How My Little Pony turned a little girl into a computer scientist


On the drive back from Madison yesterday, I listened to a lecture by MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle on the very personal relationships we have with objects, particularly the objects that help us think. Turkle talked about her 2008 book, Falling for Science, a collection of interviews with MIT students, and established scientists, about the objects that first drew their minds to math, computers, science and technology. Some were what you'd expect: Broken radios, Legos, a computer. But one story, about a My Little Pony, really caught my attention.

I had several small plastic Ponies that I used to play make-believe with my friends. But I had one larger, plush My Little Pony, a bright-green stuffed horse with a vivid pink mane and tail that I played with all by myself. I would sit for hours on my own, braiding and rebraiding its tail. I developed a system for braiding the tail of my Pony that taught me about mathematical concepts-- from division to recursion.

Read more of computer scientist Christine Alvarado's story after the cut.

When I started, I took the hair on the Pony's tail and divided it into three pieces for braiding. Soon I became bored with a single braid. I then divided the tail into nine pieces and made three groups. I braided each group of three until I had three braids, then took these three braids and braided them together.

Soon I was up to starting with twenty-seven pieces (nested down to nine braids, then to three and then one) and then on to eighty-one. All the while I was learning about math: I saw that division is the process of taking a large number of things and grouping them into a smaller number of groups. In order to end up with one even braid at the end, I had to be able to divide the initial number evenly by three, then by three,and then by three again, until I ended up with just one braid.

I learned that I had to start with specific numbers of pieces in order for the braid to come out evenly. These specific numbers, of course, turned out to be powers of three. Overall, though, what I liked most about braiding was recursion. The large braid was made up of smaller braids that in turn were also made up of smaller braids, and I pushed this structure as far as I could take it. I once attempted to begin the braiding process with 243 pieces, but because each of these sections consisted of only about five strands of hair, I was forced to give it up.

With braiding on my mind, I began to see recursion everywhere. One night at the dinner table, I was eating cauliflower and I noticed that it had the same recursive structure of my braids. Moreover, the cauliflower seemed to continue to recurse forever. I began to divide the piece of cauliflower on my plate, determined to find the base level, but it split further and further until the pieces were too tiny to hold. My parents gave me a strange glance, and I continued to eat, still fascinated by the underlying structure of my vegetables.

Excerpted from Falling for Science, edited by Sherry Turkle.

Image courtesy Flickr user Katie@!, via CC


  1. Seems more like a story of how scientists are (often) the kind of people who will seek out mathematical patterns in their world, rather than a story of how finding mathematical patters in the world led someone to science, but nice story anyway :)

  2. interesting. i’ve always wondered whether the brightest scientific minds aren’t the ones “disabled” by being wired a bit differently from the norm — having obsessive compulsive behaviors and such. it sounds as if she were quite fixated above and beyond that of a “normal” child.

  3. Thank you for sharing this story – math and science are everywhere in our daily lives, even our veggies. I love this story. Young girls can so relate to braiding their toy’s hair for seemingly hours on end. Make them aware of the math aspects of braiding and they might just love math!

  4. It seems like the moral of the story is that kids can learn about themselves and the world through play, providing the toy allows sufficient imagination.

    I’m okay with that.

  5. Well, not as deep a story but kind of related: When my 4 year old daughter received that exact same MLP doll as a gift, she leaned over and whispered to me that “it smells like chemicals.” And she was right, it did. From that day on she named it Chemical the Pony.

  6. That’s really neat. She must have had a natural inclination towards math though. Lots of little girls played with My Little Ponies or dolls with long hair, including me, but I’m not a computer scientist. I’m an engineer. ;)

  7. Whoa. And to think most little girls are playing with these things as toys. The target for these little ponies (having a daughter myself) is age 3 – age 8. This person must be a genius. I wonder what her IQ is? Holy Shite!

  8. alternate headline…

    Area Girl becomes Computer Scientist despite playing with My Little Pony.
    Mattel spokesperson responds, “Girls who play with superior ‘Math is hard!’ Barbie are more likely to avoid science.”

  9. Ha, that’s awesome!

    I had a ton of MLPs, and a science degree, but I am extremely bad at braiding. NOW I realize where I went wrong. Curses!

  10. Hey, that’s my old CS prof! I already knew Alvarado was the nicest prof in the world, but now that I know she got into math via My Little Pony that just makes her 100x cooler. :)

  11. She obviously had the talented mind to see anything that way. So any toy might have been seen differently by her than some other girls (and boys). I’m too old for my little pony, but anything with hair to be brushed got a hair cut instead. Then was subsequently blown up with firecrackers by the boys in the neighborhood. Must have been nice to have a sensible scientific childhood.

  12. That’s a really cool story. It’s also awesome that she had the time to sit around, intensly focused on her game/exploration. I wonder how many kids can’t schedule it between day care, soccer, ballet, karate and piano classes… I don’t think I would have become a graduate gemologist if, as a kid, I hadn’t rolled around in the dirt for hours, digging for rocks and labeling every pebble I could find (for all it’s worth, I also did play with My Little Ponies ;) ).

  13. Of course girls do the math. The Bible is full of “more than men could number”. That meant that women had to do the counting.

  14. Man, braiding is crazy. Doing it with rope really wouldn’t let you have the same affect, because it’s so hard to get it even, but hair/fake hair naturally falls into an even, low-energy ordered state when you braid it. If she hadn’t had a pony or doll, this probably wouldn’t have happened. Awesome!

  15. Much as I like a good story about why someone became a scientist, there is nothing here that even remotely resembles data that you could use to draw a conclusion. A bunch of anecdotes does not make a pattern.

    Suppose there was someone who was kidnapped and put into a small room with only a bit of light shining under the door. Twenty years later they could tell the story about how they could see clumps of dust in the light, which formed some sort of pattern. Day after day, this is all they could do to pass the time. Eventually they were rescued, and as a result of seeing those patterns this person eventually became a scientist. Amazing story, but I wouldn’t want to draw the conclusion that being held hostage in a tiny room is good preparation for a career in science.

    1. I think you’ve misunderstood the point. Nobody is trying to make a case that playing with My Little Ponies is good for launching a scientific career. It’s meant as a singular memoir about the object that started one woman thinking about science. The point of the book is that scientists often have some beloved object that kindled their interest in their chosen profession–whether it be Legos, ponies, or broken radios.

      1. “The point of the book is that scientists often have some beloved object …”

        This statement is a claim that there is a pattern, but there is no data to draw this conclusion. About all you can say is that this sometimes happens, but that’s a very weak statement. The use of the word “often” to imply a pattern is not grounded by the data.

        As a counter example, I could easily find ten people who didn’t have a beloved object that kindled their interest in science. I don’t think it would then be reasonable to make the claim “that scientists RARELY have some beloved object …”

  16. I think what I love most about this is that generally, girls who embrace girly things are seen as silly and illogical- certainly not bright, logical and scientific. It just goes to show that science, rather than being genderless (read: default male) truly embraces all genders.

  17. I have seen the Rumanesco years ago, and still amazes me.
    Well I agree with #26. To me this breaks the cliche’ that girls that play with dolls/ponies/pinky can still become scientists/engineers and anything in between. Even though I personally lean towards the type of engineer who never played with any sort of doll or pony, and I don’t think it was because I did not have a pony available at the time ( I come from a rather poor country, and I was given only 3 dolls throughout my childhood). I still had objects around me that made me wonder (at the age of 5 I would try to understand an astronomy book from my mother for hours and hours per day). However, it was only in high school that my math and science preferences became clear. Today I am an engineer who would still consider math and physics fav subjects to work with, but would also read anything related to philosophy and psychology for leisure.

  18. When I was 2-6 years old, I used to do that with any kind of doll/toy that had lots of yarn/string “hair” that would stay in braids!
    Split into groups, split those into more groups, use hair bands/clips to keep groups separate while I worked on each one to make as many tiny braids as possible, braid 3-5 braids into a bigger braid, and keep doing that as long as the braids weren’t too thick to make more braids. My goal was to make a “super braid” where I started with braids made from 3-5 individual strands, and work all the way up to the whole doll/toy head being one superbraid. (somebody taught me how to make braids from 4 or 5 strands instead of just the normal 3, so sometimes I did it like that)

    I remember taking scissors to some cloth dolls and scalping them, because I had no interest in the doll and only wanted the scalp with all the “hair” so that I could try superbraiding them.

    My mother always yelled at me because we had these nice carpets and blankets with long yarn/string fringe on the ends, and I would try making superbraids in the carpet or blanket fringe.

    I also learned how to square and square-root numbers, and about spacial relations, from playing with legos as a 4-6 year old. I had an “ancient egypt” mini-obsession and I’d build pyramids with the legos. But I had to know how many blocks it took for square-base pyramids, or rectangle-base pyramids, and how I should start the base because if it was the wrong shape then the pyramid wouldn’t be able to get to a one-block “point” at the top. So I learned 1+4+9+16+25+36+49+64. But 8 was my favorite number at the time so I made 8-layer pyramids. And there were also only so many legos available to use.

    But I also taught myself to read rather young, and read through the Dorling Kindersly Science Encyclopedia, cover-to-cover by the time I was 6. So there were things I learned from reading, not just from “discovery through playing”.

    One thing I remember is that in preschool, we didn’t view toys how I later learned adults thought we viewed toys. To us, they were not “the soft girly pony” or “the hard plastic yellow truck” but they were just 3D objects of various colors and textures. We knew what they were, in terms of “pony toy” “truck toy” etc, but we didn’t really think in terms of “boy toy” “girl toy” or “this is the correct way to play with it” until we learned that from books we were read, or from what adults said. Like how nobody hated vegetables until we were read lots of little-kid books where the characters all hated vegetables. Which made it cool to hate them, because our favorite characters did. Or like, nobody got mad at boys for playing dressup or not liking sports until the little-kid books at read-aloud time said that those boys were sissies. Suddenly toys and clothes and games actually meant something gender-wise. I mean, boys did tend to like more active things, and there were more girls who liked the more imaginative things, but we didn’t see them as innately “boy things” or “girl things” until the books we were read told us so.

    1. Do you recall seeing “boy toy” and “girl toy” aisles at the store, though? I remember that feminists use to flip out about these designations when I was very small, but in recent years I’ve seen them come back with a vengeance. Do we think they shape how kids view their toys?

  19. Thank you Maggie, and Sherry, and Christine, for sharing this story! I believe we’ll want to add Sherry Turkle’s book to our high school library. There is a certain truth and beauty in the story that resonates…

    It reminded me vividly of my own experience of discovering the musical cycle of fifths as a high school student, mapping key changes mathematically with pencil on paper, as if no one had ever seen it before. Beauty everywhere. I can believe the book is about “science, technology, and love”. ~@MsPorterAtFHS

  20. My son used to love my little ponies. I insisted that action men would be a better toy, but oh no my wife was right. Fortunately it was me who had the last laugh when he brought home his first boyfriend 15 years later.

    1. Yeah, I can see the logical connection there between little horse toys and wanting to have having hot man sex.

  21. some of the comments are interesting to me, as the mother of an almost 5-year-old. she doesn’t know (yet) that math is supposedly “hard” or the “girls don’t like it.” [both patently untrue, as demonstrated by the wonderful excerpt above!]
    she is fascinated by numbers–we play a game to decide how many extra back rubs she’ll get; I offered her something different one night: to pick a number [integer, really] between 4 and 28. Being a shrewd kid, she thought until she figured out what was to her best advantage, and chose 27. After a few weeks of this, she said to me “I LOVE the in-between.” It fills her with delight.

    All by way of saying a few things: 1) children, often younger than we think, can “obsess” about what interests them, not just “geniuses”– 2)they are ALL wired differently than us because their brains aren’t fully developed, and this is often wondrous to behold, as well as perplexing! and 3)math is fun if we don’t process it out of people.

  22. I can say that model horses were instrumental in my learning to make databases. I learned a little about dbs in a junior high class, and decided I wanted to catalog every Breyer model horse ever made. In the process of doing so, I developed frustrations with the early database I was using (probably the one associated with WordPerfect?) which eventually led me to recognize relational databases as a very useful tool. I got the hang of them pretty quickly. To this day, making data dance is one of my favorite things, and is associated with a lot less math anxiety than, say, algebra or calculus.

  23. Thanks for a delightful story. I vividly remember the day I understood the process of braiding and how to do it. I was in kindergarten – so 5yrs old – and all the other girls in class had braids. I however had two gawky pig tails sticking out from the sides of my head. I studied and studied the braids trying to figure out how they did them. My mother has never been able to braid hair so if I wanted braids I had to learn. Not having a doll with braidable hair I started by plaiting my own hair until I could do it easily then tried to make it “stick to my head” in a braid. Once I had figured it out I experimented with partial braids, plaits and braids, 4 piece, 6 piece and 8 piece braids. 4 and 6 are fine 8 kind of looks like you have a basket on your head. Separating the hair with different fingers gives different weight braids and dividing the scalp into quadrants lets you control the hair you pick up and gives you even braids. Of course I would pull it all undone before I went home and brush my hair back into two pigtails before I got off the bus :)

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