#HiddenFigures = Progress vs Bigotry

Hidden Figures, a movie based on Margot Lee Shetterly's novel about the Black women who helped send the first American into space, is essentially about a group of phenomenal women who worked harder and longer than their counterparts. Facing the intersection of racism and misogyny was a significant barrier to their ability to contribute to the best of their ability. But still, they rise.

I'm a sucker for movies about space, but I was also worried.  It's common for a feel good inspirational movie, in an attempt to show individual merit as overcoming all, to gloss over the difficulties of life in a specific era.  I hoped that the issues involved with race and gender were not minimized.  In fact, I hoped that progress and bigotry were properly shown as antagonists toward each other.  All progress, including science, has been hampered by bigotry.

I'm pleased to say that my worries went completely out the window.  Hidden Figures did a phenomenal job showing how the complexity of the science involved was further magnified by the discrimination of the early 60s.  

Katherine Johnson is a legend in NASA circles. One of her most important contributions to science was the main story arc in the film. She helped calculate the trajectories needed for the first Americans in space, the Mercury Seven, to launch and return successfully.  Bigotry almost prevented this early on - her neighborhood of Greenbrier County didn't school Black children past 8th grade. Katherine's parents had to rely on financial help from her teachers (most likely poor themselves, but saw promise in Katherine)  to send her to school in Katherine's parents the money to send her off to West Virginia.  After her education success, she had to break down another barrier by being the first African American female at the West Virginia University graduate school.  This was only made possible by a recent Supreme Court ruling Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada, which forced states to provide equivalent education to African Americans.

Johnson was portrayed as a proud widow who would not be talked down to or diminished. She knew her own value and she consistently pushed to have it recognized, whether it meant putting her name as co-author on a paper featuring her work or having a tense conversation with her boss about being invited to government briefings. She openly discussed the confusion over why she should have use a colored coffee pot, or why she should have to run across the NASA campus just to use the bathroom. Johnson also didn't need a man to define her.  She got with her husband, Jim Johnson, on her own terms. 

Mary Jackson

Mary Jackson

While the film was focused around Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan were also featured as amazing women who had to fight against bigotry every step of the way. Jackson was a more than capable mathematician that was refused an engineering position because NASA changed the requirements at the last minute, likely because they saw a Black woman applying for the position. Jackson had to go as far as to get court order to take the necessary classes at a white, male school in order to advance to become NASA's first Black female engineer. I'll never forget the judge's dry tone when speaking about how "segregation is the law of the state, no matter what the federal government says". Jackson essentially had to appeal to the judge's ego to get the court order, which felt dirty and sad, even though it was necessary and pragmatic. It just saddens me to see what my people needed to go through just to be given a CHANCE at being great.

Dorothy Vaughan

Dorothy Vaughan

Vaughan was a trailblazer in her own right. She managed the Black women "computers" who did the manual calculations for NASA, a group which initially included Jackson and Johnson. She was repeatedly refused a supervisor rank, even though she was doing the work of a supervisor. Vaughan saw the incoming automation of the computer task via IBM as an opportunity.  She studied the brand new Fortran programming language, and proved herself to be much more capable at programming the IBM than the white men tasked to the machine.  Her mastery of the language enabled her to teach her entire computing group. She then led these woman to become IBM programmers, giving them job security.  She eventually became NASA's first Black supervisor.

The only questionable part of the movie was when Al Harrison, director of the Space Task Group, showed how "good" NASA was by allowing the Black women to use the bathroom in the main building (how quaint!) after Johnson confronted him about having to run through all kinds of weather just to get to a colored restroom. Since Harrison was the face of politics in the movie, it seemed like an attempt to show the bigotry that Johnson, Jackson, and Vaughn felt to be that of only a few bad apples (like Johnson's rival Paul Stafford) instead of being systematically embedded into all fabric of life. A lesser movie would have focused only on the positives after this moment, so viewers can feel good about this "vindication" of merit over bigotry.  Hidden Figures avoids this trope and does a great job of staying on track and showing the struggle of progress vs bigotry up until the very end.  That struggle continues today.

Bad ass Black women. Bad ass science. GO SEE THIS MOVIE! And check out NASA's site dedicated to Hidden Figures as well as current employees deemed Modern Figures.

3D Africa Helps to Diversify STEM

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/3d-africa/x/9504175 Script by Dianna Bai http://diannabai.wordpress.com Music by Travis Geer https://soundcloud.com/travis-geer

Right now, you can drop a few thousand dollars on a 3D printer and start making your own plastic trinkets. We've covered these awesome machines at various places such as the Consumer Electronics Show, your favorite library, and the homes of charitable folk. Wouldn't it be awesome if 3D printers were available to a wider audience?

3D Africa is a project of Nigeria's Youth for Technology Foundation (YTF). The aim of the project is to help give young girls the skills and confidence to succeed in STEM, as well as encourage their entrepreneurial spirit. CEO Njideka Harry told Techcrunch that "There are cultural biases that hold that science is the domain of males and that it is not important for girls’ future lives and that girls are not as capable as boys when it comes to science learning.”

Africa has been exploited throughout its history, and the current generation still bears the brunt of history.  There are children, especially young girls, who are not properly prepared for careers to take them to the next level. According to Ideas Lab:

"Just as personal computers and the Internet empowered individuals and organizations to create new types of information technology-driven jobs, so will 3D fabrication technologies change the way African entrepreneurs do business by allowing anyone to make (almost) anything. Africa’s economies are not industrial-based, but rely instead on the exploitation and export of the continent’s abundant natural resources. For example, the trade relationship between Africa and China, under which Africa exports raw minerals and imports manufactured goods, is estimated at about $166 billion. 3D printing technologies will help African citizens generate income independent of these kinds of relationships."

From the Indiegogo site, your donation will go towards the following:

  • Equipment costs (3D printers, scanners, classroom projectors)
  • Software, design tools & art supplies
  • Transportation subsidies for students and teachers 
  • Digital cameras
  • Key personnel costs  
  • Family/outreach days

Donate today!

Ebola Isn't Just Fear Mongering

There have been many accusations that the current Ebola outbreak is another example of fear mongering, or deliberately focusing on the fear involved with an issue. This could not be further from the truth.  It's important to understand that Ebola is a very serious fever that is often fatal in humans. The World Heath Organizations (WHO) defines the current Ebola outbreak as "the largest and most complex Ebola outbreak since the Ebola virus was first discovered in 1976." 

There has been a lot of false information flying around the news, mostly from people that are not versed in science. Check out two scientific sources below for some great facts on this disease:

From Dr. Calelph Wilson's story in Ebony:

"Evidenced-based information is critical.  Social media such as Twitter is a rapid way to access expert information and conversations on Ebola. For example, the National Science & Technology News Service (NSTNS, of which I am a member) recently hosted an Ebola Twitter chat with Professor A.O. Fuller, a virus expert from the University of Michigan. There are a host of Ebola virus related hashtags with very good information. It is critical to avoid sources that claim that Ebola is a hoax, a conspiracy or isn’t real without any basis."

From Dr. Marshall Shepherd's story in the Washington Post:

"I suspect that federal agencies like NIH and CDC have also suffered from gamesmanship. I can’t imagine that they have not been diligently thinking about the Ebola problem for years. However, I can imagine that budget cuts and other stresses on the science infrastructure and funding agencies would affect capability. "

Check them out and get educated by scientists!

Thank The Moon, Think of Mars #Apollo45

Image Credit: NASA

Image Credit: NASA

When US astronauts successfully walked on the moon 45 years ago, it was the culmination of years of science being leveraged to do something that most thought was impossible. Unfortunately, this was not done solely for the sake of science - it was also to have a leg up on the Soviet Union. The US was "behind" in the Cold War space race, since the Soviet Union launched the first satellite (Sputnik) and the first man in space (Yuri Gagarin).

Image Credit: NASA

Image Credit: NASA

With NASA's new plan, entitled Next Giant Leap, to launch manned missions to Mars, we have an opportunity to leverage the positive scientific aspects of the moon landing without the xenophobia and Cold War mentality that perpetrated it. This time, we're doing it just for the science, and it involves a freaking ASTEROID.  

By practicing with the moon and an asteroid, our astronauts can learn how to become reliant on being in space for the several months that it takes to get to Mars. The space shuttle has been retired, but NASA is building a more powerful rocket (the Space Launch System or SLS) to carry the new Orion spacecraft to Mars.  Exciting days are ahead!

Cassini Liked It So He Put A Ring On It

Saturn in natural color, photographed by    Cassini   , 2004

Saturn in natural color, photographed by Cassini, 2004

If you've seen a recent photo of Saturn (such as the one above), it's likely from the Cassini spacecraft. The 10th anniversary of the Cassini spacecraft reaching the Saturn system (the planet and its moons) occurred on June 30th.  The spacecraft is named after Giovanni Cassini, an accomplished scientist who, among other things, noted a gap between the rings of Saturn now known as the Cassini Division. This is the dark area within the rings of the above photo.

Ten years later, and our understanding of our system has been greatly enhanced by the discoveries of the Cassini spacecraft. Check out an infographic followed by the top 10 accomplishments of the program:

Below are the top accomplishments from the Cassini spacecraft in the past 10 years:

-- The Huygens probe makes first landing on a moon in the outer solar system (Titan)

-- Discovery of active, icy plumes on the Saturnian moon Enceladus

-- Saturn’s rings revealed as active and dynamic -- a laboratory for how planets form

-- Titan revealed as an Earth-like world with rain, rivers, lakes and seas

-- Studies of Saturn's great northern storm of 2010-2011

-- Studies reveal radio-wave patterns are not tied to Saturn’s interior rotation, as previously thought

-- Vertical structures in the rings imaged for the first time

-- Study of prebiotic chemistry on Titan

-- Mystery of the dual, bright-dark surface of the moon Iapetus solved

-- First complete view of the north polar hexagon and discovery of giant hurricanes at both of Saturn's poles

Check out the infograph below for a nice summary:

Check out the top Saturn images selected by the Cassini team!