Stephanie Dick

Assistant Professor, University of Pennsylvania

Bachelor of Arts (Hons.), History of Science and Technology and Philosophy, 2007

Science is a human activity, done by human beings, who are very complicated...

Standing in an airport on her way home for the holidays, Stephanie Dick heard two men talking about their families.

“They seemed like really good people. Really good dads,” she says. “And then one of them said, ‘It’s a shame, though. Jessica started grade 8 this year and she just ‘hit the math wall.’ She used to be so good at it.’”

It’s a moment fixed in Stephanie’s memory.

“I wanted to turn around and say: “I hope you don’t talk like that to your daughter. If she was really good at math up until grade 8, it’s not as if her brain just shut down.”

Stephanie has been troubled since her undergraduate days by the stories people tell about who is “wired” and “not wired” to be good at mathematics. Hearing the fathers talk brought home just how widespread those stories still are.

“All of this language that people use to talk about women and why they can’t do mathematics becomes both an excuse and a disability to girls when they hear it.”

Stephanie is a historian of science specializing in mathematics and computing in the post-war United States. She received her PhD from Harvard University and was selected as a Junior Fellow with the Harvard Society of Fellows, a group of scholars chosen for extraordinary potential.

Historians of science are interested in how knowledge is made, who gets to make it, and with what tools in different times and places. Her research uncovers the social, political, and material context that shaped the development of computers and their early use in mathematical research. Computers were seen by many as artificial minds or brains that could be made to reason, become intelligent, and create mathematical knowledge. Computers were taken to be “wired” for doing mathematics, where women and other humans were still thought by many not to be.

Stephanie is interested in the advent of computing as an episode in the “long history of philosophers and mathematicians deciding what intelligence is and what mathematical reasoning is and attributing and denying those faculties to certain members of the population.”

In fall 2017, Stephanie joined the faculty of the Department of History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania. She’s looking forward to returning to teaching. And she carries into the classroom the importance of critical thinking she learned at King’s.

“In part, I view undergraduate teaching as an exercise in trying to give critical thinking tools to the people who will become doctors and engineers. And I guess it sounds kind of cheesy but to make them recognize that science is a human activity, done by human beings, who are very complicated and who inhabit networks of power, technology, and politics that make their way into the content of their scientific work.”

Posted: Apr. 2016


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