Girl Hours

Dec. 30th, 2016 08:59 am
hollymath: (Default)
Thanks to [livejournal.com profile] meepalicious who, upon seeing Adrienne Rich's "Planetarium" linked to in my post about Vera Rubin, told me about another poem about another space-science woman which I absolutely adore: "Girl Hours".
Oh bright rain, brave clouds, oh stars,
oh stars.

Two thousand four hundred fires
and uncharted, unstudied,
the hours, the hours, the hours.
hollymath: (Default)
Honestly, I've been pretty sanguine about the death toll of 2016. I think this is probably because I had a lot less to do with pop culture than most of my friends, either through being slightly younger, living a boring sheltered life, or what. I don't feel personally connected to them so I don't feel like I'm losing that bit of myself when we lose them.

But what I think my calm acceptance is about (and I don't trust this thought because I really think I'm rationalizing my lack of emotional connection) is that most of these great people can and should be emulated. The good that they do should, and hopefully does, live on after them in the people they inspire to do the kinds of things they did which made us like them.

So while I recognize that (to give a recent example) David Bowie, Prince and George Michael expanded the boundaries of what men can be like, I also believe that this good and important work can and should continue beyond them. That maybe the best way to honor them is to emulate the things we liked about them and even push some boundaries, like they did.

However! There is one death I'm actually sad and angry about, and it's not because it's someone who personally had a big impact on my life but because it says something sad and angry-making about our world.

Vera Rubin discovered dark matter in the 1970s. She also died on Christmas Day.

This means, among other things, that she will now never get the Nobel Prize her work so richly deserves, because they're only awarded to living people.

As this article about her said in June, "It’s like the [Nobel] committee cannot see her, although nearly all of astrophysics feels her influence." This, of course, could also be a description of her famous discovery: dark matter is called that because astronomers can't "see" it (or detect it in any other way) and yet it must be there to explain the behavior of the matter we can see -- like stars and galaxies.

Only two women have ever won the Nobel Prize in physics, the most recent in 1963 (and even that was a woman sharing it with two men). Even with how difficult it is for women to get in, stay in, and succeed in scientific fields, it happens more often than twice a century!

Like all women in predominantly-male careers, Vera Rubin had to be extra aggressive and persistent. Stories like the one where she had to modify a bathroom sign because until then there'd been no ladies' room where she worked sound endearing and admirable at first...but then realization dawns: how could there have been only men's toilets?! How is this a thing anyone has to put up with? Rubin herself said in 2000 she was "fed up... What’s wrong with this story is that nothing’s changing, or it’s changing so slowly.”

This is why I'm sad and angry. We owed her so much better.
I found out about Vera Rubin's death from the twitter of Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, one of a few space-science women I follow there. I used to follow some men too but only the women talk about what really interests me, which is space (where they say the same kinds of things as the men of course) and social justice here on Earth. Dr. Chanda P-W is Jewish and a woman of color as well, so I find her perspective especially valuable in this, plus she just sounds like a fun person to know.
The following tweets you can see if you click on that one give a good idea of what Vera Rubin was like as a person, not just as the discoverer of a bit of science so famous we've all heard of it even if we don't really know what it is.

Other good stuff about Vera Rubin I found yesterday:
“I first observed at Palomar one long dark December night in 1965,” she recalled later. “My assigned bedroom was on the second floor of the dormitory, and there was a velvet rope at the first floor, blocking the stairs. When an astronomer asked why the rope was there, the answer was ‘because Vera Rubin is upstairs.’”

I live and work with three basic assumptions," Rubin once wrote:
1) There is no problem in science that can be solved by a man that cannot be solved by a woman.
2) Worldwide, half of all brains are in women.
3) We all need permission to do science, but, for reasons that are deeply ingrained in history, this permission is more often given to men than to women."


And here are a few clips from the BBC of Rubin talking about her work.
hollymath: (Default)
I love this interview. But this is definitely my favorite bit.
But, it seems, we humans can’t help but sometimes think of our robots as being just like us.
“There is a personality there,” Spilker said of the Cassini spacecraft, “and I think it is a reflection of the Cassini team. We take good care of her and watch over her, making sure everything goes right. And if she curls up in the middle of the night and says ‘Help!’ we all come in and want to fix her and get her running again.”
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I'm watching an old episode of QI and Stephen Fry has just described the Turing test as "the most important thing for a machine," in the context of advancement in robots and computers and that sort of thing.

And I just thought, man, what a human-centered way to think about it! It's probably not the most important thing to a machine at all, because why would a machine care about how well it can simulate a boring rubbish fallible weird old human? It's an important thing for humans in the machines they're building, maybe, but not for the machine, right?

But then I thought, in order to pass the Turing test, it'd have to care about passing the Turing test because that's what humans care about.

And I kept thinking about this and my brain got all tangled up.
hollymath: (Default)
I roll the dice and say "It's gotta work if I stick with it, right? I know that isn't how probability works...but it USUALLY is! And THAT'S how probability works!"

And then later on: "At least I got the straights! They're always the most difficult for me..."
hollymath: (Default)
I must admit I, like no doubt almost everyone else, take it for granted that every year or so there will be some new amazing feat of ingenuity and discovery in space: dive a probe into the atmosphere of one of Saturn's moons, trundle around on the Martian surface, find hundreds of planets outside our solar system via a telescope in space, orbit an asteroid, land on a comet, most recently transform our knowledge of Pluto from a pixilated disco ball to the incredible detailed pictures we've no doubt all seen now because Pluto is the internet's favorite planet.

It's easy to think these things are so obviously good that we can assume they'll carry on happening, injecting our daily routines and concerns with a regular dose of the sublime and the numinous in order to keep our psyches in good working order. But every single one of those missions and accomplishments has to be fought for, hard, many times. The money has to be spent long before the payoff in the public's eyes -- if it ever happens at all. New Horizons was approved knowing that it wouldn't produce results until a president or two later, and it's hard for congresspeople (most of whom need to worry about re-election every two years) to play that kind of long game, especially when there are of course so many worthy causes the taxpayers' money could go to.

I'm fascinated by how New Horizons so nearly didn't happen; there seem so many parallel universes where it never was, or where it ceased to exist before any of us heard of it, or even one where it cleared all the hurdles but our now-iconic image of Pluto was nearly lost in the computer before anyone laid eyes on it, reminding us that space scientists at work are susceptible to all the human failings of anyone else at work.

I try to be mindful of these things so that I don't take our knowledge of the universe for granted. It's easy to assume fabulous pictures and information about exoplanets and Kuiper belt objects are as inevitable as new TV shows, especially when it all ends up in the meat grinder of social media, which extrudes fanfic, urban legends, politics, news, pop-culture references, and amazing new scientific knowledge such that they all look like each other.*

But there's nothing certain about it: a few days ago made 46 years since man first landed on the Moon...and I think it's 43 years since man last landed on the Moon. Having done something in space is hardly a guarantee that we'll do it again. We have to keep supporting funding for science, and keep celebrating the amazing fruits of that labor.


* And again I could rant about the sad Pluto cartoons: people drawing Pluto with a Care-Bear heart on its tummy just like they draw their favorite characters from TV or anime or whatever, so used to feeling this level of ownership and participation in their entertainment that Pluto gets treated like Benedict Cumberbatch or something...but I have somewhere to be this afternoon so won't rant about this any further! But someday this subject will escape my footnotes, I hope.
hollymath: (Default)
This week, what with its aurora and its solar eclipse, has been awesome for me because at times like this everyone else gets as excited about space as I am all the time.
hollymath: (Default)
Of course I'm fond of the one I grew up‎ with, but that's no reason to leave it that way forever!

I remember the poster of the solar system I had on my bedroom door as a kid, with all the planets' vital statistics -- diameter, orbital period, mean distance from the Sun, etc -- and how the number of moons for Saturn had a question mark next to it. I don't remember any of the other stats from this poster, just the two biggest numbers of moons for the two biggest planets: Jupiter had 16 and Saturn had "22?"

Twenty-two question mark! I was captivated by that question mark. I was too young to understand at the time how there could be any doubt about how many moons a planet had. Now I look back and marvel that there could be such certainty! Now there are like, what, 60? Does anyone even know? Does anyone mind that we're not quite sure of this?

The questions are intriguing and delicious because we can hope they are impermanent. That question mark excited me, because I believed this was something humans would be able to nail down and specify, coming to a soothingly "right" answer, accurate and stable and unequivocal, one day.

Looking at that memory now, I like it because it places me in a certain time and context.

I love the song "Little Fluffy Clouds" but the beginning always drove me crazy. The supposed impetus for the vocal sample that gives the song its name is an interviewer asking "What were the skies like when you were young?" What the hell kind of question is that? I always wanted to know. Who talks like that?

But on a slightly bigger scale, I think it could be a great question:
- When did you come of age?
- Back when we were at Twenty-Two Question Mark For Saturn.
It's something I could see Mr. xkcd doing as a chart. It's like how Romans used to name the year by saying "it was the seventh year in the reign of such-and-such." It's like those sf stories about using the positions of the planets in the solar system as a clock: you come back from a relativistic journey, no idea what epoch you've arrived back into, check the relative positions of all the planets in their orbits and then you can say "well this only happens every umptymillion years so it's this time, plus or minus one umptymillion!" which at least narrows down the possibilities.

Anyway, where was I?

Here's what I wrote the other day when I read about how close Dawn is getting to Ceres:
The best thing about space exploration is that it transforms objects in the solar system from ideas into places.

The Voyagers did this for the outer planets (and some of their moons); Cassini/Huygens has done it for the moons of Saturn; Spirit and Oppy and Curiosity are doing it for Mars; New Horizons will do it for Pluto and other Kuiper Belt Objects...and Dawn is doing this for Ceres, the largest asteroid in the belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

Ceres was the original "relegated" planet: when first discovered it was called a planet, but when a number of smaller asteroids were discovered it was gradually understood that Ceres is one of many such objects, not something that's cleared its orbital path like planets are supposed to. So Ceres was reclassified, without (as far as I can tell) all the fuss Pluto has received in its similar situation, and is still a subject of scientific interest, getting its own mission and everything, As is Pluto, of course!‎
They're not treated any differently no matter what they're called. Planets are important. Dwarf planets are important. Moons are important. Comets are important!

Is there any way that having the asteroid belt is worse than having just Ceres? Nobody I know thinks so. I didn't even know Ceres's history (its social history, its history as a subject of interest to humans, not its geological or astronomical history as a rock in space) until Pluto's reclassification caused all this fuss and there started to be articles about the new class of planets Pluto has been "demoted" to or whatever (such emotive language! the planets provide such an obligingly blank canvas don't they?!) saying things like "hey, Pluto isn't the only one in this bizarro new 'dwarf planet' class!" Until I knew it only as one of the largest asteroids. And of course I thought the asteroid belt was great, like kids do: lacking the singular personality of a solar system icon like Jupiter or Venus yet delicious in its anonymity, its plurality. And of course asteroids are just Space Landmines, if I could believe what movies taught me about the inevitability of having to drive spaceships through them.

Nothing about Ceres by itself could be as good as Space Landmines. And so why should I mourn for Pluto when it's transitioning from being a lonely exception to being part of the Kuiper Belt, a busy place where not everything is about us, full of Pluto-like objects. Pluto is no longer alone! Not the ugly duckling of the planet club but surrounded by its own kind.

How do we not love this story?! How long will it take for the queer folk and the non-standard deviations and the neurodiverse and the weirdos who grew up in small towns where they were led to believe they were the only weirdo in the world to realize this is their vindication?

Pluto was an ugly planet, never in all its time as a planet being captured as more than a smudge that needed a big arrow next to it in photos, or as a circle so pixilated I've been known to say it looks like a disco ball.

But Pluto will be a beautiful dwarf planet, in a process that's starting already as New Horizons zooms toward it, getting better pictures than any we've had before and more information on this small distant world. It's like we're finally getting to go on our first date with Pluto and find out more than its blurry photos on the dating website and see beyond the superficial facts like that it likes long walks on the beach and eccentric orbits, has a diameter of 2274 kilometers and a good sense of humor.

2015 is such an exciting time to get to know and love Pluto for what it is, and -- since New Horizons will also be looking at some of Pluto's satellites and hopefully a couple of other Kuiper Belt Objects -- the other swans we now realize it's swimming through the universe with.

Pluto is asking us "who says being a planet is better than not being a planet?" Pluto says "do I care if some people on Earth decided for a mere third of one Plutonian year that Pluto should fit some label rather than some other?" (A third of a year is a mere four months here, of course. Four months is nothing! Would we think much of a job title, a marital status, an address, that we only had for four months once?) Pluto is not surprised that the people of Earth, who think they live on a planet, accept unquestioningly that planets are the best things. I mean, they have invented this idea of a "habitable zone" that they think they're in the middle of! Of course they do! Their ego is flagrant, their hubris unbounded. Pluto is keeping its distance from all that silliness. Pluto's reminding us a better solar system is possible.

...Maybe it's time for me to go to bed?

Fish

Jan. 27th, 2015 09:53 pm
hollymath: (Default)
This story about the discovery of fish where people didn't think there'd be fish reminded me that at lunch today [livejournal.com profile] diffrentcolours told me about a fish that swims upside down just because it likes to.

This news delighted me, because one of the things that freaked me out about fish back when I was going fishing and had to touch them and look at their eyes was that there didn't seem to be any personality there, nothing above the level of instinct.

That biologists can't determine any evolutionary benefit or other justification for why the fish likes swimming upside down and thus are left with "they must like it" brings me both relief that fish might get to have preferences just for the fun of it and also amusement because I love being reminded that humans don't know everything.

So much of what we accept as fact turns out to be merely arbitrary convention. Who says life needs a planet with liquid water? Who says north is at the top? Who are we to tell fish which way is right-side-up anyway? What do our assumptions lead us to overlook?
hollymath: (Default)
I still remember Beagle 2, which was the subject of one of my first LJ entries to get lots of compliments and still one I'm fond of. So I remember poor doomed Beagle 2 fondly, too.

So I was amazed to read today that it's showed up on images taken of the Martian surface, painstakingly scrutinized for the little thing, which is just at the limits of the high-resolution photos. Apparently the entry, descent and landing sequence worked and it did indeed successfully land on Mars on Christmas Day 2003.

It'd never occurred to me that imaging on Mars could include looking for stuff we'd sent there, but apparently there'd been prvious searches for Beagle 2. It's not like they just stumbled across it; it sounds like it was tricky to find because it's so small.

People who'd worked on the project expressed happiness about these things, and while it must be nice to know what happened to Beagle 2, I can't help but think it'd add a little element of heartbreak to learn that the mission did so many things right, came so close to the success all those people had worked so hard for.
hollymath: (Default)
New Horizons is about to wake up!

New Horizons is a NASA mission to Pluto, its moons and even some other Kuiper Belt Objects in the neighborhood that are conveniently located (the Kuiper Belt is a bit like the asteroid belt, out where Pluto is).

As with Cassini, I feel such a strange sense of the time passing: I remember when both were launched thinking about how frustratingly, impossibly futuristic the dates of their eventual arrival seemed to me. Excited about Cassini in 1997, I had no idea what 2004 would be like. New Horizons launched two days before I got married; I think it's safe to say that that feels like a very long time ago!

So much has changed that Pluto was still a planet when New Horizons took off.

Of course, there's no less reason to go there now than there would've been before: I've always been happy with Pluto being a dwarf planet, but I'm still thrilled at this aptly-named mission: even Hubble, which can take beautiful intricate pictures of nebulae and galaxies and suchlike that are billions of light years away, still can only show us pictures of Pluto that are so pixilated it looks like a disco ball.

I'm still learning a lot about New Horizons, like that Pluto's satellites that've been discovered since its launch were given the names Nix and Hydra because they have the same initials as the mission. Also, it'd never really occurred to me that sending this spacecraft as quickly as possible towards Pluto so it'd get there before everybody working on it retired also meant that it would zoom past Pluto pretty quickly! New Horizons is traveling so fast that the actual close-approach part of the encounter happens in an incredibly short period; nearly all of the most important goals for the mission are met in the time from 2.5 hours before to 1 hour after closest approach.

Three and a half hours. After nine years of getting there. Of course, other observations will be going on for many months, but I still think it's incredible that any group of humans can so focus their energy and attention that everything needed to make this happen could be brought together with sufficient precision to make such a thing worthwhile. Like ESA landing a probe on a comet a few weeks ago. It's good for us, every now and then, to remember the far-reaching, forward-thinking organization and detail and ambition we humans are capable of bringing to something that for once doesn't kill or hurt or even make more miserable our fellow humans.
hollymath: (Default)
MAVEN's nearly to Mars! It'll get there when I'm sleeping.

This has snuck up on me a bit. Musing on this, I realized how much better an idea I had of space missions when I had twitter. It was such a great way to keep up with them, be they in planning, under construction, orbiting the Earth, on their way to Mars or Pluto or Mercury, or creeping up finally toward interstellar space.

Then for the first time since I left it I considered getting myself a twitter account...but only if I could follow spaceships (and telescopes!) and no humans at all.
hollymath: (Default)
Oh look, we're at it again.

(Except he said now Mars has that system of satellites? So that's sorted!)

Today we were working on our moonbase. Which featured conversational exchanges like "The Moon's eight light-seconds away, so we can Skype it because TCP/IP will work" and "We'd only need about, what, a hundred meters of extension cord? I've got a fifty meter one in the house."

Which might well be the one [livejournal.com profile] diffrentcolours just lent me along with his hedge trimmer. Because until we get to worry about protecting the solar panels from micrometeorites and the benefits of orbiting vs. flyby unmanned missions, I have to tackle the overgrown hedge in front of our house.
hollymath: (Default)
"And then there was...that guy..." [livejournal.com profile] haggis said, snapping her fingers to indicate it was on the tip of her tongue. We were watching a BBC documentary about chemistry.

"Lavoisier?" I said.

"Yes!" she said.

We chattered on about the topic under discussion on the TV -- Joseph Priestley (I'm so glad [livejournal.com profile] diffrentcolours said he confuses him with J.B. Priestley, too, because I always worry it's just me who does that...) and his "dephlogisticated air" -- for a few seconds.

Until Jim Al-Khalili said, "...Antoine Lavoisier..." on the TV, and [livejournal.com profile] diffrentcolours said "Yeah, Lavoisier, you guys just said that. You keep saying everything they say, like ten seconds before they do."

I thought that was a very nice compliment.

(Especially after I'd forgotten a few of the stages in how increasingly-heavier elements are made at the cores of stars, thanks to [livejournal.com profile] diffrentcolours telling me about this awesome version of the 2048 game. Gordy, my college astronomy teacher, would've been most disappointed in me for forgetting about deuterium, and the different isotopes of beryllium.)
hollymath: (Default)
The pointless U.S. government shutdown is sad and frustrating and tragic on so many levels, but the one that sticks with me for some reason is that the U.S. Antarctic program has to stop for a year.
Mostly we are sad. Frustrated. Angry at our government and ashamed to be Americans.
Even if the other furloughed government employees can go back to their jobs in days or weeks, these people can't.
Science is canceled. Science is seasonal. Krill don’t happen year round, nor do penguins and seals, or algae. Or fish or whales or albatrosses or access to glacier melt ponds or volcanoes. If it doesn’t happen now, it doesn’t happen this year.
They don't know if they'll get unemployment benefits. They don't know if they'll have jobs to come back to next year. Many don't even have homes to go back to, having rented or sublet theirs out for the duration of the time they expected to spend in Antarctica. They don't know if the instruments and buildings will be looked after enough to keep them from being permanently ruined by the cold.
We are part of an internationally codependent Antarctic system. What happens in the US, and therefore to us, could fuck science in Antarctica for so many stations and countries around the continent. McMurdo Station is a logistics hub for Australian, Russian, French, Italian, and New Zealand stations (and often others).
It's amazing to think of how far-reaching the U.S. government is, how much it does in wildly different fields not just throughout the country but around the world and, really, across the universe. Probably like most people, I don't usually think of NASA and national parks and hurricane tracking and Antarctic research all depending on this one thing. Of course if I stop to think about it I know all these are government functions, but most of the time they're things that should just be there, like oxygen or sunlight. It will be a while before I can take them for granted like that again.

Keenness

Oct. 9th, 2013 06:05 pm
hollymath: (Default)
I'm delighted that [livejournal.com profile] diffrentcolours said this is "the most Holly thing ever."

One of my highlights of last year was the weekend I spent in Cambridge, to see Alan Moore at the Science Festival but otherwise to hang out with friends of friends who were running an event called ThinkCon, which included Helen Keen, who did a very enthusiastic comedy routine about the early history of rocketry. (As another non-scientist lover of science, I was kicking myself that I hadn't thought of this as a career choice.)

One of the things she told us about was told us about youth "rocket clubs" in 1920s Germany and Russia whose members would greet each other with "Onward to Mars!"...and, a year and a half later, [livejournal.com profile] diffrentcolours and I are still doing that.

We like it because, well, not only is it more fun than just saying "hello," but it's so exuberant and optimistic (even on Monday mornings when we're not feeling it). Unencumbered by later Cold War tensions and the space race's arbitrary target of the dead Moon, early rocketeers were able to dream big and had reason to think the world would soon catch up with their ambitious greeting.

Anyway, I'm almost certainly going to the Lass o'Gowrie on Friday night to see space comedy women; if you're around do feel free to join me!
hollymath: (Default)


My favorite bit of this is that the options for "Do you understand particle theory?" are "yes" and "I love it!"
hollymath: (Default)
I just caught myself thinking, out of nowhere, If I had a couple of dogs, I'd call them Titan and Enceladus.

But if I had only one, I'd call it Enceladus.

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Holly

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