sure, they rhyme “ghost busters” with “ghost dusters”, but they also use the line “we are the busters of any G H O S T”, so I’m prepared to forgive.
Spiderman – Moxy Früvous
When my friend Trace introduced me to BNL, she also introduced me to someone a bit more esoteric by way of an extra copy of Bargainville, the debut album of Toronto folk-rock outfit Moxy Früvous. I have since collected all their other albums and as many bootlegs as I could get my hands on, but Bargainville remains a definite favourite. Not only did their track My Baby Loves A Bunch Of Authors provide the impetus for my book-reading blog, but every song is a treasure. Perhaps most unusual is this a capella arrangement of the 1960s Spider-Man cartoon theme, which starts out mostly faithful to the original, but soon veers off into subversive territory. I often find myself singing “Spider-Man’s master plan: build his own little spider clan / in the woods, now they’re troops / fighting for special interest groups”. The random sound effects and narration are also hilarious. It forms an irreverent counterpoint to the other a capella tracks on Bargainville, especially the deeply personal and political Gulf War Song.
Halfway Down the Stairs – Amy Lee
In the lead up to the new Muppets movie, a bunch of artists contributed covers of classic Muppet songs for The Green Album. I will admit to being a bit of an Evanescence fan – I know, I know, but it’s okay, I handed in both my Cool Guy and True Goth cards long ago – and while there are lots of great tracks on the album, I picked this one from Amy Lee because I love the song, and since this track again offers something of different pace and mood to the rest of the list. It’s cute and a little haunting. What’s not to like? Oh, and if you’ve not seen it, here’s the Muppet Show Theme music video from OK Go, from the same album. The cover itself took a few listens to click with me, but the video is an instant classic – watch all the way to the end!
Still Alive (Portal) – missFlag
Another track I discovered via Coverville, this tribute to evil science is a cover of the song Jonathon Coulton wrote for the finale of the game Portal. In the game it’s sung by the defeated, sinister supercomputer GlaDOS, but this version from Israeli rock band missFlag kicks the rock dial up a few notches and adds a few flourishes of its own. You can download it for free from the missFlag web site.
I’m sometimes amazed at the way icons of geek culture will seemingly bite the hands that feed them. “Weird Al” Yankovic, who counts amongst his biggest hits a retelling in song of the plot of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, wrote and recorded a “You’re Pitiful”, a parody of James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful”. The object of the singer’s pity? The classic nerd stereotype: a 40-something guy who lives in their parent’s basement, makes their own Star Trek uniforms, has no romantic prospects, a dead end job and plays Halo 2 while slobbing around on the couch. Needless to say, no nerds I know fit this bill, though mainstream culture thinks we do: games are childish, sci-fi is for those without social skills etc. It seemed like such a blatant grab for the mainstream market (“hur, even Weird Al thinks you’re a loser!”) that I stopped buying his albums. (I also think he missed a trick by not making the original song the target of the parody; as Tom Gleeson pointed out for great (if perhaps over-milked) comic effect, it’s “man watching someone with their boyfriend on a train” premise is actually kind of creepy.) It’s for similar reasons that I have a love-hate relationship with Big Bang Theory, which – while a well written sit-com – I always characterise as setting nerd-human relations back at least fifty years. It also presents appalling stereotypes of women, who are either nerds in the same mould as the male protagonists, or presented as “normal” – which translates to being traditionally attractive with great social skills and little intelligence. And yet, these “adorkable” characters are beloved by geeks and anti-geeks alike.
I had a similar moment today when listening to episode 72 of “The Talk Show”. Hosted by 5by5 chief Dan Benjamin and Daring Fireball‘s John Gruber, it’s a very nerdy beast. They don’t pigeonhole themselves in a particular topic, but given the people involved, talk usually revolves around Apple, Google and Microsoft technology and software, but also popular culture, especially films. Gruber is quite the film buff, a very nerdy fan of Kubrick, and both are devotees (though not uncritical ones) of the James Bond franchise. One of my favourite quotes about cinema is from Kubrick, and I found it via Gruber, who posted it on Daring Fireball:
The test of a work of art is, in the end, our affection for it, not our ability to explain why it is good.
Apparently, though, the affection of Lord of the Rings movie fans doesn’t really count. As they enter a chat about films, Dan mentions Gruber’s tweet describing the films as shit. (Latertweets inform us his wife would have preferred to suicide than sit through Fellowship of the Ring, and that people who consider Jackson a good director are deluded.) There follows ten minutes (from about 12:30) of talk trashing the films and their fans.
John has plenty of opinions I don’t necessarily agree with, for example he thinks Connery is the best Bond (a majority opinion, I know, but my favourite is Timothy Dalton, though I agree License to Killwas terrible). I don’t normally feel the need to respond. I’m not even a huge fan of the films; I think the first one is the best one, and I think the series has some interesting problems. My issue isn’t that he dislikes them, though even there this segment isn’t great. Do I agree with John Gruber’s critique of Lord of the Rings? I’ll never know, because all the “reasons” he gives for not liking it are unhelpful: they’re “terrible movies”, “everything looks fake” (this from a man who prefers the original version of the Star Wars films!), “everyone looks sweaty”. He says they have “terrible stories” while also claiming to enjoy the books. He spends more time describing the problem with Jackson’s King Kong – a film I publically hated – than he does on Lord of the Rings. (He also describes the The Hobbit as a tiny story, unworthy of being filmed, likening it to a small town mayoral race of someone who later becomes President. Well, maybe, John, but no small town mayoral race has dragons, trolls, giant spiders and a war involving five – count ’em! – armies.)
So what? He didn’t like a film, he doesn’t have to justify that opinion if he doesn’t want; but if he’s not going to do so, why talk about them for ten minutes? The kicker is this: he dismisses everyone who complained about his comments. People who like Lord of the Rings “don’t like movies”. They wouldn’t list a Kubrick or Scorcese film in their top ten movies, so their opinions don’t count. In fact, deep down they know they’re terrible movies, even though they love them. Now, I know what rabid fans are like – they take attacks on things they like as personal insults and respond in kind, out of all proportion. But John Gruber isn’t just saying “I didn’t like it, I think it’s bad, get over it”; he’s suggesting that somehow no-one can think that these films are good, that people who like them are kidding themselves. That their affection, to use Kubrick’s term, is misplaced.
John: imagine someone said this about Star Wars. I think you’d rightly take them to task for being ridiculous. Sure, Star Wars and its sequels (let’s leave the prequels out of it for now) are flawed: the dialogue is terrible, the style and story and mythology are cribbed from a dozen other sources, some of the acting is hammy as hell. But those films took people somewhere they wanted to go, they resonated with an audience who loves them, who have a deep affection for them that remains strong despite decades of better films that have come after. Some people – I bet John Gruber is one of them – would list Star Wars or maybe The Empire Strikes Back in their top ten films alongside the work of Kubrick and Spielberg and Wells. Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films are one of a handful of series which have garnered an affection even close to that of Star Wars – maybe Back to the Future managed it in the 80s, and for a younger generation the Harry Potter films now occupy a similar space. Why is your love for one better than someone else’s love for the other? Why treat them with such derision? Why not tell me what you actually thought was wrong with the films, if you’re going to fill ten minutes of your podcast with talk about it?
Oh, and then they finish off with a crack about there being no “girl Hobbits” because they have hairy feet, and who would want to see that? That managed to combine a whole bunch of sexist business into one tight package: marginalisation of women in cinema (it’s even worse in the fantasy genre, though Jackson has arguably had a few attempts at redressing the balance), infantilisation (they’re Hobbit women, not girls) and conventional ideas of beauty (body hair isn’t automatically unattractive).
Maybe Gruber doesn’t think his audience really cares about Lord of the Rings or his opinion of it. Maybe he figures if he loses anyone over this, it’s good riddance to bad rubbish. I don’t know. But come on, guys: you know your audience are nerds. By all means disagree with us, argue with us, tell us to lift our game where it counts, challenge us, but don’t engage in this sort of “my opinion is right, your affection doesn’t matter” kind of stuff. It just smells like clickbait.
As excitement was building the other day over the imminent announcement from CERN regarding the Higgs boson, the incomparable Simon Pampena wrote a topical tweet rewriting of a Bette Midler song: “God is watching us from a Planck distance.” I was inspired to write my own tweet:
Perhaps the discovery of the Higgs boson will prompt a new Internet fad, "Plancking": standing the minimum possible distance from things.
I’ve been on Twitter for three years, I’ve gathered a modest army of followers, and I’ve had a few good gags in that time. But for some reason, this tweet really took off – it’s been tweeted over 100 times according to the Twitter site, though it’s proving quite hard to discover exactly how many people have seen fit to pass it on. I just wanted to mention it here for posterity, since Twitter is fleeting, rather than eternal – and to give Simon his due as my inspiration. He’s a funny guy. You should follow him.
I’ve a feeling that the average person in the street would guess that Ada Lovelace, with a name like that, must have been a cabaret singer, poet or actor. They wouldn’t be entirely off the mark, either, since she did do something beautiful and artistic to become famous: she was the world’s first computer programmer.
On Ada Lovelace Day we celebrate women working in technology and science who have inspired us. I have been definitely been inspired by women in science, from the famous like Ada herself and Marie Curie, to more recent heroes like student astrophysicist Amelia Fraser-McKelvie. But I’d like to talk about some of my friends, and in the wake of my participation in a discussion about feminism and games at Cherchez la Femme this month, specifically those working with computers and technology, like Ada did. All are inspiring to me, for their drive, their outlook, and their success, so I thought I would ask them a few questions to find about about them, and their inspiring women, in their own words.
Moran has over a decade of experience in the games industry; now living in Melbourne, she builds and designs video games, and teaches others to do the same. To spend even a few minutes talking games with her is to uncover an incredible depth of knowledge and passion for games in every facet of their existence, from code to controller.
How did you get into the games industry?
I studied mixed media practice at uni in London, originally planning to be an investigative journalist. I got hooked on animation at school and managed to land a job as an animator at a small indie studio when I graduated. Since then I have worked professionally as a games developer at companies like Sega and THQ, and have now come full circle to back to my independent roots. I also teach at RMIT University on the Games Graphic Design course where I lecture in maths and games design theory.
Why video games? What do you love about this work?
I love the technical and creative challenges that making games presents. They are multilayered digital puzzles, and there’s this cycle of figuring out what you want to do, and then figuring out how to make it happen. They are fractal beasts. The more you explore them the more there is to find. Plus, the technology is always evolving, so you have to keep up with it, and that pushes you. I love exploring the boundaries of what is possible, and finding new ways to tell familiar stories. Oh, and it’s also hella fun.
Who would you be writing about for Ada Lovelace Day?
Obviously Ada! She wrote the worlds first computer program for a then theoretical analytic device. Her work is the basis of modern computing, and she deserves to be better known. Similarly, it was a group of women who built and programmed the ENIAC, which was the first electronic computer, not that you’d know that from most of the histories. Coding used to be considered women’s work, until it became high value. Now it’s perceived as a masculine pursuit. Women in tech have been made invisible for too long now. We need to break that pattern.
Leena is a freelance writer, both for and about games; though she only started eighteen months ago she’s already written for MMGN.com, The Age‘s Screen Play blog and a whole bunch of gaming sites, and is co-host of the GamePlayPodcast and the games correspondent for Tech Talk Radio. The first game to be released with her name in the credits will be the seventh Gamebook Adventures title for iOS, Temple of the Spider God.
How did you become a games writer?
I started with a blog, just quietly doing my own thing until people seemed interested in hiring me. I then cast out a net and worked for anyone who would let me, paid or unpaid, for the experience to then make it into a proper job. I went to as many industry events as I could find and talked to as many like-minded individuals as humanly possible. Much scotch was consumed. Oh the scotch. From there I’ve been offered amazing opportunities to work in a field I’m quickly falling head over heels in love with.
Why the love affair?
I love having an opinion. It was always a negative growing up. The over-opinionated only child stereotype was in full flight and it was always treated as a personality flaw. Once I grew up and mellowed a bit I realised I could temper it to be a powerful force – and one that could be capitalised on, at that. Taking what was once considered a flaw in my personality and turning it into a positive, constructive “thing” I had to offer was extremely rewarding, and mirrored my feelings about my favourite pastime. Playing games was always either a little bit geeky, or something only the boys in the street did, or something I was scared to talk about at school for fear of scorn. I love the fact I’m “out” now as someone who loves games so much, and that I can embrace my voice and my opinions about them. The thought of utilising those strong feelings to help make great games one day is something that inspires me immensely. Working in this industry makes me feel less broken.
Who would you write about for Ada Lovelace Day?
Brenda Braithwaite is a powerhouse of a woman – a stalwart of the games industry – who inspires me greatly. She stood up when people were saying that consoles would ruin the games industry and said “That’s bullshit”. She’s now standing up when people say games on social networks will kill the games industry and says “That’s bullshit”. She’s paving the way for many great game developers to come after her and to me that’s a lasting legacy that will stick and is something to be truly proud of. We need people to stand up and say when something is bullshit. Our industry is still in its infancy, and despite that there are many issues ingrained deeply into it. The only way we’re going to move forward and improve on our weaknesses is for people to stand up and say “That’s bullshit” and stop accepting the mediocre. She inspires me to want more from the industry and ask “Can’t we do better?”.
Catriona is a PhD student in medical physics at the University of Sydney, currently working at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO). Though studying science, her career has been heavily entwined with technology, from computer programming to electronic engineering. She’s travelled around Australia and the world to present her work, and was featured in the Cosmos Ultimate Science Guide 2011 for prospective science students.
What are you working on for your PhD?
I’m working on kinetic modelling and parameter estimation in PET (positron emission tomography) imaging. In a nutshell, I take the images/data from scans and do some interesting mathematical modelling to find information about how the body/brain is working, or more importantly, not working, so that we can study how different neurodegenerative disorders (eg. MS or Alzheimers) progress.
How did you reach this point of your career?
A winding path where every opportunity was taken to explore exciting areas of research!
Before finally settling on the area of research I am currently in, I had worked in a biomedical engineering division (doing repair and maintenance of medical equipment), in a cardiology lab, a respiratory lab and a sleep lab (all doing clinical work). These placements helped me realise that I need more than a clinical or repair and maintenance job – I need to be able to think, create, analyse and innovate!
In final year uni, an opportunity came up to do a placement at the Bionic Ear Institute and I jumped at it. It was a great placement, gave me a taste of the research life, I was able to find out how part of the brain works using the computer and programming! But still… before I settled, I knew I needed to explore my other science love: physics.
I applied for the Nuclear Futures graduate program at ANSTO and was accepted into it. This program was what helped me decide that I truly did want to be a researcher. It was a rotational program so I got to work in an engineering project management role creating devices and upgrading safety systems, in the maintenance team for the OPAL research reactor; I wrote computer programs for physicists to interpret their data, I wrote reports about nuclear power for the Australian Government, I designed equipment to improve the quality of medical imaging – and from all of these adventures, I decided I wanted to specialise in medical physics – where else do you get the combination of physics, computing, maths and the end result is figuring out how the brain works?
What drives your passion for science?
I do it because I love finding patterns and meaning in data. I do it because I love programming and I love making programs that work and make life easier for people or elicit information. I do it because I get to think and discover new things about how the world works. I do it because it is fascinating and I couldn’t not do it.
I do it because I am curious and I need to figure things out. I love that I can lose myself in thinking and designing and analysing and interpreting.
Who would you write about for Ada Lovelace Day?
Marie Curie, for her ideas, her hard work and her drive to never give up. My PhD lineage can be traced back to her! Marie’s daughter Irene Joliot-Curie was also a chemist, and won a Nobel prize in 1935. Irene’s son Pierre Joliot is a biologist and was the PhD supervisor of Marie-Claude Gregoire, who is supervising me.
Also Elizabeth Blackburn [winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Medicine], for showing people that it is possible to have a highly successful science career and have a family.