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Remembering Dr Sally Ride (1951-2012)

When I was girl I thought I would grow up to be a scientist — and an astronaut. I built space stations out of cardboard and tinfoil, and made sure that my super awesome science lab was the biggest room.

A is for Astronaut. (A is for Anne!)

I can still remember watching the STS-7 Challenger launch in 1983, and even though I had seen other launches, I remember that one being different — being special — because NASA was sending a woman into space for the first time.

The day after the launch, Gloria Steinem said that “Millions of little girls are going to sit by their television sets and see they can be astronauts, heroes, explorers and scientists.”

I was one of those girls.

Other people told me I could be an astronaut, but Dr Sally Ride showed me. And that made her a real life — real live — hero.

I also remember being a bit jealous of Grundgetta, Oscar’s Grouch girlfriend, when she got to hang out with Sally on Sesame Street in 1984. I figured that she was always smiling because she got to go into space. And true enough, when the shuttle returned to Earth, Dr Ride told reporters, “I’m sure it was the most fun that I’ll ever have in my life.

To be honest, I haven’t thought about Sally Ride in a long time. Maybe even since I gave up my dreams of being an astronaut. But yesterday, when I found out she was dead, I remembered and I cried.

According to the Sally Ride Science website:

“Sally lived her life to the fullest, with boundless energy, curiosity, intelligence, passion, joy, and love. Her integrity was absolute; her spirit was immeasurable; her approach to life was fearless.

In addition to Tam O’Shaughnessy, her partner of 27 years, Sally is survived by her mother, Joyce; her sister, Bear; her niece, Caitlin, and nephew, Whitney; her staff of 40 at Sally Ride Science; and many friends and colleagues around the country.

Donations can be made to the Sally Ride Pancreatic Cancer Initiative.”

As an adult — older now than she was then — I can truly appreciate the kind of calm confidence it must have taken to bear the media attention she received:

“Speaking to reporters before the first shuttle flight, Dr. Ride — chosen in part because she was known for keeping her cool under stress — politely endured a barrage of questions focused on her sex: Would spaceflight affect her reproductive organs? Did she plan to have children? Would she wear a bra or makeup in space? Did she cry on the job? How would she deal with menstruation in space?

The CBS News reporter Diane Sawyer asked her to demonstrate a newly installed privacy curtain around the shuttle’s toilet. On ‘The Tonight Show,’ Johnny Carson joked that the shuttle flight would be delayed because Dr. Ride had to find a purse to match her shoes.

At a NASA news conference, Dr. Ride said: ‘It’s too bad this is such a big deal. It’s too bad our society isn’t further along’.”

When reporters dared to bring up her boobs, Ride very coolly responded “There is no sag in zero G.” My response to any of these questions would have likely excluded me from the astronaut ranks, and definitely precluded any future interviews or public appearances.

But Dr Ride was so much more than the first American woman in space. By all accounts, she was an accomplished physicist, an inspiring teacher and writer of children’s books, and ceaseless advocate for the inclusion of girls and young women in STEM education and careers.

She also served on the panel that investigated the Challenger accident and, in addition to providing her professional expertise, demonstrated extraordinary personal grace and compassion:

“One witness was Roger Boisjoly, an engineer who had worked for the company that made the shuttle’s rocket boosters and who had been shunned by colleagues for revealing that he had warned his bosses and NASA that the boosters’ seals, called O-rings, could fail in cold weather. The Challenger had taken off on a cold morning.

After his testimony, Dr. Ride, who was known to be reserved and reticent, publicly hugged him. She was the only panelist to offer him support. Mr. Boisjoly, who died in January, said her gesture had helped sustain him during a troubled time.”

And although Dr Ride probably wouldn’t have made much of this either, I think the Huffington Post did right by reminding everyone:

“This is what a lesbian looks like: Sally Ride: physicist; author of seven science books for children; member of the space shuttle Challenger crew; member of the President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology; director of the California Science Institute; inductee into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, the California Hall of Fame, the Aviation Hall of Fame, and the Astronaut Hall of Fame; recipient of the Jefferson Award for Public Service, the von Braun Award, the Lindbergh Eagle, the NCAA’s Theodore Roosevelt Award, and the NASA Space Flight Medal (twice).”

Sally Kristen Ride was will always be my hero.

But I’ll leave the last words to Denise Grady in the NYTimes:

“Dr. Ride told interviewers that what drove her was not the desire to become famous or to make history as the first woman in space. All she wanted to do was fly, she said, to soar into space, float around weightless inside the shuttle, look out at the heavens and gaze back at Earth. In photographs of her afloat in the spaceship, she was grinning, as if she had at long last reached the place she was meant to be.”

From the PLSJ archives: An Extraordinary Mind

I used to write a blog called purselipsquarejaw and every so often I miss it.

So I’ve decided to re-publish some of the archive here, hopefully on a semi-regular basis, with updated links wherever possible, and sometimes with new commentary.

Monday, January 27, 2003
An Extraordinary Mind

German-Canadian experimental physicist Ursula Franklin is one of the scholars I most admire – even if I do not always agree with her. I was first introduced to her work during my BA. She was a pioneer of archaeometry (materials analysis in archaeology) and has studied the metallurgical material culture (and technological processes) of many ancient cultures. And in my technology and culture class, we read her 1989 Massey Lecture, The Real World of Technology. [CBC audio here and the expanded book version here.]

There’s a stack of books I read in my undergrad that changed the way I think – and that was one of them. She never separates technology from people:

“I think what we are all discussing are political issues. They are political in the best sense of the word, in the original Greek sense of the word, in that they affect the community, the very citizens who have to work and live together. When all the technology is disposed of, when we have understood or put aside all the details, what is left are the issues of how people live together. These political issues have existed ever since people have lived together and were articulate about their relationships.

To me, it is important to understand that technology is practice, it is the way we do things around here. This definition takes machines and devices into account, as well as social structures, command, control, and infrastructures. It is helpful for me to remember that technology is practice. Technology, as a practice, means not only that new tools change, but also that we can change the practice. If we have the political will to do so, we can set certain tools aside, just as the world has set slavery and other tools aside. It is also the nature of modern technology that it is a system. One cannot change one thing without changing or affecting many others.”

And today – instead of arguing details – I just want to let myself be inspired by her general concerns.

I still admire Ursula Franklin, and I think I’ve even come around to more of her thinking since my original post.

In 1967, Franklin became the first woman Professor of Metallurgy and Materials Science at the University of Toronto, and in 1984 she was the first woman appointed University Professor, U. of T.’s highest rank. At this stage in my own academic career, I can better appreciate what a big deal that is.

She’s also a convinced Quaker, and her work continues to be guided by feminist and humanitarian principles. You can learn more about her views in a 2010 interview for CBC’s The Current – here’s the video part 1 and part 2.

Plus, if I had children I’d want them to consider attending the Ursula Franklin Academy – it sounds interesting.

But really, I chose this post to start with because I’d forgotten how good Franklin is at explaining the human dimensions and political stakes of technology. I think I’ll start re-reading The Real World of Technology tonight.

Re-designing merino: ”We need to put a ram on the moon!”

Tomorrow I’ll be attending the New Zealand Merino Company conference, the NZM Stampede, in Christchurch.

While Federated Farmer’s President Don Nicholson has said that the wool industry needs research anarchy, John Brakenridge, CEO of the NZ Merino Co, is aiming for “a ram on the moon.”

Early last year we made two videos on NZ merino wool’s transition from a commodity to a brand, and Brakenridge has been active in this shift. The Stanford Graduate School of Business’ NZM case study outlines how the NZ merino wool industry works, and today the merino sector “has about $100 million of forward contracts in place, insulating farmers from drops in the commodity market and protecting brands from price spikes.”

Brakenridge recently gave a presentation at Better By Design‘s 2012 CEO Summit, where he talked about how NZM wants to be the “smartest, most robust and valuable” part of NZ’s primary sector, effectively by “re-designing” the sheep:

Stay tuned for a summary of the conference!

I could have been Marie Curie’s friend

When I was a girl I thought I would grow up to be a scientist. I spent hours at my workbench, patiently cutting cross-sections with a razor blade and drawing liquids into a pipette before placing my specimens on the glass slides and gently dropping the cover slips over them. I painstakingly labelled each one, and dutifully took notes on what I saw through my microscope. There was a comforting carefulness to the work, and the very idea that cells existed was magical to me. I even went through a phase of collecting samples from my own body, marveling at the reality that I was an assemblage of so many different forms of life. I loved what I was doing, and felt as though my love was rewarded with the knowledge I gained.

As a child, the only female scientist I had ever heard of was Marie Curie. My teachers always held her up as a hero, but in retrospect, never as a person. The only thing I knew at the time was that she was brilliant and her work eventually killed her–which I assumed had been worth it because of how beautiful it all was. (For some reason, I thought that was the heroic bit.)

“Certain bodies . . . become luminous when heated. Their luminosity disappears after some time, but the capacity of becoming luminous afresh through heat is restored to them by the action of a spark, and also by the action of radium.

The compounds of radium are spontaneously luminous. The chloride and bromide, freshly prepared and free from water, emit a light which resembles that of a glow-worm. This light diminishes rapidly in moist air . . . but . . . never completely disappears.

These gleamings, which seemed suspended in darkness, stirred us with new emotion and enchantment . . . The glowing tubes looked like faint fairy lights.”

~ Marie Curie, as cited in Radioactive

But of course it was not so simple, and people do not live on research alone. Marya Sklodowska changed her name just so she could go to the Sorbonne and study physics. She became the first female doctorate in France and despite being the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize (with her husband Pierre), she was too ill to travel to Stockholm for the ceremony because she had recently suffered a miscarriage. Although she eventually had two daughters, she also noted that reconciling family life with a scientific career was not easy. Marie suffered horrible depression, and even though she was named the first woman professor in the Sorbonne’s 650 year history, it took the death of her husband to achieve that status. Several years later, she fell in love again and became the first person–man or woman–to win a second Nobel Prize. However, her lover and fellow scientist Paul Langevin was married, and his wife made their affair public after he refused to give her money and custody of the children. Marie suffered terribly as a result. At a time when it was not uncommon for her male colleagues to openly have mistresses, she was insulted and ridiculed by the press for her actions.

Fellow scientists wrote to the Swedish Academy, and directly to Marie, suggesting that her behaviour would taint the ceremonies, if not the award itself, and asking her not to accept it in person. To her credit, Marie responded that she would attend the Nobel ceremony because she saw “no connection between [her] scientific work and the facts of private life” and she successfully collected her award in 1911. However, the public scandal effectively ended her romance with Langevin and she eventually suffered a nervous breakdown that led her to leave Paris for some time. Marie returned to France to help in the war effort, bringing X-ray units directly to the battlefields for the first time. Without Pierre or Paul at her side, Marie started working with her daughter Irène, and she gained positive public attention for their work. (In 1935, Irène, with her husband Frédéric Joliot, became the second woman to win the Nobel Prize; she later died of leukemia, also brought on by her research.) But the new found fame proved difficult, and Marie became more and more withdrawn. By the early 1930s, it was clear that she was ill with radiation sickness and only getting worse. She kept track of doctors’ visits and her bodily deterioration like any other experiment, and her last months were spent feeling her way around the lab, as cataracts robbed her of her sight. On 4 July, 1934 Marie’s final words began, “I am absent… I can no longer express myself… ”

Power (excerpt)

Today I was reading about Marie Curie:
she must have known she suffered from radiation sickness
her body bombarded for years by the element
she had purified
It seems she denied to the end
the source of the cataracts on her eyes
the cracked and suppurating skin of her finger-ends
till she could no longer hold a test tube or pencil

She died a famous woman denying
her wounds
her wounds came from the same source as her power.

~ Adrienne Rich, 1974

I understand why Marie Curie is held up as a romantic intellectual hero, and I think it’s a mistake.

Because when I think of her as a person, I know we could have been friends.

And maybe, just maybe, I would have become a life scientist.

More thoughts on writing and making

In the comments to my last post on writing as making, Peter Richardson wrote something that’s sticking with me:

“I suspect makers (and coders in particular, myself included) tend to view non-code text as an unstable, somewhat shifty medium.”

And Matt Jones later gave a similar reply to my original question about why writing isn’t Making:

"the fleshy machines you run your code on are notoriously unreliable"

Unstable. Shifty. Unreliable.

Yes please!

I love that people and our words are all those things. As I replied to Peter, and would say to Matt, I prefer the sense of potential that comes from this kind of material and making.

It’s less prescriptive. Less efficient. Less technological. Less machinic.

More space to become something, someone else.


“Here all is in life and motion; here we behold the true Poet or Maker.”

- J. Warton, Essays on Pope (1782)

Starting in the 1400s, and for four hundred-odd years, the title of “maker” (and especially the Scottish “makar”) was given to those we later called “poet.” This sense of making comes from “poiesis” or “poesis” (from the ancient Greek ποίησις creation, production, poetry, a poem; ποιεῖν to make, create, produce). We still use this sense of poetics whenever we speak of people who imaginatively synthesise existing things in order to create other, new things. Behold the Poet Hacker!

Along these lines, my friend Virginia pointed me to Robert Creeley’s essay, “From the Language Poets,” which begins:

“Whatever poetry may prove to be at last, the very word (from the Greek poiein , ‘to make’) determines a made thing, a construct, a literal system of words. We are, of course, far more likely to think of a poem as a pleasing sentiment, a lyric impulse, an expression of feeling that can engage the reader or listener in some intensive manner. But, whatever our disposition, it is well to remember that there is a diversity of ‘poetries’ in our world.”

And my friend Courtney currently has me reading Patrick Ness’ very good YA novel, The Knife of Never Letting Go, which has this lovely passage:

“Cuz all I know about Viola is what she says. The only truth I got is what comes outta her mouth and so for a second back there, when she said she was Hildy and I was Ben and we were from Farbranch and she spoke just like Wilf (even tho he ain’t from Farbranch) it was like all those things became true, just for an instant the world changed, just for a second it became made of Viola’s voice and it wasn’t describing a thing, it was making a thing, it was making us different just by saying it.” (emphasis in original)

Language doesn’t just make things–it assembles, cobbles together, entire worlds and all the relations within.


I don’t mean to romanticise words and writing. And I don’t mean to suggest they are divorced from technology or machines or even code.

By identifying what is included in our definitions of making or Making–and asking what is excluded–we might, as Ben Highmore writes in the introduction to The Everyday Life Reader, be able to “find new commonalities and breathe new life into old differences.”

And I’m pretty sure there’s lots more to be thought and said about what gets made, how, when and where it gets made, and by whom it gets made.

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