Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Ada Lovelace Tribute: A Q&A with My Mum

A few months ago, I pledged to write a blog post for Ada Lovelace day. The hope is that atleast 1,000 bloggers will write about a woman in technology on today, March 24th, and that this will draw (good) attention to woman in technology. I don't necessarily know if we'll succeed in the objective, but hey, it's different and could work, so why not?

Since I don't actually know very many women in technology (I'm too distracted by all the tech boys?), I've done a Q&A with my mum, Rosemary Kennett. Mum studied Physics at Caltech, met and married my dad there (a professor! scandal!), had 3 kids, worked for NASA JPL, did physics research at SU and Cornell, taught Astronomy for a few years, and then moved on to her current job as a scientific programmer in Spectral Sciences. Here goes:

Why did you choose to study Physics?
I actually became fascinated in high school where I was taught by a teacher who had just returned from a sabbatical at Oxford and was intrigued by the new physics e.g. nuclear physics. I remember that I used to borrow her collection of popular scientific paperbooks.
What was the first line of code that you wrote?
I remember writing code to model an oscillating violin string when I took an early math course involving programming as an undergraduate (we did not have CS courses back then). Most of the early coding was in Algol 60 (which most people agree was a pretty good language but somehow it died out)
What language have you programmed the most in?
Fortran, then C/C++, then Java
(Hmm. Is Fortran kind of like 4chan? - PF)
What app are you proudest of creating?
For the general public - there's a simple Java applet that often gets referred to: Epicycle and Deferent Demo.
You taught astronomy and ran the Syracuse Astronomical Club for a few years. What's the most fascinating aspect of astronomy for you?
How much we are learning about the distant past (likewise through high energy physics experiments, which now are trying to mimic conditions soon after the start of the universe!). Also the number, variation and beauty of objects in space, especially as observed using the Great Observatories (Hubble, Chandra for X-Rays, Spitzer for IR etc)
I always thought it was pretty cool to have a mum that worked at JPL. What were you doing there (besides rocket science, of course)?
Actually the technical work of which I'm most proud was that done at JPL. One project was to check the performance of a new design of a radar instrument called a scatterometer which measures oceanic winds (strength and direction) by bouncing radar off the waves - the Bragg effect means that the radar return depends on the roughness of the waves, which is in turn influenced by the wind speed. You do this from different directions and you can tell the direction of the wind also. Anyway that style of scatterometer is now the standard, although launches of these instruments are few and far between
(That's right, my mum's invention is orbiting space above your heads right now. Boo-yah! - PF)
You have 3 kids, and two of them ended up in Computer Science. Do you credit/blame nature or nurture?
(Hmm. I'm pretty sure it was the fact that we had a T1 line before any other kids had the internet, and that we moved to cold, miserable upstate NY and I was forced to hibernate inside our well-supplied computer room. - PF

Bonus Factoid: My mum knows all the cool kids in CS: Steven Wolfram, because he was a student working with my dad on the Mathematica forerunner, Richard Feynman, because he was a Physics professor at Caltech, and Larry Page, because he attended a Hertz event and asked her a question about her research... I'm jealous!

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