Category Archives: Research

Jane Franklin’s Spectacles

How does one reconstruct a biography of a person mostly lost to history?

Jill Lepore, a professor of history at Harvard and a staff writer for The New Yorker, addressed this question last week at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Titled “Jane Franklin’s Spectacles, or, the Education of Benjamin Franklin’s Sister,” the lecture provided a fascinating portrait of the founding father’s little known sister, with whom he was very close.


The lore of Ben Franklin is well-known. An innovator and self-made man, he wrote the prototype for what would become the format for the autobiography. Too poor to go to Harvard, he was an avid reader who passed along the love of reading to his sister. Few books were in their home, but both Ben and Jane read Plutarch’s Lives and were also influenced by Daniel Defoe, who was an advocate for the education of women at a time when many women were illiterate. In 1731, Ben Franklin founded the first lending library in the US. He also invented biofocals, and helped his sister with selecting her own spectacles by sending her a set of lenses with instructions on how to test her sight.

Spectacles were at the heart of the lecture. An emblem of intellect, they were used as a prop in many portraits painted at the time. He preferred to wear them during the painting (rather than simply hold them in his hand, like many other subjects of contemporaneous paintings), showing his love of reading and learning. In sad contrast, Professor Lepore said she found only two eighteenth-century portraits of women with spectacles. The quest to learn as much as she could about Jane Franklin led Lepore to find a pair of her own replica spectacles, which she hoped, in a magical-thinking worldview, would lend insight into Jane’s life. Jane’s writing is in the form of a sixteen-page pamphlet she called “The Book of Ages,” in which she chronicles the births and deaths of family members. Most of the pages are blank. One cannot help but wonder what she may have said to lend more details about her life.

Jane’s writing did exist. She wrote many letters to her brother. Yet, as old patriarchal society would have it, they were not deemed relevant by Harvard history professor (and later president of the College), Jared Sparks, so he destroyed them while reading Ben’s letters in preparation for writing his biography. As whispered epithets flew about me, I cringed at this notion, hoping I had misheard the remark. I didn’t.


As someone who primarily writes historical fiction, I attended this lecture because I too delve into writing projects where there is a dearth of information as I gather research. I’m accustomed to scouring online journals, libraries, and querying professors around the world about obscure women in history. I wasn’t surprised to learn that few details are known about the only queen on the Sumerian king list—but I was shocked, shocked, to hear that in a well-documented era such as the eighteenth-century, a recording of a life could be cast away so dismissively. To me, all knowledge is sacred and worth having. As I imagined Jared Sparks tossing letters so precious to Benjamin Franklin into the fireplace, I wondered what else has been lost over time. Maybe there was indeed a cuneiform tablet explaining the life of Queen Kubau, but some archaeologist chucked it back into a pit, now paved over as a parking lot in Baghdad, because the contents weren’t deemed worthy of archiving—simply because she was a woman.

Professor Lepore made an interesting parallel between the Franklins and author Virginia Woolf. Lepore speculated that Virginia Woolf saw the listing for Jane’s letters in a 1928 auction catalog from Sotheby’s. Woolf then imagined a story about a fictitious character, Judith Shakespeare, sister to her famous brother William. Was she inspired by Jane Franklin? Could be so, and the way Professor Lepore described it made it all that more intriguing.

The biography, The Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, was an engrossing read. I tried to savor each chapter at a leisurely pace, wanting to highlight and take notes for my own purposes, though I have no plans on writing a novel about this topic—yet—I devoured the book all too fast in my enthusiasm. Definitely one to return to at a later date. Highly recommended!

(originally posted Sept. 2013) 

The Overview Effect

Overview poster

I usually focus on writing here, but there is one topic very dear to me: astronomy. Though I always knew I wanted to be a writer, when I was young, my perpetual fascination with Star Trek and Doctor Who inspired me to study astronomy. I wanted to design spaceships for interplanetary travel. My brother and I spent countless hours drawing our prototypes, which NASA would have no doubt snapped up in an instant. My octopus ship, with its arms unfurling to slow its orbit, is one I still think about when I watch sci-fi shows. Alas, my terrible aptitude for math prevented me from pursuing that career. Yet my newsfeed is loaded with astronomy news, and I love many of the shows. I’m eagerly anticipating Neil deGrasse Tyson’s resurrection of the Cosmos series in the spring. And luckily, through my former writers’ group, I learned about the Overview Effect.

Frank White and I worked together at Harvard, and raising awareness about the environment, seen through the lens of space exploration, has been his passion for many years. The overview effect is a phenomenon experienced by astronauts in which they are profoundly changed by seeing Earth from a distance. Astronaut Ron Garan coined the term Fragile Oasis, and has created an institute to pursue humanitarian and environmental causes. Frank runs the Overview Institute to raise awareness about the need to protect the planet, to break down the barriers created throughout history, and find ways to collaborate for the good of the planet. Listening to them inspires that idealistic hope that someday, we’ll pull ourselves together, stop wrecking the planet and destroying each other, and evolve into a more unified society like in Star Trek. But then I read the news. Who can say for sure where we’ll be in 100 years? Or 500? The idea is that once more people travel in space, the overview effect will help them see that stewardship of our planet is essential.

However, there is hope, to hear them speak. Richard Branson’s private space program begins in earnest next year. And on the international space station, we’ve seen successful collaborations between many countries, despite any differences back home. When working in space, the recognition of the need for a big-picture, long-term view is what helps them succeed, and is in part produced by the overview effect.

It has taken a long time for Frank to achieve his mission of raising awareness about humanity’s ride on “spaceship earth,” as described by futurist Buckminster Fuller. Frank talked about the value of persistence. When he first launched his book, few people attended his talks. One reading session at a library had an audience of two: the librarians. Now, the lecture halls are full and there is robust online participation.

Ron Garan, Sheila Jasaonoff, Nicole Stott, and Frank White (L to R)

Ron Garan, Sheila Jasaonoff, Nicole Stott, and Frank White (L to R)

Last year, the first Overview Effect event took place as a joint effort between Harvard Extension and the Graduate School of Education. One of the astronauts talked about being outside of the ship and letting go. He turned away from Earth and faced the depths of the black. That moment resonated with me—it was so profound, something I’d love to experience, but probably never will. But it will definitely appear in a future novel. Part two of this panel discussion occurred on December 13, and the environmental issues were discussed more in depth. A third portion of the series is scheduled for spring, and will include the Harvard Kennedy School, and governmental policies will be featured. (And happily, like the others, it will be livestreamed and they will take questions via social media channels, so stay tuned.) It’s wonderful to see so much interest in this. Frank is working on updating the book, which was originally published in the mid-80s and the second edition was printed in 1998. The video of the first session is available on YouTube:

While my sole experience with space may be limited to watching Cosmos or listening to Brian Eno’s Apollo album while writing, it gives me hope to see Frank’s success with the Overview Effect, and the growing collaboration between the scientific communities around the world. The astronauts tell amazing stories and share photos that hopefully will one day transform how humanity functions as a whole. As they’ve often said, we’re all crew mates on space ship Earth, and we need to work together.

A view from two windows

A view from two windows: Earth, and a cold, rainy winter night in Harvard Square

Taking Notes…but Where?

The Take Note conference at The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in November 2012 made a huge impression on me. Sadly, I never even got around to writing the second half of that post for this blog. I was swept up into a fierce maelstrom at that time, and I didn’t find peace until months later. However, despite the storm, I didn’t slow down when it came to writing, or gathering my thoughts about future projects. The downside is that in an effort to keep up, I created another form of chaos: a lot of notes, spread over three different programs. Like cleaning up before guests arrive for a visit, there are the closets where we throw everything, with promises that eventually, we’ll go back and make it orderly.

Back in the days of yore, all my random thoughts were collected in a Word document. Finding scraps of stories, snippets of dialogue, or a simple task to follow up on was a chore. Only recently did I throw out most of the CD ROMs that stored all those archival files, with just recent collections to keep. When note-keeping programs arrived on the scene, I was thrilled. But which ones are the best?

Springpad icon

I started out with Springpad. I liked the cute little notebooks, and as the program evolved, I appreciated the some of the functionality and the design—but somehow, while the aesthetics were pleasing, I found I used it less and less. Sorting and clicking around, it began to feel clunky.

Then came Workflowy. It’s been my favorite so far. It’s streamlined, utilitarian, and it goes along with how my brain organizes its thoughts. The search feature makes more sense to me, and being able to shuffle topics in a list is easy. I started using it as a way to outline a novel this summer, since many of these scenes were switching around. While moving scenes is easy enough to do in Scrivener, sketching out the outline here first helped me visualize the scenes while I wrote down the notes.



Google Keep appeared on my new phone when I upgraded in late summer. Still smarting from the loss of Reader, and knowing their Alerts product was maimed and likely on its way out, I was wary of using it. I tried it a few times, while thinking up a line of dialogue, which I could write down quickly while riding the T to work. As long as I move those notes at the first available moment to somewhere more permanent, I’m fine with it. After moving scores of notes from a sticky note widget on iGoogle once that shut down, I’m loathe to trust what may be a flash-in-the-pan product. But for speedy response to a moment of inspiration, rather than think about which list it belong to in Workflowy, it’s a nice temporary and accessible place to hold a thought.


The one I haven’t tried? Evernote. On the surface, it seems so much like Springpad, I didn’t bother. But as I think about moving my Springpad archive to Workflowy, one question nags at me: What if? What if Workflowy disappears? Well, at least it’s exportable. Am I putting all my Muse’s eggs in one basket?

What do you do? Do you use several note programs, or just one? Which one is your favorite, and why?