Things Are Looking Up: Uniting to Explore Our Universe
Dr. Pamela Gay is an astronomer, writer, and podcaster focused on using new media to engage people in science and technology. Her best-known project is Astronomy Cast, a podcast in its thirteenth year that she co-hosts with Fraser Cain (producer of Universe Today). She also helped build the CosmoQuest virtual research facility, a second-generation citizen science site designed to provide the public with opportunities to participate in NASA-related science programs, while also giving them access to online seminars, star parties, classes, and more.
Dr. Gay’s passion for science communications is evident in her work blogging about astronomy at StarStryder.com, and in frequent public talks and popular articles in Astronomy, Sky and Telescope, and Lightspeed magazines, and in appearances on TV shows like The Universe. She received a BS in astrophysics from Michigan State University in 1996 and a PhD in astronomy from the University of Texas in 2002. Today, Gay is the director of CosmoQuest and a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute (the largest non-governmental employer of planetary scientists in the world). Although her first research love was and remains variable stars, she has also used her technology skills to explore the secrets of galaxy evolution and planetary surface geology.
In a 2012 interview with God & Nature magazine, Gay spoke about her Christian faith and how important she thinks it is to combat anti-science positions held by religious fundamentalists. “People who deny science are denying how detailed and beautiful the cosmos really is. They’re living in a universe that is just too small.”
Dr. Gay received the American Humanist Association’s 2019 Isaac Asimov Science Award at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on June 7, the first segment of the AHA’s first-ever free, livestreamed rolling conference. Her remarks are adapted here with her permission.
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 five. Gone is the family tree of the Greek gods I memorized in fifth grade. There is an inexplicable alchemy to what is remembered—did you know that birds can’t fart, wombats poop cubes, and Ceres was a former planet more than seventy years before Pluto was even discovered? Some things, I just can’t forget.
There’s one school memory that stays with me. I was about twelve years old—a seventh grader—and a boy was teasing me for my intelligence as we all lined up to go inside one morning. I can remember the crowding, the noise, and his taunt: “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 who strive every day to expand humanity’s understanding of this universe we share.
I see echoes 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. 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 Sears-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. (Tune in to catch “Daily Space,” most weekdays at 1pm EDT on Twitch.tv/CosmoQuestX.)
It was in science and science fiction that I found my home and where I still reside. I grew up in a small town in Massachusetts. The middle school teasing—when you’re a girl interested in science—it never really goes away. I was a Cold War child, a Gen Xer, growing up to a soundtrack of Billy Joel reminding me that we didn’t start the fire, but we tried to fight it.
It was in Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway of Carl 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 Isaac 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 Arroway, 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’s 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 there that are bigger than me—racism, increasing economic inequality—heck, I had to shut down Twitter the other day because of a picture of an abandoned pit bull I don’t have the ability to adopt, and I shut it down the next day because of the image of a pregnant orangutan clinging to the last tree in a bulldozed forest. There is so much I can’t fix, and some days I feel so impotent and fear our ecosystem is collapsing. I’m haunted by that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called, “The Inner Light,” where Jean-Luc Picard lives out a dead man’s life through a space probe’s simulation—all that’s left of a dried-out world’s civilization.
There is so much I can’t do. But there is one thing I can do. I can science. And so can you.
I recently recruited what I term citizen scientists to help a tiny spacecraft called OSIRIS-REx find a safe place to grab soil samples from the asteroid Bennu. At Bennu.cosmoquest.org they helped me map out all the potential hazards that cover Bennu’s surface. This half-kilometer-across asteroid was 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 was tedious work that required digitally tracing out the lengths of the boulders and dotting the centers of the hundreds of rocks that filled each image. We had roughly 4,500 images that each needed to be viewed by fifteen people so that our spacecraft could start doing higher-resolution follow-up images of the best-looking regions.
It may seem like folly to say, “Come, while the world (along with our Twitter feed) burns, let’s map rocks on an asteroid so many millions of miles away.” But this is something real, and it’s 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 color of our skin, what pronoun we choose, who we love, or in what god or gods we do or don’t believe. All of us 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 that 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’s a project called Stall Catchers that needs you to help map human brains to better understand Alzheimer’s disease. There’s the project Budburst 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 the American Humanist Association first contacted me to say they wanted to give me the Isaac Asimov Science Award, I admit that I had to do a quick review of Asimov’s life. Like everyone one else, I think Nightfall is amazing. I read his Galactic Empire and Foundation series ten years ago in a summer binge. I loved them mostly—there are slow bits and not everything stands the test of time—but 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 accepting the award, I needed 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’s possible. And I dream that the society he fought for and imagined will become the new normal—not just in fiction but also in science.
I’d like to believe Asimov would help me mark rocks and measure boulders at CosmoQuest. Since he can’t, will you? Together we can explore this universe.
I wish he were still here. He died the year I graduated from high school. But there’s something I wrote as I defined the CosmoQuest community that I think would make him proud, and I’d like to share it with you:
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 color, 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.
I’m just a scientist. Just a girl who wants to know everything. A science-fiction reader who dreams of a world where we’re all united to do something. Just a person trying to make that place where we can all learn and do science together.
Thank you for this award, which ties my name to Isaac 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 this universe.
Q: How would you suggest we improve early education in science? Because there are too many education systems, including religious ones, all over the world that don’t teach it well.
Pamela Gay: So there are two things I want to say—the first is a reaction to the question and the second is an answer. The reaction part is we need to be very careful with our language. The Catholic Church runs some of the best observatories in the world that are doing cutting-edge science. The reason that much of today’s science and math survived the Dark Ages is the religion of Islam and its people writing down what was lost in Europe.
We need to recognize that there are crazies among us in all walks of life who are willing to disregard the world as it’s taught to us by science. Sure, a lot of them are extremist Christians. A lot of them are being taught to disregard science in these extreme fundamentalist environments. But we need to make sure to remember all of our adjectives, because there’s a problem when people of faith hear scientists who are atheists basically say that religious people don’t know science. People hear that and think, “I can’t learn this, I’m going to leave.” That is a problem.
The next thing we need to do is inspire curiosity. We all forgot what we learned in fifth grade science. Heck, I forgot a lot of what I knew in ninth grade science. Back then, I got a perfect score on my biology SATs. Nowadays, I remember the phrase Krebs cycle—I have no idea what it is. We need to encourage people’s curiosity, teach them the scientific technique, teach them the power of data and exploration, and get them to keep asking questions. People can argue the exact curriculum until the sun goes down—until the sun blows up!—and no one will have an answer. But curiosity, participatory science, and hands-on engagement that teaches kids how to learn, that’s what needs to happen.
Q: What do you think about the way people’s natural, scientific curiosity is sometimes satisfied by mainstream pseudoscience? Like in your field, for example, how they’re drawn to astrology.
Pamela Gay: One of my favorite things to point out to people who are really into astrology is that there are actually thirteen constellations the sun passes through. The constellations come in a whole variety of different sizes. Cancer is luckily small, Scorpius is not, and Sagittarius sits somewhere in between. There’s Ophiuchus sitting next to it, but we don’t talk about Ophiuchus. According to the Greek-based zodiac signs that are used in modern horoscopes in most of the Western world, all those constellations are the exact same size, because it’s just how they marked up their year. That doesn’t make sense. If the sun was in Ophiuchus when I was born, why am I called a Sagittarius?
Q: I think we all agree there’s a problem with Earth’s environment. We look at the sky and we get very inspired thinking of a potential future in the stars. (And Star Trek promised me warp drive.) As an astronomer who probably has similar feelings, what do you think about the talk of going to the Moon or Mars or somewhere else as a solution to destroying this planet?
Pamela Gay: It’s not a solution. I love science fiction. There’s a Neal Stephenson novel in which Earth has become almost uninhabitable but we’re working to reestablish it. They have worked to support the life that can’t exist on our world with so much difficulty in spun-up, hollowed-out asteroids and artificial ecosystems in other worlds. And it’s a struggle that goes on for generation upon generation upon generation because it’s so hard to rehabilitate a world.
The majority of the world’s populations reside along coasts. The majority of our world’s populations are going to be displaced. Our economy is going to crash. Our planet is going to be fine. It’s a planet; it doesn’t care. But its ability to support life as life exists now, we already see so much being lost. And this is the only world that supports us today. We don’t know how to get to Mars without destroying life through radiation poisoning, and that is a problem. Mars can’t support us. The Moon is basically death on orbit. One bad coronal mass ejection and if you aren’t in a cave, you’re gone. And I’m really worried that we’re on our way to being gone. That’s all I’ve got. Sorry to end on that note. Can we have one short happy question?
Q: Is it true that half the field of astronomy is made up of women scientists?
Pamela Gay: That was not a happy question. No, at the senior level we’re like 11 percent. Sexism is real. Just google my name and harassments, it’s all you need to do. Can we now have something like a black hole-related question?
Q: Are we living in a simulation?
Pamela Gay: I don’t think so. As a software developer, there are not nearly enough programming errors for us to be a simulation. Okay, that was cheerful at least, you laughed!