Part-Time Science

Women Do Science Sometimes, and Sometimes We Talk About Them

The eighth episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, “Sisters of the Sun,” focused on female scientists who majorly influenced astronomy and astrophysics. Here’s the rundown (uh, it’s not possible to spoil the plot of Cosmos, is it?): because at the time women couldn’t receive science degrees at Cambridge where she attended lectures, Cecilia Payne left her native England to study astronomy at Harvard. With the help of Annie Jump Cannon – who was the first to organize and classify the stars based on their temperatures – Payne discovered that stars are mostly composed of hydrogen and helium, which she then realized are the most abundant elements in the universe. Otto Struve, a Russian-American astronomer and man, said that her 1925 thesis, titled Stellar Atmospheres, A Contribution to the Observation Study of High Temperature in the Reversing Layers of Stars was “undoubtedly the most brilliant PhD thesis ever written in astronomy.” (He did die in 1963, so perhaps he missed a few of the recent ones, but still.)

Watching the episode last night, as usual, I felt a little inadequate to the genius minds that not only comprehend amazingly complex science, but also make seemingly extraneous connections to fuel new discoveries. (This feeling of inadequacy, by the way, I take as a great great motivator.) The female pioneers featured on last night’s Cosmos were, just like any of the males we generally learn about, brilliant thinkers. And they – like most women in any field even today – made these scientific strides facing harsh adversity. Women in science are rare, precisely because of the gendered setbacks (like not awarding degrees in science in the past, or still relevant today, mythologizing that women are bad at math).

At the same time, female scientists rarely get the attention they deserve. So last night’s episode perhaps attempted to redeem this sexism in historical narrative.

But then again, maybe if Cosmos focused on women in science alongside men all the time, in each episode… maybe it wouldn’t need an entire episode dedicated to female scientists. Women have made equally important contributions consistently (just take a look at this Wikipedia list of female scientists before the 21st century!) – and have been omitted from previous episodes. Such as Caroline Herschel, whose brother William was featured in episode four, “A Sky Full of Ghosts,” although both were equally as interested and active in astronomical discoveries. She discovered M110 (NGC205) – a satellite of the galaxy Andromeda – and discovered several comets.

 
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But also, last night’s episode also mentioned something that I feel like I should have heard about before? There’s a huge mega supermassive star called Eta Carinae only 7,500 light years away that’s going to explode perhaps in our lifetimes. (Note: nothing really ever happens in our lifetimes. We exist for a miniscule portion of time, and we can barely see anything from Earth, so what are the chances?!) From NASA:

Eta Carinae is not only interesting because of its past, but also because of its future. It is one of the closest stars to Earth that is likely to explode in a supernova in the relatively near future (though in astronomical timescales the “near future” could still be a million years away). When it does, expect an impressive view from Earth, far brighter still than its last outburst: SN 2006gy, the brightest supernova ever observed, came from a star of the same type, though from a galaxy over 200 million light-years away.

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The Universe on Television, Again: Tyson’s New Cosmos

As kids, we have phases: dinosaurs, mummies, space, etc. We perfect drawing our favorite dinosaur during recess, or take out books about ancient embalming from the local library, or we print out pictures of the planets, color them in, and tape them to the walls of the spare room and call it a Planetarium; admission is five cents. (The last one can’t just be me, right?)

But then the excitement wanes: learning becomes less cool and emotionally liberating than other things like writing out crushes’ names in very careful cursive in the margins of our notebooks. The public school system doesn’t try hard enough to excite its students; science falls to the wayside and no one’s there to reverse this.

In the fall of 1980, PBS aired thirteen episodes of a show in which a man with a certain velvety aura travels across the universe and across time in a “Spaceship of the Imagination.” (This spaceship is shaped like a dandelion seed and is very spacious indeed and looks like it’s not too complicated to operate. Also, sometimes the floor becomes transparent so you can look down at space below.) The man is smiling approximately 94% of the time, he wears a lot of brown clothing, often there is a turtleneck involved, and his voice is excruciatingly creamy: in other words, he is decidedly someone you’d like to read you a bedtime story every night. This show, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, is the most widely-viewed PBS show in the world.

Carl Sagan, the narrator and co-writer of Cosmos, was an astrophysicist, astronomer, and, very importantly, a science communicator. The goal he had in mind for the show was to inspire wonder at science, and to inspire future scientists.

On March 9, 2014, Fox will premiere the first episode of the sequel, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. Hosted this time by Neil de Grasse Tyson – a much more vigorous personality, yet also with very specific sensuousness about him – it seems from the trailer and NPR’s Fresh Air interview that the show will strongly recall the original Cosmos. Tyson is an astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History in New York, and though I can’t yet be sure of his wardrobe on the show, he does majestically don sunglasses as the Big Bang erupts in front of him in the trailer. Also, the Spaceship of the Imagination is no longer a dandelion seed: it’s sleek and shiny (i.e. “modern”).

To be honest, when I first heard that Cosmos was being revamped, I was skeptical. I wondered why Neil de Grasse Tyson & co. didn’t just make an entirely new show. Tyson is a very different personality than Sagan, sensuousness aside: to me, Cosmos wasn’t a modern, mega-visual effected, galactic bonanza of spectacle, as I was sure the remake would be. It was a contemplative place, mellow though breath-taking. But the objective of the original Cosmos – to excite and inspire – was valid and important one… and it still is. So I realized, that’s why a modernized sequel is also valid and important.

Will people care to tune in? The show will be broadcast March 9, 2014 at 9/8c, airing across ten networks, including Fox, FX, and NatGeo. On Fox, it will follow Family Guy, whose audience demographic is the most coveted: 18-34 year old males. (And FYI, Seth MacFarlane is an executive producer of Cosmos.) But anyways, don’t we know that kids these days aren’t watching cable? To me, and hopefully to some of the creators of the shower (though definitely not the media execs at Fox), television ratings don’t much matter when assessing the success of Cosmos. For one, they are skewed with Hulu and all the other variations of online viewing. But the point isn’t where or how people watch the show – it isn’t that they tune into Fox at 9pm on March 9th – but that they watch it at all.

And I’m optimistic – Bill Nye recently brought on a slew of science interest and consideration recently, and just in time. His debate in early February versus Ken Ham, the founder of the Creation Museum, sparked discussion and shock (and a tad of nostalgia for the Science Guy days) with regards to science knowledge and education – every major news organization commented, and Twitter was a-flutter. This proves that people are interested, they just aren’t offered the resources or conditions under which to indulge in their natural human curiosity. Given the lack of motivators, maybe television – at least at 9pm on Sundays – is the best babysitter.

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And in the opposite vein of TL;DR, if you’d like to read more on Neil de Grasse Tyson and on Cosmos in general, I propose:

At the age of eleven, Tyson spoke with a teacher at P.S. 81 about his fascination with astronomy. Tyson’s older brother, Stephen, who is an artist, recalls, “The teacher asked, ‘Why do you want to go into science? There aren’t any Negroes in the field. Why don’t you go into sports?'”

In science, as in other areas of our culture, there is no dearth of voices, but are we paying attention? In the new New Age, it’s all about which cable channels you watch or whom you follow on Twitter.

We could use a national conversation that is not about scandal or sports. If everybody watches the new “Cosmos,” we can talk about it the way we once argued about “The Sopranos” every Monday morning.