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Letters from our readers

October 12, 2007

Ellen Swallow Richards: A Soft ­­but Fiercely Determined Voice
Last winter I spent several days in the MIT Archives surrounded by boxes of letters and reports written by or about Ellen Swallow Richards, Class of 1873. Quite apart from her myriad achievements, which are beautifully portrayed in your article (“Ellencyclopedia,” September/October 2007), I was also struck by the manner in which she achieved them.

Richards seemed remarkably adept at navigating the social waters of her time with a quiet, gentle sort of feminism that deserves its own recognition. She didn’t take to the streets and protest; she didn’t aggressively deride those who stood in the way of her progress. Hers was a soft but energetic and fiercely determined voice, which served her and her students well.

Richards’s surge into the world of science was also characterized by her ability to work with feminine stereotypes rather than against them. She was mindful of the fact that the women of her day were expected to be wives and mothers first and foremost, but she wanted to show that those roles were by no means incompatible with scientific careers. In an 1883 report to the Women’s Lab she founded at the Institute, she said, “It is perhaps as wives and mothers that the greatest glory of the Tech women lies. Our students have proved that the most severe training does not make women repulsive and does not un-fit them for housewifely duties.”

While such a statement would be offensive and patently ridiculous if it were made today, in Richards’s time the sentiment did need proving. And perhaps with her attention to the expectations of women at the time, and her willingness to assert that those expectations might live side by side with a career in science, she helped bring even more women to science­–women who might otherwise have been deterred by the seeming contrast of the two roles.
Ada Brunstein, SM ‘07
Cambridge, MA

Another Roving Brass Rat
Like Henry R. Nau (“Wanderlust,” July/August 2007), I too lost and recovered my brass rat in a surprising way. Also like Professor Nau, I paid $35 for mine, I believe in 1972. The rings were cheap because until about 1973, the price of gold was fixed; at that time I believe it was, coincidentally, $35 per ounce.

About one week before graduation I lost my ring. I was convinced I had lost it on a walk around Lake Waban at Wellesley. Roughly 10 years later, I decided to replace it, for the considerable cost of around $250. Sadly, the new ring did not have my class year in the twigs underneath the beaver and did not have my class year on the great dome; it only showed MCMXVI on both domes. (The original had LXXIII on one dome–and when I was younger, I could read those Roman numerals without a magnifying lens.)

Six months after getting the replacement brass rat, I got a message from the Alumni Association: my old ring had been found! A dog had been digging in the backyard of a house near Newton Corner and had uncovered it. In 1973 I had friends who lived near there, and we must have cut through the backyard during some late-night walkabout. The current homeowner mailed the unburied treasure back to me, and now I have a pair of brass knuckles.
Glenn Nelson ‘73, Course XII
Santa Cruz, CA

Shedding Light on Geothermal Energy
I was glad to see coverage of geothermal energy in your last issue (“Rock On,” September/October 2007). It is an important technology that is often overlooked in our search for a sustainable supply of energy. In fact, geothermal was originally zeroed out of the U.S. Department of Energy’s budgets for both the 2007 and 2008 fiscal years because it was considered so mature that it did not need further federal research funding.

The Future of Geothermal Energy report mentioned in the MIT News article is not only an important technical analysis; it also showed that geothermal energy technology still has many areas that need to be explored. The report shed light on the immense potential geothermal energy has in the United States–if those areas are explored further. Because of the report, and the continued efforts of the geothermal community, federal funding for geothermal energy was restored for both fiscal 2007 and 2008 and will likely be approved at higher levels for fiscal 2009 and beyond.
Hildigunnur Thorsteinsson
SM Candidate, Technology
and Policy Program
Cambridge, MA

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