Saturday, July 23, 2016

Ursual Franklin: physicist, thinker, feminist, pacifist, technology theorist, educator, role model

Ursula Franklin at work (via the Fisher Library, U of T)

Saddened to learn of Ursula Franklin's death. She was a hero of mine - a role model from before I was old enough to know I needed role models. As an undergrad in physics at U of T (one of a grand total of 2 female specialists in my year), I had zero female physics profs and she was the first female physicist I ever met. She has been a faculty member in Materials Science & Engineering (the first female engineering professor at the University). She was a fearless advocate for women in STEM and astonishingly incisive and astute. When I was a grad student, she joined a class action lawsuit against the University for paying women faculty less than comparably qualified men; they settled and acknowledged there had been gender barriers and pay discrimination.

She was perhaps best known for discovering radioactivity in the teeth of Canadian children and her subsequent advocacy for the atmospheric nuclear test ban treaty. She was such a strong voice telling us that both that technology isn't neutral, but also for what we now like to call 'evidence-based decision-making'. She reminded us that in advocacy it isn't enough to say no; why is a much stronger argument. She could have said I'm a pacifist, stop testing nuclear arms, but instead she showed unequivacally that such tests were impacting our children and needed to stop.

She also pioneered archeometry (the use of modern materials analysis in archeology, dating prehistoric artifacts made of metals and ceramics). She always put technology into human context in her science and her writing. She was a great thinker on the social implications of technology.

She was likewise fearless in standing up for peace and social justice; this was a formidable woman who survived being interned by the Nazis. I wrote more about her for Ada Lovelace Day in 2010 here. She was a great scientist, thinker, Canadian, human, and I was lucky to have met her.

When I was expecting Ursula was on my list of girl names because of her.

She's long been on my 'to do' list of portraits of scientists.

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