I rolled my eyes.
I had opened an email from the “new and improved” Bright Magazine. In jaunty tones, the sender informed me that:
We want to tell stories about health, education, and social impact that are fresh and wildly creative. Stories that answer questions you never knew you had, that treat people with dignity first. Stories that aren’t told by the usual suspects. Stories that pass the “Aunt Myrtle” test—would your hypothetical elderly aunt be able to appreciate our work?
Bright Magazine does indeed tell creative, well-reported stories about Nigerian disability rights activists, an Oklahoma school for homeless kids, and the two thirds of U.S. gun deaths that are suicides. But their promise of treating people with “dignity first,” did not extend, it seems, to elderly aunts named Myrtle. She, it is assumed, is ignorant and unfamiliar with the world of “health, education, and social impact.” That’s why she needs stories explained to her in plain language—no jargon please!
Along with many other science journalists, I have encountered this stereotype time and again. We are advised to ask scientists to explain their research to “your granny,” “to your mother or a ninth-grader,” to “Aunt Gladys.” As Einstein supposedly said in innumerably repeated memes, “You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.” (The quote is “probably not by Einstein,” according to the Ultimate Quotable Einstein, published by Princeton University Press.) In another iteration often attributed to Ernest Rutherford, one doesn’t fully understand a phenomena, theory, concept, principle, or law, etc., completely, until one can explain it to a barmaid (or child), e.g. in simple words, or on a cocktail napkin. This is sometimes called “Barmaid Physics.”
The well-worn formula is a prime example of the subtle ways in which sexism pervades science in a manner so entrenched that it is difficult to recognize. We are never asked to explain science to “your dad” or “your granddad.” “‘Explain it like you would explain it to your middle-aged Uncle Bob,’ said no one ever,” notes Leah Fey, subject investigation analyst at PreScouter, Inc. The advice “assumes that “Mom” and “Grandma” are either stupid or uneducated--either way, are incapable of comprehending anything technical,” adds Jen Pinkowski, Senior Science Editor at Mental Floss.
When I read Bright Magazine’s relaunch email, I wrote back, noting the “sexist and ageist stereotype of telling "stories that pass the ‘Aunt Myrtle’ test.” To her credit, editor-in-chief Sarika Bansal replied, writing: “Thanks so much for your thoughtful email, and for reading our letter in the first place! Your concern about ageism is well-received, and we'll be sure to keep it in mind in our future communications.” She did not address my complaint about the sexism. But Bright Magazine’s email set me thinking: Why are we quick to haul out the stereotype of Aunt Myrtle, while the achievements of real scientists named Myrtle fade away? So I did a rapid Google search for “scientists named Myrtle,” and within minutes I had discovered three.
Myrtle Claire Bachelder (1908–1997), was an American chemist and Women’s Army Corps officer noted for her secret work on the Manhattan Project. While stationed at Los Alamos in 1943, she developed techniques for x-radiation and purification of uranium ores. After the war, she worked as a research chemist at the University of Chicago, and also for NASA, analyzing the chemistry of moon rocks collected during Apollo missions. She was a vocal supporter of the Atomic Energy Commission, a federal civilian agency created in the war’s aftermath to control the production of nuclear weapons and to foster research into peaceful uses of nuclear energy.
Myrtle McGraw (1899-1988), the author of “The Neuromuscular Maturation of the Human Infant” (1943) was a psychologist who studied child growth and development. As associate director of the Normal Child Development Center at Columbia Presbyterian Medical from 1930 to 1942, she conducted a pioneering study of motor development in twins Jimmy and Johnny Woods. She was the first to demonstrate the swimming reflex in two- and four-month-old infants. (Watch this mesmerizing and hilarious movie of the Woods toddlers swimming, climbing, jumping, climbing off pedestals, and, yes, roller-skating.)
Ruth Myrtle Patrick (1907-2013) was an American aquatic biologist and one of the country’s leading experts on the science of freshwater ecosystems, or limnology. She achieved that renown, according to her New York Times obituary, after entering science in the 1930s and working for eight years with no pay. An expert on diatoms (single-celled algae with a glass-like silica cell wall), she invented a device called the diatometer, using it to show that the types and numbers of diatoms in a body of water could reveal the extent of pollution. Her insight—that the number, abundance, and ecological features of species could reveal the environmental health of streams—became known as The Patrick Principle.
At least two of these women scientists had to battle stereotypes to pursue a career in science: McGraw trained as a secretary, and Patrick’s mother advised her to marry and study the social graces. (Bachelder was a high school science teacher before enlisting in the Women’s Army Corps.) Their achievements are all the more notable since all of them began their science careers in the 1930s, when professional options for women were far more limited.
As science journalists, we need to spend more time highlighting the accomplishments of scientists named Myrtle—and Gladys and Mavis and Iris —and stop trotting out the tired old trope of “explain it to your Grandma.” When we use this line as the gold standard for clarity in science communication, we obscure the achievements of women scientists who struggled against sexism to achieve excellence in their professions. Perhaps if we were more aware of their triumphs, we might not be so quick to dismiss them as doddering aunts who need our simple explanations.
Because there are many ways to explain science without invoking sexist stereotypes: Explain your research “to the layperson,” “to your neighbor at a dinner party” “to a non-expert,” “to a bright teen.” Personally, I like to think of Myrtle Bachelder explaining her research on the chemical composition of brass cannons on sunken ships in the Aegean Sea to the three nephews who survived her. I would most certainly listen with interest.