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Brainiac

A Mall for America

Recent highlights from the Ideas blog

By Christopher Shea
July 4, 2010

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The National Mall, in Washington, D.C., will have a festive air today, as tens of thousands of Americans take in concerts and an extravagant fireworks show. But if you visit the Washington Monument on a normal day, you might be disappointed in one thing: its surroundings. Though the monument is the Mall’s centerpiece, it’s situated in a blank expanse of lawn, with few landscaped features or objects of interest.

This, it turns out, is a century-old problem--and one that might be familiar to critics of Boston’s Greenway. Few people realize that the National Mall has never quite turned out quite as its (several) designers intended. The so-called McMillan Plan, of 1902, envisioned sculptures, pools, and other landscaping interventions. An idea with an even older provenance is that the Mall would be a vibrant center of civic and cultural life in the capital; in truth, it is institutional, museum-dominated, empties at night, and has no real restaurants.

A group of architects, historians, and preservationists has devised a contest intended to remedy that problem: the National Ideas Competition for the Washington Monument Grounds. All Americans are invited to submit suggestions for making this important American place ”more welcoming, educational, and effectively used by the public.”

”The Competition,” write the organizers, in a hopeful vein, ”will spur public interest in George Washington, the Revolution, and other chapters in the American story. The Competition will join legacy and future, historical context and contemporary thinking, and engage a lively debate about the 21st century use of this symbolic landscape in the civic life of our democracy.”

The ideas can and should go beyond architectural plans. Would-be improvers of the Mall must register at wamocompetition.org by Oct. 31, and entries are due by Dec. 18.

What scientists look like
The male dominance of many scientific fields troubles educators, as does the widespread notion that science is for off-the-charts geniuses only, or social misfits. A study of the impressions that middle-school kids have of scientists shows how deep such stereotypes run and how soon they take hold. (The research isn’t new--it dates to early last decade--but it attracted fresh attention after Geek Feminism Blog highlighted it.)

In the study, 31 seventh-graders were asked to describe and sketch a typical scientist. Then they visited Fermilab, the applied-physics facility in Batavia, Ill. After a tour and meetings with actual lab employees, they repeated the exercise.

The study testifies to the power of the geek trope: The ”before” sketches have a definite mad-scientist vibe, in contrast to the ”after” pictures, which depict more or less ordinary looking folks.

Another striking contrast:

■Among girls (14 in total), 36 percent portrayed a female scientist in the ”before” drawing, and 57 percent portrayed a female scientist in the ”after” drawing.

■Among boys (17 in total), 100 percent portrayed a male scientist in the ”before” drawing, and 100 percent portrayed a male scientist in the ”after” drawing.

Nightlife, the analytical approach
So what does it really take to get into a nightclub? Lauren Rivera, a sociologist at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management (and a Harvard Ph.D.), took a job as a coat-check girl at an elite nightclub, and also interviewed bouncers at length, as part of a study of social status. What signs and markers, she wanted to know, do such clubs look for in deciding who to allow past the velvet rope?

The resulting article, published in the journal Qualitative Sociology, was predictably rich in jargon: doormen, Rivera wrote in her abstract, ”drew from a constellation of competence and esteem cues, which were informed by contextually specific status schemas about the relative material, moral, and symbolic worth of particular client groups.” Though the doormen interpreted many factors, she continued, ”a patron’s perceived social connections seemed to outweigh other types of cues in admissions decisions.”

In an interview with the business-school publication Kellogg Insight, she set aside the professional language:

Know someone. Or know someone who knows someone. If you’re a guy, bring attractive women, ideally younger women in designer clothes. Don’t go with other dudes. And doormen are well versed in trendiness, so wear Coach, Prada, Gucci--but don’t show up in a nice suit with DSW shoes.

So there you have it. Happy hunting this weekend!

Christopher Shea is a weekly columnist for Ideas. He can be reached at brainiac.email@gmail.com.