Ada Lovelace Day heroine: Carolyn Porco

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, the celebration of women in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) – from the eponymous first lady of computing, right down through to the present day. The Finding Ada project was started by Suw Charman-Anderson in 2009, with a pledge from almost two thousand people to write a blogpost about a female scientist they find inspiring.

My pick for ALD this year is planetary scientist and science communicator Dr. Carolyn Porco.

If you don’t know Dr. Porco by name, you almost certainly know some of her ‘colleagues’: Voyager, New Horizons, and especially Cassini, the Saturn orbiter which sends back the kind of awe-inspiring photos that make you want to sell the farm and hop on the next rocket off this planet. Dr. Porco is the imaging director of the Cassini mission, which means that she’s not only responsible for those wonderful pictures, she’s also one of the world’s leading experts on Saturn, its rings, and its moons.

Dr. Porco became fascinated with astronomy at a young age, and worked her way up to the Voyager imaging team as a doctoral student. The 1970s were not an easy time to be a female astronomer – the field was overwhelmingly male and full of men she once described as “schoolyard toughs*”. Not a lot comes easy for women in traditionally male fields like physics, and anyone who makes it to the top will have had to employ an iron will as well as a sharp intellect. It’s unsurprising, then, that she has been more than capable of the two decades of hard work the Cassini leadership has required.

To return to earth for a minute: astronomy has always seemed to me to be one of the most enthralling branches of the sciences. As a kid I pored over charts about the solar system; as an adult I still find looking through a telescope or photographing the moon to be a thrilling experience. I’m not a scientist by training or even by talent, but I’m fascinated by the thought of other worlds and the prospect of yet-unknown discoveries. It’s a siren call to anyone with an inquisitive mind – as Carl Sagan said, “Exploration is in our nature. We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still.”

This brings me to my second reason for choosing Carolyn Porco to write about for ALD: she is an unparalleled science communicator. Her talks and interviews overflow with enthusiasm for her work, and she presents her findings clearly and comprehensibly to experts and laypeople alike. Her TED talks (2007 and 2009, both on Cassini’s discoveries about the Saturnian system) are especially worth watching for anyone interested in space exploration and its possibilities for the future.

“Saturn is such an alluring photographic target. It’s a joy, really, to be able to take our images and composite them in an artful way, which is one of my cardinal working goals. It’s about poetry and beauty and science all mixed together.”**

The world needs more women like Carolyn Porco. Thank you for sharing your worlds with us.

I am participating in Ada Lovelace Day because:

I believe that science is an investment in the future of humanity and an instrument of enlightment for the present. I believe that science should be accessible and comprehensible to everybody at their own level. I believe that all women and girls should be given the inspiration and opportunity to engage with science. I believe that science is for everybody.

Join in?

NOTES

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wiki page and twitter

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