What’s the difference?

Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers should have spent a few minutes on the Internet before offering his inane comment Jan. 14 that a difference in “innate ability” might be one reason women still lag substantially in the fields of math and science.

Atlanta’s Agnes Scott College offers a web site devoted to hundreds of historical examples of women who excelled in math, going all the way back to the 5th century B.C. Pythagoras’ widow, Theano, kept his school alive after he died and wrote treatises on math, physics, medicine and child psychology. Her most important theoretical contribution was the principle of the “golden mean.”

Florence Nightingale, famed as a wartime nurse, devised a “polar area diagram,” a statistical method of plotting the incidence of needless deaths caused by unsanitary conditions. With this plan she “revolutionized the idea that social phenomena could be objectively measured and subjected to mathematical analysis,” her biography on the web site reports.

Swiss-born mathematician Irene Hueter was excluded from math courses. In the schools she attended, girls were forced to take home economics while boys took the math and science courses. Now she is an eminent mathematics professor at New York City’s Baruch College. Or take the case of Rosalind Franklin. Together with Francis Crick and James Watson, she cracked the DNA code. Crick and Watson got the Nobel Prize. Franklin’s role was deliberately hidden. Her scientific genius ranks with Nobelist Marie Curie, co-discoverer of radium with her husband, Pierre.

These women were forced to overcome deeply rooted sexism and discrimination to enter the world of science and math. Summers’ unguarded comment proves that those barriers remain.

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UN: poverty ‘silent tsunami’

In releasing a 13-volume UN report on global poverty, economist Jeffrey Sachs called it a “silent tsunami” that engulfs billions of people around the world. One billion people live on less than a dollar a day. Many millions, especially children, die of starvation, hunger, or preventable diseases each year.

But the good news, according to the report, is that poverty can be cut in half by 2015 and can be eliminated by 2025 with only a modest increase in development assistance from the 22 wealthiest nations. It means those countries must live up to the promise they made in 1970, and renewed at a UN conference in 2002, to devote 0.7 percent of their gross domestic income (GDI) to development assistance. So far only five nations have met or surpassed that target and six others are committed to reaching it by 2015.

The U.S. spends a pitiful 0.15 percent of GDI for development assistance. President Bush has pledged $22.3 billion in aid for 2006 or about 0.18 percent of our nation’s GDI. That’s less than two-tenths of 1 percent of U.S. GDI! The U.S. would have to double that to $54.5 billion to reach its promised target.

The report calls for doubling overall annual assistance for the poor nations to $136 billion in 2006 and $195 billion by 2015. This amount “pales beside the wealth of high income countries and the world’s military budget of $900 billion a year,” the report states.

Sachs charged, “The system is not working right now — let’s be clear. There’s a tremendous imbalance of focus on issues of war and peace and less on the dying and suffering of the poor who have no voice.”

Assisting the poor nations is not charity by a kind-hearted superpower. U.S. transnational corporations reap billions from the toil of impoverished workers in Latin America, Africa and Asia. They reap billions more from the exploitation of these nations’ natural resources. Doubling U.S. aid to meet the UN goal of eliminating poverty is a matter of partial repayment to those countries plundered by the U.S. and other imperialist powers.