the skeptic, the witch, and the tarot: in search of narrativium

I turn the cards. The Moon – writing, dreams, foreshadowing. The Five of Swords – depression, defeat. The Knave of Pentacles – obstinacy, but financial smarts. I’m connecting the images, trying to pull out the thread linking them. My friend is watching me, trying not to let emotions play across her face. She’s not doing well. I turn another card. The Three of Wands – sucess through hard work. Story time.

Here are some facts: tarot is cold-reading in the vein of psychics. It’s beautiful symbolism, but it’s all an act.

Some other, less obvious facts: I read tarot. I learned from a friend several years ago. I adore tarot art, and the meanings behind the cards. I love surprising people with it.

I’m an endlessly thwarted writer of fiction, and a fairly scrappy writer of non-fiction, but there’s something in the idea of bringing together links, symbols, and art to produce a narrative that I find irresistable. Add in the cold-reading and you keep yourself on the hop, but that’s not the point. The point is the story.

In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld universe, Narrativium is a natural element in the vein of earth and fire. It ensures that the world works as a story. It lies where choice turns into inevitability; lies counter to free will even as those inside the narrative imagine themselves to be acting freely. Narrativium enters both deep magic and prosaic human interactions.

Narrativium is not an element in the accepted sense. It is an attribute of every other element, thus turning them into, in an occult sense, molecules. Iron contains not just iron, but also the story of iron, the history of iron, the part of iron that ensures that it will continue to be iron and has an iron-like job to do, and is not for example, cheese. Without narrativium, the cosmos has no story, no purpose, no destination.

Isn’t that a marvellous concept? Free-flowing story. Story in the air, in the ground, in ourselves. Story functioning alone, with no purpose other than its own completion. Impassable, like evolution and the earth’s rotation.

Philip Pullman uses a similar concept in his His Dark Materials trilogy, with an elementary particle called Dust that appears when lifeforms become sentient, and inspires knowledge and consciousness. Dust we have, and unto Dust we return the lifegiving force of thought. Sentient beings inspired by the universe, and needed by that same universe. It’s a beautiful idea which taps into the intense desire our species has to feel a connection to our physical and mental places.

We have always had a drive to paint stories on to the Universe. When humans first looked at the stars, which are great flaming suns an unimaginable distance away, they saw in amongst them giant bulls, dragons, and local heroes. This human trait doesn’t affect what the rules say — not much, anyway — but it does determine which rules we are willing to contemplate in the first place. Moreover, the rules of the universe have to be able to produce everything that we humans observe, which introduce a kind of narrative imperative into science, too. Humans think in stories…

We do. We can see streaks of victory and loss in the results of a coin toss; we cheer for the gazelle or the leopard in an Attenborough documentary. Even the Higgs Boson stories from last year were written as if the universe somehow worked to produce us. We don’t like to believe we’re a blip on the record, and to stop ourselves falling into the Total Perspective Vortex of the infinite, we tell each other stories about a big man who lives in, and yet not in, the sky, or twins raised by wolves who founded a city, or cycles of reincarnation that mean our own story will go on after this life ends.

Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, who co-write the Science of Discworld books, refer to humans as Pan narrans – the story-telling ape. Far from the ‘wise man’ label of Homo sapiens, it is not our intelligence that marks us as different from the other branches of our evolutionary tree. It’s our imagination.

And so back to the tarot. Tarot deals with the big questions – life, love, people. There are different layouts used for various purposes, ranging from a simple one-/two-card draw on an immediate dilemma, to a full spread of past-present-future including influences and inner thoughts. You learn the meanings, you deal the cards, you watch your questioner very carefully, and you start to talk. Talking around the topic is the easiest thing to do – so you get, say, a Knave card, and you mention something about a young man. Get a Swords card next to him, and you ask if they’ve had a problem or a bad experience with a young man. Speak in generalities, and then when you see something register on your questioner’s behaviour, grab that thread and run with it.

The story is open-ended. Oh, we have banal things in common (find me someone who hasn’t had trouble with or about a young man), but we each have our incredibly disparate paths to walk. Story guides us. We live in a pattern of stories, led and gently pushed into place by the part of our brains that’s absorbed the patterns of narrative in the media we’ve consumed. The brain wants stories, wants order. The brain would dearly love to encounter some narrativium instead of just feeling like it should be there. We build ourselves castles of happily-ever-after, or models of justice in which good guys are vindicated and bad guys are punished. In a world so unpredictable, we crave certainty.

We are so curious, too. We want to know what lies ahead for us, and what’s currently going on in the minds of our peers. We consume the lives of others, real or fictional, in a voracious desire for insight. Then we play the game with ourselves: will I ever know what’s going to happen to me? Small wonder that so many people end up consulting fake fortune-tellers for a window into the future.

In another Discworld book, the old witch Granny Weatherwax disapproves of displays of magic and occult paraphernalia as being ‘myffic’. The myffic, in Granny’s estimation, includes any airy-fairy claims to, and ways of practicing, magic. Granny knows that magic exists – she is a witch, after all – but she understands that most of what people think of as magic is really ‘headology’. The trappings of magic don’t matter as much as belief.

The human brain is an amazing machine. Our need for belief and creativity (and either and both) is a deeply-rooted part of our consciousness. We’re drawn to expressions of those traits, and when we reach a point where knowledge is impossible – like predicting the future – we turn to each other to provide answers. Tarot cards are a visual language with symbolic meaning, but they’re not where the power lies. The power is in the human connection between reader and listener.

It always is.

Some interesting links about storytelling and the brain out of this article on Lifehacker.

Quotes are from The Science of Discworld books, by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, and Jack Cohen. I recommend His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman as well. Granny Weatherwax appears as herself. SHE ATEN’T DEAD.

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please don’t watch the Grand National

Nothing clever here today, just an honest plea: don’t watch the Grand National this Saturday.

The Grand National is the toughest and longest National Hunt race in Britain. It’s four miles and four furlongs long, and it has thirty jumps. A field of up to forty horses can enter, and most years thirty-five to forty go to post. All fences are four feet, six inches, up to five feet plus.

The Grand National is also a lethally dangerous race for horses and riders. It’s not difficult to see why. The length exhausts the mounts. The fences are high and challenging, and with a forty-horse field, the smallest stumble can cause a pile-up, especially on the fastest, innermost line.

In the last decade, nine horses have died in the Grand National.

Aintree have improved the course over the past few years, following scathing criticism from animal rights groups. They’ve made the sightlines easier for the horses by adding to the orange board at the foot of the jumps, and tried to make the Canal Turn less dangerous. It’s not enough.

Animal Aid provide a diagram here (page seven) of Becher’s Brook, the most dangerous fence in the race. The horses make a left turn after this fence, so jockeys steer them toward the inside of the course. The course is lower on the landing side than the takeoff, meaning the jockeys have to compensate so the horse doesn’t stumble and they don’t get unseated – but again, forty-horse field, massive fence, drop landing. It’s hard to see how accidents could be avoided.

There are ditches on several fences, up to six feet wide, with one fence having its ditch on the landing side. I can’t overemphasise how dangerous that is in a massive field of runners. You can’t make mistakes, or you risk yourself and others. The fences are solid hedge, meaning the horse can’t see through them to realise there’s a huge hole on the landing side. If the horse can’t see the ditch, it can’t adjust its reach to cover it, and if your mount takes the fence too short, it can easily break a leg by landing wrongly or having another runner crash into you while you try to pull yourself together.

The course is built to be a daunting prospect for the runners and riders, but it’s just too dangerous.

There’s only one way to show the organisers that this isn’t fair: don’t watch it. Don’t bet on it. Voice your disapproval. Make it clear that you want nothing to do with the Grand National as it stands.

National Hunt racing done right is a fantastic sport. It’s thrilling, exhilarating, and dramatic. It doesn’t need to be fatal.

Dead Cats, Pop Stars, and the Age of Overshare

My hamster have died today. (writes @likeastargirlI’m very sad 😦 Rip Slevin 😦

@Fernanda_Jordan says: she is almost so perfect like you Harold!!!! My puppy died 😦 i am so saaad her name was nutella

I am so sad, my cat died yesterday. 😦 I had him for 6 years, now he is gone, I miss him so much!!! :,( (this from @Niamhroberts44)

It’s a bad day for pets, that’s certain.

This is an odd collection of tweets with which to start a blog post, and yet it’s only a tiny fraction of the weirdest Twitter account going these days: Harry, My Cat Died. See, those bereaved pet owners up there aren’t just tweeting their sadness out at the wide open internet. They, and hundreds of others, are aiming their need for condolences straight at Harry Styles, the floppy one from One Direction.

I don’t know why Harry is a target for pet loss bulletins. I’m not a One Direction fan, so I may have missed out on some crucial newsletter wherein he discussed a dead hamster/sympathised with the loss of a fan’s goldfish/revealed a psychic ability to communicate with deceased animals. I’m really not sure that the contents of the tweets matter – the point of them is to try to get the attention of a pop star by outdoing all rivals in a weird game of one-down-manship.

The pet tweets are one thing. They get stranger.

You can try physical pain:

i’m on my period so i’m already emotional as it is so why don’t you follow me to make me feel better (@helloshans)

imaginary pain:

I’m sat here thinking what it would be like if any of you boys Died 😦 and I’m crying my eyes out 😥 this shows how much ily? (@RealGeorge12)

or, er, this:

if i died you wouldn’t even know, yet you mean more than my own life to me. (@LiamsPaynis).

It’s hard to tell whether these tweets are true or not. A certain fraction of them must be, I’d imagine, but even a truthful one will get drowned out by the waves upon waves of nonsense that form Harry’s @-replies from his eleven million followers. It’s easy to see Harry, My Cat Died as a piece of fluffy internet humour – I did, and do, but then I’m a terrible person – but it’s also a fascinating example of collective psychology.

If you’re not a member of this group of people (the One Direction/1D fandom), this looks like aberrant behaviour. Who lays themself bare like this to a stranger? Who barrages a stranger with 50 or 100 numbered tweets to try to get noticed? Who on earth thinks that’s likely to create a positive reaction in the first place?

Someone whose peers are all doing the same thing, that’s who. The 1D fandom demographics skew young and female, making them – generally – one large peer group. They see behaviours arise, be replicated, echo, and replicate again. The goal is obviously to be noticed by Harry himself or to have a tweet retweeted by him; the successful tactics remain a mystery. There are the obvious pleas on sympathy (dead cat/granny/platypus) and the seduction attempts (which are uncomfortable, coming from underage fans); there’s the brute-force method (50 identical numbered tweets) and the single-but-intense – aka the They Don’t Love You Like I Love You.

Let’s not lose the point here: all of this is weird.

If any one of my Twitter friends started acting like this off his own bat, I’d be concerned.

It’s just that when there are thousands of you, every one incidence of weirdness is subsumed into the whole. The group mentality feeds into a behavioural cycle: you want to be part of the group, so you behave like the other members of the group. The group grows bigger and draws in more members. Membership of the group is a desirable state, which desire overrides any reluctance you might have toward the behaviours displayed and required.

This is, of course, not a new phenomenon. Call it Beatlemania with a broadband connection. The crucial difference is that before social media, the closest you could come to personally communicating with the object of your obsession was by attending an event as part of a crowd, or writing a fan letter, which are usually filtered through a bevy of PAs and never reach the celebrity at all. Now, you have a means of access to them 24/7. Of course there’s still a good chance it’s an assistant looking after the account, and an even better chance that the celebrity never reads their replies. But in a time when the President of America occasionally writes his own tweets, it’s still a possibility that you’ll be the lucky one who gets noticed.

The current cohort of twenty-somethings – of which I’m a member – is the last to have reached its teens without the social media ubiquity of the late ’00s. We were online as teens, certainly. We had Hotmail and Livejournal/DiaryX/Typepad accounts. But ten/twelve years ago, when I was setting up my first online accounts, there was no Facebook, no Twitter, no ask.fm or Formspring or even Myspace. We grew alongside the social media phenomenon and attained adulthood as it crested its first massive wave.

2013’s fresh teenagers are coming into a world where social media profiles are not just useful but de rigeur. Living your life out loud becomes the norm from the word go – no gentle slope from blog to Bebo to Facebook. It’s a blessing and a curse, in my opinion – certainly finding ‘your people’ on the internet helps ease the pain of social exclusion at school, for kids being bullied – but on the other hand, it’s hard to impress upon younger internet users the very permanence of the internet.

Put it this way: it might make your day to find people who love Harry Styles’ dulcet tones as much as you do, and you may not be so jubilant when a future romantic prospect or employer Googles you and finds your HarryLuver4Ever Twitter bio – but a thirteen-year-old can’t possibly be expected to understand repercussions on that sort of timescale.

There’s an argument that internet oversharing (either by current children/teens themselves, or their mommy- and daddy-blogging parents) will have reached such a universal status by ten or fifteen years down the line, that it will no longer carry the same weight that it does today. If everybody’s baby pictures are archived on blogs, and everybody’s teenage crush is acted out in the Twitter spotlight, perhaps that very universality will mean that public adolescence will become the new normal. Group behaviour – and the public promulgation of that behaviour – may yet be be the hallmark of this decade, communications-wise.

Maybe the 1D fans are giving us a glimpse of things to come.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a goldfish to exhume and Twitpic to a pop star.

RIP Éamon de Buitléar: Ireland’s Attenborough

This week saw the passing of Éamon de Buitléar, the first and best of Ireland’s wildlife broadcasters, enthusiasts, champions.

It’s not a stretch to say that Éamon was the Irish equivalent of David Attenborough. He was a more locally concerned mind, certainly, but one charged with the same deep and empathic love of animals and the environment.

My mother and grandmother remember his first series, Amuigh Faoin Spéir (Out Beneath the Sky), not long after RTÉ launched in the 1960s. I remember sitting rapt at his discussion of birds and badgers and fluffy seal pups. In fifty years of work he reached three or four generations of Irish people and brought the beautiful wildlfe of the country into our homes, changing our perceptions of what we see around us.

Last year he donated his entire archives to NUI Galway. The following video is his explanation of that decision, and a recollection of his years of work. It’s in Irish, but I’ll summarise the main bits for you below.

Éamon worked on documentaries for fifty years, starting on RTÉ, but also for the BBC, ITV, Scottish and Welsh stations, and TG4. He had a strong connection with Irish culture: music, crafts, and heritage. He also made the first Irish-language cartoon for television (this is the odd bit with the tinwhistle-playing leprechaun in the video). He collaborated with Gerrit van Gelderen, a Dutch filmmaker, to make Amuigh Faoin Spéir, which became one of the longest-running shows on RTÉ. He also played and recorded traditional music with the renowned musician Seán Ó Riada and his band.

The beautiful illustrated book shown (which he says was a Christmas gift from his mother!), How to Recognise British Birds, was the spark for his interest in wild birds, and he wrote in all their names in Irish. He hoped that his documentaries would allow the Irish public to recognise and understand the birds portrayed therein – and also the wonderful wild animals of Ireland.

Unfortunately, the destruction of the environment and peril to the wildlife was plainly to be seen also. He believed that conservation and protection of the waterways is sorely needed in order to keep the environment healthy. Without clean water both humans and animals would be in danger. However, he did also see clean-up efforts on waterways, which he found very positive.

He hoped that donating his life’s work to the University would help to teach the public about nature and to keep alive tradition and heritage.

(Absolutely not a direct translation, but one written to make sense from one language to another, and first- to third-person!)

My abiding childhood memory of Éamon de Buitléar is seeing him sitting in a field, talking about foxes, while a fox hangs around nearby almost nodding in approval of every word being said.

I wasn’t sure if this was a conflation of several images – after all, he did make a lot of programmes – but clicking around the various tributes being paid to his memory, I was pleased and gratified to find this:

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.

 

Pictures from The Irish Times and The Irish Examiner. Video from NUI Galway via thejournal.ie. All credit goes to them. No foxes were harmed in the making of this post.

Dear Science: it’s not you, it’s me.

I just thought I should write and apologise. It’s not you, it’s me. Apparently. I’m interested, and I always have been, but that’s not enough any more. I’m from the wrong side of the tracks – the arts and humanities side. I thought it was okay, you know? But now I’ve been told that I’m part of a detrimental Movement, and I’m just not up for that. I’m sorry, Science. If that’s how you feel, I’ll stay away.

Alright, I’m taking the piss. Sort of.

I actually am a bit more nettled than I thought by this geek-related kerfuffle. I’ve been waffling on whether I should bother writing about it, but then again – I am the Jo Soap being talked about here. I’m an atheist. I read pop sci books. I’m the audience for the Infinite Monkey Cage. I’m a geek, certainly, and I mean that both in the teenage perjorative sense, and the adult descriptor sense. And I’m not a scientist. I just find it interesting. So I’m either the best or worst person to do so. Let’s go.

This concept of ‘the Geek movement‘* is, to be frank, complete bunk. A movement is a coherent group of people, most likely with a leader, and with some idea of what their common aim is. You could call skepticism a sort of movement, I guess, but you’d be stretching a bit even there. Geekdom is less a movement than it is a meander.

To me, the word ‘geek’ describes someone who loves learning, whose curiosity is constantly piqued by new ideas, and who delights in the intricacies of their particular interest. I know people I’d describe as ‘geeky’ who are scientists, certainly, but also lawyers, sociologists, techies, writers, historians, philosophers – and so on. Some of them are atheists, some aren’t. Women and men and some who identify as neither. Some of them have an interest in politics, some couldn’t care less. Almost all are intelligent, questioning minds, and great conversationalists.

So it’s a bit jarring to be characterised as a socially awkward, belligerent, superiority-complexed man.

I mean, at least one of those attributes is totally untrue.

Yes, there are people who fit somewhere on the Venn diagram of {geek}, {skeptic}, {atheist}, {argumentative}, who are absolute fuckwits**. Sometimes they’re very loud fuckwits. But they’re not the majority, and they’re not somehow in charge of this very nebulous crowd of people. That’s a complete misrepresentation with no goal except scoring rhetoric points.

It’s also odd that this post was spawned by a bit of a fracas over this New Statesman editorial by (two of) the Infinite Monkeys themselves, which basically says ‘science does good things for society, don’t forget that, and we should probably depend more on scientific evidence than unverified opinions in areas of science-related policy.’ To which I can only add: and so say all of us. I have absolutely no idea where people got a desire for technocracy, or scientism, or a superiority complex, or a self-nomination as the adjudicators of Where Science Should Go, out of the article. You have one scientist and one writer/presenter/comedian, writing in a mostly political magazine for a mostly non-scientist audience, and their task is to make their point without alienating people who may not read a science-based book from one end of the year to another. Is that really the arena for a searching inventory of the people populating the scientific professions?

Here’s the thing: science is important. Scientists are important. Public engagement with science is also important. Getting people to vaccinate their kids or reduce their energy consumption or write to their representatives to encourage them to pursue science-based policy is important, and the only way to do that is for those in the know to instruct the rest of us in best practice.

I’m a little gobsmacked at this reaction in particular because I think The Infinite Monkey Cage is a great show, whose strength lies in its collaboration between a scientist and a non-science professional. Robin is the audience avatar: he’s a well-read enthusiast, not a working scientist. Brian provides the scientific background. They’re both fluent storytellers and generally funny writers, and they bring the best out of their guests. However, they do understand that speaking to the general public as opposed to a scientist-only audience means drawing a careful balance between the need for nuanced scientific discussion, and the need to engage and retain the interest of their listeners.

And so it is, I think, with the editorial – and not a lot of people have pointed that out. It’s interesting to me that the backlash seems to have come mostly from communications fields – I haven’t seen many scientists who’ve spoken against it. Perhaps most scientists understand that the detailed nature of their work is not immediately transmissable to the public, and know that sometimes you have to blunt the edge a bit.

I’d be sad if this row turned lay-people off enjoying science for fear of being characterised as a brash, shouty, atheism-pushing know-all. I’d be sad if science writers were less likely to appeal to the public because they might suffer an evisceration from sci-comms colleagues. Sometimes the arena of internet arguments is a dodgy place to tread.

Keep the geek flag flying high, friends. Or don’t. I’m not the boss of you, either.

* please see here for an excellent piece-by-piece skewering of that post by MJ Robbins.

** a very technical term, do excuse me.

“pro-life.” whose life?

In the lead-up to the US Presidential election last week, many US-based feminist friends of mine were passing around information and charts with titles like ‘What would America be like without Roe v Wade?’ and ‘We need Planned Parenthood!’. What would it be like, they wondered, to live in a country with no abortion rights? No comprehensive family planning and reproductive health experts with whom to discuss every option facing someone with an unwanted pregnancy?

I’ll tell you what it’s like. It’s like this.

Here we have Savita Halappanavar. Savita was 34 and in her second trimester of pregnancy. Savita’s foetus died, and it poisoned her from the inside out. Savita’s husband, Praveen, watched his unborn child lose viability for life, and then watched his wife slip away after it.

Savita’s doctors watched the couple struggle to keep it together. They listened to her plead for a termination of the pregnancy, and they said no. They would not remove the unviable, failing foetus from her uterus.

Put it another way: they would not remove the tissue which caused septicaemia to spread through her body.

When you say it like that, it does sound rather barbaric, doesn’t it?

This was not a matter of law. I’ve written a comprehensive post on Irish abortion law before, linked here. That post was from the day some archaic Catholic windbag in the Dáil made some entirely misguided remarks about the sex lives of people other than herself (and therefore, not her business), and then the Dáil went on to vote down a private member’s bill to enforce the Supreme Court’s judgment in the X case.

The X case is twenty years old this year. Ms X was 14 and pregnant as the result of a rape. She wanted to go to England for a termination, because – understandably – the situation was making her suicidally desperate. The Government got wind of the plan and took out an injunction to stop her going. Ms X and her family fought it all the way to the Supreme Court; they were vindicated, eventually, but by then Ms X had miscarried.

The precedent set by that case allows a doctor in Ireland to perform an abortion if there is ‘a real and substantial risk’ to the life of the mother. I am not a doctor, but even I know that septicaemia is a rare but recognised side-effect of some miscarriages. It is definitely real, and it’s about as substantial as risks come. (Grateful here to Dr Muiris Houston in the Irish Times for this article on risk in miscarriage.)

That was decided twenty years ago.

This country remains abysmal for women’s rights. It is downright humiliating to turn around to our European and American neighbours, hat in hand, and say ‘this exists, and we haven’t done anything about it.’ It is an absolute joke that our politicians – especially our women in positions of influence – do not stand up before the country and bang down doors until we get a proper debate, a referendum, a Yes campaign. It is so very harmful that our doctors will not perform a procedure which, if necessary, they could validate under current case law.

But that’s just the thing, isn’t it? This is the status quo. No doctor will be the first to hang out their shop sign and perform terminations, because they need to know they won’t be struck off the medical register. No political party will take up the cause wholeheartedly, because this administration have enough on their hands without fighting another referendum campaign that might fail – and worst of all, yes, it might actually fail. As a rule, young Irish people are mostly in favour of abortion on demand, but young people are not the bankable demographic that you depend upon to win a popular vote. The Catholic moralists just have to tell their side that God says ‘no’, and therefore, ‘no’ will be said. Makes you wonder what Jesus would have thought of that.

There is no redeeming the death of Savita Halappanavar. I am glad the HSE are investigating the matter; I can tell you that if I were in her husband’s position, lawyers would be involved (and probably are). I’m glad her story is getting the publicity it deserves.

Just… let’s remember today, okay? Let’s have the outrage and the hurt we’re feeling to galvanise us, feminists and secularists and progressives of any gender. Let’s keep up a steady hammering on that door, and when it opens, let’s grab the opportunity with both hands. Let’s remember. Let’s work.

Let’s never have this happen again.

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