Tag Archives: Wendy M. William

Barbie and Elevator Guy: science and sexism

Many years ago I was struggling at Maths O-grade. My parents (bless them) paid a maths graduate from the university for a couple of hours tuition once a week, for two or three months before I took the exam, and his careful explanations helped a lot. I’d concluded I wasn’t good at maths. He asked me, towards the end of our last session, to add the numbers 1 to 100 together and give him the answer. “In my head?” I asked him. “Any way you like,” he told me. I had pen and paper and a calculator to hand. My first thought was to start adding 1+2+3+4… and then I thought, no, if I add 1+100 that’s 101, if I add 2+99 that’s 101, there will be 50 such additions, so the answer’s 5050. And I told him. It took me about a minute. He smiled, and he told me this story about Carl Friedrich Gauss.

A teacher had given the class some busywork to do – just that problem, add together the numbers one to a hundred. The teacher expected this to occupy the class for quite a while as they added 1+2+3+4+5… but the boy Gauss thought about the problem for a few minutes and got the answer. It is a well-known story among mathmos, but not one I’d ever heard, and I’d never been presented with that problem before.

In 1989 the Barbie Liberation Organization was formed. In 1992 they carried out the best customer action against sexist toys ever:

Taking advantage of similarities in the voice hardware of Teen Talk Barbie and the Talking Duke G.I. Joe doll, er, “action figure,” they [bought] several hundred of each and performed a stereotype-change operation on the lot.
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