Counting rocks: Maybe it’s enough

Posted By Pamela Gay on Jun 8, 2019 | 1 comment


[N.B. Yesterday I accepted the Issac Asimov Science Award from the American Humanist Society. This is my acceptance speech, which you can watch it over on YouTube. If my voice sounds off, it’s because I’m still recovering from #@$!(*^!@% Bronchitis.]

Memory is a strange and fickle thing. Not every moment is stored. Somewhere I lost the names of the dinosaurs that I knew when I was 5. Gone is the family tree of the Greek gods I memorised in 5th grade. There is an inexplicable alchemy to what is remembered – did you know, birds can’t fart, wombats poop cubes, and Ceres was a former planet more than 70 years before Pluto was even discovered. Somethings, I just can’t forget.

There is this one memory that stays with me. I was about 12 years old – a 7th grader – and I was getting teased for my intelligence as we all lined up to go inside that morning. I can remember the crowding, the noise, and his taunt of: “You just think you know everything!” 

I still remember my retort “No. I. Don’t. … but someday I will.”  

I was wrong, I will never know everything, but that hunger to try – to work each day to learn more and understand more, that hunger that pulsed through that pre-teenage me is what has carried me to become and stay a scientist.

Scientists aren’t people who know everything: we are people that strive everyday to expand humanity’s understanding of this universe we share.

As I stand before you, I see echos of that little girl in who I’ve become. Back then, I read all the science fiction I could, from the Star Trek novels that made my English teacher roll her eyes to the Frank Herbert and Michael Crichton novels that left me terrified of viruses and genetically engineered plagues. I’m not going to lie, I still read too much, and the works of Gaimen, Jemisin, Scalzi, Okorafor, Wendig & Lafferty fill my ears and eyes as I whisper sync from audio book to paper white in stolen moment found everyday. Back then, by day, I filled my brain with the latest astronomy as I poured through the news in Sky and Telescope, and at night I lugged my Sear’s sale brand telescope out into the yard to try and find Mars. Today, well, my view comes from cameras mounted on spacecraft orbiting other worlds. I get to write astronomy news and share it online. I think this is where I’m supposed to say you can tune in to catch Daily Space, most Mondays through Friday at 1pm Eastern on Twitch.tv/CosmoQuestX

It was and is in science and science fiction that I have found my home. I grew up in a small town in Massachusetts. The teasing of middle school… well when you’re a girl interested in science that never really goes away. I was a Cold War child, a Gen Xer, growing up to a sound track of Billy Joel reminding me that we didn’t start the fire, but we tried – we try – to fight it. 

It was in Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway of Sagan’s Contact, that I found my hero. As I lay in the grass clinging to the earth I felt myself – like her – almost falling into the stars. I longed for something more. In Sagan’s fiction, something amazing was possible, the world could, for one brief moment unite as we all worked to science the shit out of something greater than all of us.

Today, my iPhone is more likely to be playing Amanda Palmer than Billy Joel, but as I read my Twitter feed, I think it’s safe to still say, we didn’t start the fire, and it is going to go on and on and on. The thing is, we have something that really only Asimov had fully predicted: we have the internet on a screen in our pocket, and through our constant connection, we are united, if only by DNS servers, to almost the entire world. There is the potential for all of us to come together, one internet connection at a time.

While I did grow up to get that same PhD in astronomy as the fictional Ellie Arrowwood, I’m not someone who’s looked for anything more in my radio data than radio galaxies. I’m not the kind of astronomer who can help solve global warming. All I can say is it is real, and it scares me. I’m not the kind of big data scientist who can run the numbers and find a way to free our oceans of plastic. All I can say is bring your own cup, and maybe pick up the ones other people have cast away. There are so many problems out their that are bigger than me – racism, increasing economic inequality, heck – I had to shut down Twitter yesterday because of a picture of an abandoned pitbull I don’t have the ability to adopt, and I shut it down today because of the image of a pregnant orangutang clinging to the last tree in a bulldozed forest. There is so much I can’t fix, and some days, I feel so impotent as I just want to do something as I fear our Ecosystem is collapsing. I am haunted by that episode of Star Trek: TNG, The Inner Light, where Picard lives out a dead man’s life through a space probe’s simulation; a simulation that is all that’s left of a dried out world’s civilization. 

There is so much I can’t do.

And there is one thing I can do. 

I can science.

And I can ask you to take out your phone, or click into a new window on your tablet or computer and use the internet to help me share the word, that we can do science together. We can solve real problems  working together. Here is the thing I want you to share on the social media, WhatsApp, or the listserv of your choice: we – all of us together – can help a tiny spacecraft called OSIRIS-REx find a safe place to grab a soil sample from the asteroid Bennu. Join me by going to Bennu.cosmoquest.org, and help me map out all the potential hazards that cover Bennu’s surface. This half kilometer across asteroid is nothing like we imagined. It looks like a load of rubble that some interplanetary dump truck left between the worlds. The surface is just rocks, on rocks, with boulders, and more rocks – and you know what, sometimes Bennu even ejects shrapnel from its surface. Mapping out this asteroid is tedious work that requires people – people like you – to digitally trace out the lengths of the boulders and dot the centers of the hundreds of rocks that fill each image. We have roughly 4500 images that each need to be viewed by 15 people so that our spacecraft can start doing higher resolution follow up images of the best looking regions. We have until July 10 to do this… and we can do this. We launched our website May 22, just 2 weeks ago, and already we have completed more than 1100 images. 

We can do this.

Will you do this with me? Will you science with me? 

It may seem like folly to say, come, while the world or at least our twitter feeds burn, lets map rocks on an asteroid so many millions of miles away. But this is something real, and it is one small step in the direction of making a world where people work together to do meaningful things in an arena where it shouldn’t matter the colour of our skin, what pronoun we chose, who we love, or in what god or gods we do or don’t believe. All of us… we can map rocks. It’s so small a thing, but maybe it’s enough.

Maybe we can make our own community, where the only thing that matters today is those rocks. And then later, can we map the moon? I’ve heard NASA is thinking of going back there.

I wish I could say science, as a whole is a safe place where people are judged without bias by their accomplishments only. I wish I could say we all have an equal chance at success. I can’t. I could tell you about the harassment and abuse I’ve faced as a woman or the racism I’ve seen affect others. I could do that, but it hurts too much. I could show you the research and statistics, but why? That won’t change anything.

Instead I want to map an asteroid at Bennu.cosmoquest.org. And I’m not the only scientist saying come, help me, let’s do this small thing that means so much. There is a project called Stall Catchers that needs you to help map brains to better understand Alzheimers. There is a project Budburst, that is tracking the blooming of flowers, and the Lady Bug project has uncovered insects that were thought extinct.

Will you join me? Will you join them? Will you join us as we escape into science? 

When I first found out I was getting this award, I have to admit, I had to do a quick review of Issac Asimov’s life. Like everyone one else, I think Nightfall is amazing.  I read his Galactic Empire and Foundation series 10 year ago in a summer binge. I loved them mostly – there are slow bits and not everything stood the test of time – but… I think the fact that I raced through them in three months says everything that needs to be said. But loving someone’s books doesn’t mean that person is someone whose name you want tied to your own. Before standing here I need to read about Asimov the man and what he did besides write. It turns out, I had nothing to fear, and the more I read, the more I wished Asimov had lived to see how intersectional-diversity is becoming a new normal in science fiction.

Asimov believed that science fiction was an important way for humanity to see what is possible. And I dream that the society he fought for and imagined will become not just the new normal in fiction but also in science. 

I wish he was still here. I wrote something as I defined the CosmoQuest community. I wish I could show it to him because I think it would make him proud. He died the year I graduated from high school, and since he isn’t here, I’m going to read it to you instead.

At CosmoQuest, all are welcome. In this time when there are too many global tragedies taking place local to too many of our community members, I want you to know we wish for you to be safe, be well, and come help us explore our universe when you can. Our hope is that if we acknowledge, as stated so well by Astronomers without Borders, that we are all one people sharing one sky, maybe it will get easier for us to show each other compassion and understanding.

There are too many places in our world that are literally and figuratively on fire for me to list them and ask for you to act to help those who need help. Instead, I want to say that in this place we will tolerate no hate. This is a place where people are accepted without regard to their colour, culture, religion or lack of religion, their education level, their wealth, or their caste. We do not care who you love, but only that you find love in this world. We believe that everyone can do great things, and we want you to be part of us doing great things.

If you have the capacity to act, please help those who need it.

If you just need a safe place for your mind to find sanctuary in science, please come here and be welcome.

When I originally wrote that post, I ended it there, just like when I originally wrote this speech, I ended the quote there. But reflection back then, and after listening to the prior session on racism today, I must continue.

[I] didn’t originally state #BlackLivesMatter because I couldn’t find an adequate way to also express our sorrow for refugees and other people killed through hate, apathy, and silence. No life should be thrown away. When humans with the potential to be the next Albert Einstein or Chris Hadfield are washing up on beaches, being struck dead walking home with Twizzlers, and sometimes just die dancing or playing in the park… I have no words to express my sorrow. Our support does not say these lives matter more than others, but rather we recognize that culturally (in different ways in different places), some populations are treated as though they matter less. This is wrong. We are proud of the people within CosmoQuest who are peacefully participating in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, #pride, and those who are opening their homes and communities to people escaping potential death in their native lands. We see your compassion and commend it.

I”m just a scientist, Just a girl who wants to know everything. I’m just a science fiction reader who dreams of a world where we are all united to do something.

I’m a person trying to make that place where we can all learn and do science together. 

Thank you for this award, that ties my name to Issac Asimov. I’d like to believe he’d help me mark rocks, and measure boulders, at CosmoQuest. Since he can’t will you?

Together we can explore our universe.

Thank you

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