Where science and tech meet creativity.

Yesterday at TAM2012 in Las Vegas I gave the hardest talk I’ve ever given. I present it annotated below. The out pouring of love I’ve received has been truly overwhelming, and I thank all of you for the strength you have given me.

update 08/17/2012
My talk was posted by the JREF on YouTube. It’s now embedded below.

Presented at Saturday, July 14, 2012

This is the forth time I’ve been given the opportunity to speak at TAM. Each year I’ve written a new speech and work to write something that is relevant to the moment. This year I’ve struggled with my talk more than I’ve ever because I’m not entirely sure how to say what I want to say.

The past few weeks leading into TAM have been absolutely insane. Looking around the internet there have been terrible sadnesses and awe inspiring goodness. We live in a world that sometimes seems like nothing but extremes.

We saw a school bus driver bullied by out of control teens (link), and we saw the internet respond by starting out planning to raise money to send her on vacation and instead changing her life. (link)

We saw a New York 5th grader forbidden to give his winning speech on same-sex marriage, a speech that says “Who are we to judge… We must learn to accept all differences” … well he was judged by a close minded principal who tried to silence his ideals. But then, in response to a massive internet outcry, that principle felt compelled to allow that child to speak his heart in a special assembly. In his speech, he went on to say, “If we judge people like this, this is a form of prejudice. We must learn to accept all differences. … ?In conclusion, I hope that everyone understands how important ?it is to respect everyone for who they are.” (link)

We live in a society that in many ways is broken, but sometimes, remarkable humans decide they are just going to do what they can to make the world better, and they do this because they can, and ask if anyone minds only later.

Two weeks ago, Google high-lighted the Virtual Star Parties that my dear friend Fraser Cain hosts and that I and many others participate in. Here’s the video.

I work with some of the best people in the world.

In reaction Tim Farley wrote: “Fraser didn’t ask permission from anyone to do this. He didn’t conduct any focus groups or conduct a study. He just saw an opportunity and took it.”

This is powerful.

Fraser is one of those remarkable humans who has decided he is just going to do what he can to make the world better, and he does this because he can, and asks if anyone minds only later.

Doing what he does isn’t easy. It’s a lot easier to do nothing… easier to lose hope that anything can even be done. And there are people out there who would encourage despair.

If, like me, you’re a child of the 80s, you may remember a movie called “Neverending Story”. It came out when I was a dorky little kid. This movie contained a certain giant wolf who totally understands trolls and their effect of creating their own great nothing in the world. (link) When asked why he is helping the great nothing destroy their world, this wolf responds, “It’s like a despair, destroying this world. … people who have no hopes are easy to control.”

Looking around the internets, I see a lot of people sitting around trolling, and a lot people experiencing despair. There are YouTube videos of people complaining, and blog posts of people expressing their hurt, and in many cases there are legitimate reasons for people to be upset. There are people dying because we’ve lost herd immunity (link). There are lesbian teens in texas being killed for falling in love (link). There are so many cases of abuse that it hurts to read the news. There are lots of real reasons to be frustrated about the world we live in and it is easy to complain… and it is easy to lose hope.

It is dreaming that is hard.

The Neverending story, in its childhood tale of morality, addresses this too. Through the voice of the Childlike Empress, the boy outside the story is asked, “Why don’t you do what you dream, Bastian?” Bastian replies the way I think so many of us reply when when asked why we don’t follow our wildest dreams, “But I can’t, I have to keep my feet on the ground!” (link)

Dreaming is hard. It requires risks. It requires you to own the fact that you are capable of something great.

A few years ago, I came across a powerful quote that was attributed to anonymous.

“Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? ” (link to old blog post on this quote)

I’d challenge you to let your feet fly off the ground and I’d challenge you to dream big and let your light push away the darkness of dispair in the world.

I challenge you to change the world.

Now I recognize that is a pretty big challenge. How many different inspirational posters have you seen encouraging you to just be the change you want to see in the world.

It’s kind of demotivating, and let’s face it, in reality, it often seems that no good deed goes unpunished. But don’t let that stop you. Do good, but know you may get punished – that’s reality.

I’m an astronomer. For the past 10 years I’ve been listening to folks bitch and moan about how people have stopped dreaming, about how NASA is failing, about “Oh whoa is space exploration, where’s my jetpack.” Tied in with these complaints was a blame game of the public saying NASA was boring, NASA saying “We’re not boring, but we can only do so much with our funding – Congress needs to give us funding,” and Congress… well congress says a lot of things. You can look around the internet – Heck you can look at past talks from this conference! – and you can see people complaining.

But complaining doesn’t build our jet plane future. We build our jet plane future.

Last winter I had the opportunity to attend The Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference. In attendance where NASA superstars and heroes of the past. Neil Armstrong – First Man in Space. THAT Neil Armstrong – gave the opening address! In attendance were the leaders of tomorrow – the entrenpenuers behind Virgin Galactic, Blue Orbit, Xcor, and a myriad of other commercial space corporations. These were men and women who dreamed of a rocket planes and having made their money online, they decided to make their dreams reality by hiring the engineers who could build the rocket planes, build the space suits, and build their future.

While not at that sub-orbital conference, the greatest role model of this future building ideal is Elon Musk. This South African born engineer made his start in Paypal. Energy and aerospace are two of his passions, and today he is channelling his talents into SpaceX and Tesla Motors. When I stood on this stage last year, I spoke about how we were just one week past the last flight of the Space Shuttle. Today, as I stand here, because one man decided to do something, I can tell you that we are well on our way to regaining US manned space exploration, and with tomorrow’s rockets we will go farther than we have ever gone before.

SpaceX is truly an awesome thing. Commercial space flight is opening up a new barnstorming style of innovations, but todays test craft aren’t soaring grannies over cornfields, they are preparing to fly grannies and grandpas over the Earth’s atmosphere.

Society is in the process of undergoing radical change as we in many ways return to a less centralized way of doing things. Great minds of all ages are innovating a new reality.

Nicolas Negroponte saw a digital divide, so he worked on the One Laptop per Child program. He never got the systems he dreamed of, but his ideas lead to today’s netbooks, and to low cost computers that do start to narrow the chasm between the connected and the offline.

Mohammad Yunus recognized the ability of microfinacing to change the world and worked to define micro lending programs that make very small loans to individuals – often women – to seed new businesses. Today this same idea is behind Kickstarter and Indiegogo and many other websites where individuals can propose products and projects and seek community funding. Through these projects people are building their dreams, and the community is funding that construction. Through social media this is becoming a shared experience as we virally reshape our world one idea and one donation at a time.

I am one of those people who just wants to do something. And I like working with other people who just want to do something, and through this community I’ve gotten to know and respect, and often befriend other doers. The JREF is named after a man who fought to debunk charlatans and fakers. I don’t need to tell you Randi’s story, you can watch in the movie “red lights”. Following in his footsteps are successive generations of magicians. Fighting new fights are people like Eugenie Scott who is fighting to keep real science in schools and the false doctrine of young earth creationism out. Faced with a vaccination crisis Elyse Anders and others started raising money to get people vaccinated, and today we have the “Hug me, I’m vaccinated” campaign. These are doers.

And in astronomy, all through history, every day people have risen to the challenge and become the doers who innovate how we understand our universe. In 1781, composer and concert director William Herschel discovered Uranus. Through the 1870s, sanitation worker Andrew Ainslie Commons pioneered the field of astrophotography. The early twentieth century saw radio engineer Grote Reber take his commercial radio skills and turn them skyward as he built a backyard 9-m radio dish to map the radio sky. Over the past century, advances in optics and technology have allowed amateurs to add larger telescopes and ever more advanced equipment to their scientific arsenal. This has allowed amateur astronomers to see more and do more, and has also led to a flourishing of research opportunities both as observers and online research assistants.

For a while now, several of us – specifically myself, Phil Plait the Bad Astronomer and Fraser Cain, the publisher of Universe Today – have randomly talked about how to better make astronomy and science in general accessible to everyone, and how to engage anyone who wants to spend their spare time doing science… well, doing science. Our project, CosmoQuest, launched in January

CosmoQuest seeks to build an online research center for the public that engages people in interesting science problems while providing them opportunities parallel to what they’d experience at a research institution.  I’d like to introduce you to a project that we are demoing at our booth in the Lobby: MoonMappers.

The universe truly is your to be discovered.

Our goal with CosmoQuest is to create a community of people bent on together helping scientists do science; a community of people who can explain why what they do matters, and what questions they are helping to answer. We want to create a community, and here is where I invite all of you to be a part of what we’re doing.

Now, don’t get me wrong, as much as I try to be a doer, I’ve had plenty of my own “Rant on the internet” moments. But at the end of the day, I try really hard to remind myself not to feed the trolls.

But sometimes you can’t avoid the trolls, and they seem to be demanding food.

When I started this talk I highlighted places where something had gone wrong in the world, but the goodness of people like you working on the internet made it right. In my perfect world, that is the way things work. Things go well, and when they don’t, people step forward and fix.

Unfortunately, the internet is filled with trolls who sometimes work overtime to break what is right with the world.

Back in June Anita Sarkeesian tried to raise just $6000 to do a web series on how women are portrayed in video games. To look at things like, why is it always some guy rescuing the princess, instead of some female warrior rescuing the captured king. The internet responded by helping her raise more than 26x what she’d asked for. It was awesome. (link)

But then the trolls responded.

Here I’m going to read an excerpt from the NewsStatesman, which in turn quotes Anita.

Even if you don’t like the idea – or don’t believe that women are poorly represented in games … then isn’t it fine for other people to give money to something they believe in?

Except some kind of Bastard Klaxon went off somewhere in the dank, moist depths of the internet. An angry misogynist Bat Signal, if you will.

In Sarkeesian’s own words:
“The intimidation and harassment effort has included a torrent of misogyny and hate speech on my YouTube video, repeated vandalizing of the Wikipedia page about me, organized efforts to flag my YouTube videos as “terrorism”, as well as many threatening messages sent through Twitter, Facebook, Kickstarter, email and my own website.  These messages and comments have included everything from the typical sandwich and kitchen “jokes” to threats of violence, death, sexual assault and rape. ”

Anita tried to do good. Because of this, folks have labeled her a terrorist.

This is not okay. You can make a difference though. You can be the one to not feed the trolls by arguing with them, but instead, simply hit that report button, hit the block button – get them banned. Work to send them the message that what they are doing is wrong and will not be tolerated.

Imagine a world in which all the time, all the energy and and all the bandwidth that goes into cyber bullying and trolling instead goes into building good things.

I have built the place to do astronomy. Others have built spaces to do art, to participate in wildlife studies, to work on story telling, to test and debunk false consumer products, and and so many other awesome projects. Find what you are passionate about and build.

This talk is one I struggled to write. To finish this talk I have to step out of my comfort zone and give an honest acknowledgement that trolling isn’t something that just happens in nebulous random places on the internet and it isn’t just people being verbal in their close-mindedness. Sometimes things are more physical and more scary. As an astronomer, at professional conferences, I’ve randomly had my tits and ass grabbed and slapped by men in positions of power and by creeps who drank too much. This is part of what it means to be a woman in science. With the creeps I generally hold my own and get them to back off like I would with any asshole in a bar. With the people in power… I commiserate with the other women as we share stories of what has been grabbed by whom. I know as I say this that it sounds unbelievable – and how can we report the unbelievable and expect to be believed?

This isn’t to say women shouldn’t go into astronomy. It is just to say that in the after hours events, you sometimes need to keep your butt to the wall and your arms crossed over your chest.

Some of you have to have power to stop discrimination and harassment. It pisses me off to know that as strong as I am, I know I’m not powerful enough to name names and be confident that I’ll still have a career.

But some of you are people with power who can change things.

It’s often hard for women and minorities to rise to positions of power – to break through that glass ceiling. This is in someways a self-efficacy issue, where the constant down pouring of belittling comments and jokes plays a destructive role in self confidence. At my university, I’ve heard tenured faculty laugh that there is a policy not to hire women into tenure track physics positions. They do this in front of the junior faculty.  I’ve heard people joke that the reason I’m in a research center rather than in Physics is because I have boobs. It’s all said with a laugh. So far, its been nothing actionable or against the law. But it hurts, because I know the women who work for me, strong awesome powerful women like the Noisy Astronomer Nicole Gugiliucci and like Georgia Bracey are going to be hearing this, and it is going to effect their self esteem as they look to build their own carreers. I know it hurts my self esteem. And I know there is nothing I can do to change the reality I am in.  I could move to another university – I could change which reality I’m in – but that would leave behind a university devoid of women role models who are capable in physics and computer science, the two fields that my students come from. I stay, and I try to be the example of a woman doing things that matter. I try to say Brains, Body, Both – it is possible even in computational astrophysics.

Here in the skeptics community, we, like every other segment of society, have our share of individuals who, given the right combination of alcohol and proximity will grab tits and ass. I’ve had both body parts randomly and unexpectedly grabbed at in public places by people who attend this conference – not at this conference, but by people at this conference. Just like in astronomy, it’s a combination of the inebriated guys going too far – guys I can handle –  and of men in power being asses.

I know that there has been a lot of internet buzz over the last two years about these issues. This community is filled with strong women. A Kovacs and MsInformation are two ballsy women I draw inspiration from. These are just two of the many SkepChicks, and many of the Skeptical and scientific podcasts have female hosts. When they see something wrong, they ask for ways to protect people from being hurt. And they do like Surly Amy did and raise money to get women here – women who together can support one another so that when we go home we have a network of women to turn to to support us even at a distance. These are women who react to  problems with a sharp word and a needed call to action that is designed to fix the problems

I know this is an uncomfortable topic. An I know that my talk is going to provoke some of you who don’t think I should air dirty laundry. But I see a problem and I can’t change it alone.

 Changing our society takes all of us. Doing something is being that guy, and I’ve had two different guys be that guy for me, who jumps between the girl and the boob grabber and intervenes. Doing something is donating to get more women here, and to get more minorities here, and making a point to admit, we’ve got problems – we’re humans – and saying Stopping Harressment Starts with me. (see endnote 2, below)

We can make TAM a place that is focused on inspiring skeptical and scientific activism – that is focused on how each of us can in our own way make the world better. We can put this bullshit behind us, and we can try to rise above the problems that plague so many conferences in every field. We can be the better example.

The skeptics community is filled with strong people who are advocates of education, of building a more equitable society, and of protecting the uneducated from the charlatans and the quacks. There are times and places to fight. James Randi’s work has often exemplified the best ways to use evidence to fight the leaders of woo. The Dover case was an example of the right place to fight – taking on the leaders of the Intelligent Design movement in the courts. We do need to fight to build a better world.

Say that creating a more educated future is something you’ll fight for, and find something to help educate people about.

Use your social media to advocate for those who are doing good. When you see a problem that pisses you off, find out who is already fighting the fight, and support them. Highlight the issues, and then support the solution. And when something pisses you off, and you don’t see that fighter to support, do like Elyse did and start your own grass roots movement that fights to fix the problems and ignorances that plague our society.

That exhaustingly used statement , “Be the change you want to see in the world” … well, dammit be that change by doing something.

And if you don’t know what to do, support science! Together, we can understand our universe.


Two additional end notes:

1. CosmoQuest is a project that can only succeed through your support. Please consider donating time or money to this project. All proceeds raised through this donation link will go to creating new citizen science projects and toward generating educational materials for classroom teachers to use the citizen science with their students.

2. The “Stopping Harassment Starts Here” T-shirts at TAM (image of graphic above) are shirts I had printed with my own money to sell to raise money for the AAUW Legal Advocacy Fund, which pays for legal aid for women facing gender discrimination in education and the workplace. These shirts are in purple, which is the color of domestic violence awareness, animal cruelty prevention, and LGBTQ Awareness. These are all issues I care about. If you’re at TAM and you’d consider raising your own voice against harassment in all its forms through the purchase of a shirt, I’d be vary grateful. Shirt’s not sold at TAM I’ll sell to people in the US for $25 (including shipping). Just email me at pamela@starstryder.com with [Stops Here T-Shirt] in the subject line.