Monday, February 6, 2017

Happy Black History Month!

Ok, after stating the obvious (one month? really? We should do better than one month.) let's spend today's post (re)committing to using this time to not just celebrate Black history but to interjecting it throughout our work. What does that mean to you?

This is a particularly timely conversation since I'm assuming most of you in the US have gone to see "Hidden Figures" - a film focused on the missing African American women (Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson) in particular who were a crucial part of getting the US space program into orbit. Of course, it is a fictionalized account (including the not-real white savior boss man) compacted to make for a (more) compelling 2 hour narrative. But the premise is spot on. Whose stories have we neglected to tell? What effect has that had on the work we do as astrophysicists?

I'm not going to give you a comprehensive list here, but want you to at least get your feet wet. What are you doing that changes our relatively monochromatic field? Some of us spend time in a classroom where we can change the narrative by including voices and stories from past & present to make more room for contributions from Black scientists to our field. Some of us sit on hiring committees. Some of us mentor graduate students. Let's make sure that we shine light on the work being done wherever we can do it.

For many of us, seeing "Hidden Figures" both brought joy at seeing the celebration of those doing incredible work - but also sadness and frustration for the limited progress made in the meantime. What about now? This is just a short (and by no means complete) list of places to start exploring the rich history of Black space scientists.

Benjamin Banneker - Born in 1731, he was a self-trained mathematician & astronomer who worked as a surveyor, clockmaker, and creator of almanacs.

Robert Henry Lawrence, Jr. - The first black astronaut, he joined the corps in 1967. He died in a training plane crash before getting to space.

Dr. Willie Hobbs Moore - The first Black woman to get a PhD in Physics (University of Michigan, 1972).

Dr. Mae Jemison - The first African American woman in space, Dr. Jemison has received degrees in Chemical Engineering, medicine (She *is* that kind of doctor), and served in the Peace Corps. She has also leveraged her platform as an astronaut to draw attention to racism & civil rights.

Dr. Beth Brown - An x-ray astronomer (studying elliptical galaxies), Dr. Brown also worked in her role at Goddard Space Flight Center to bring astrophysics to students across the country.

Professor Mercedes Richards - A professor at Penn State, she studied stars including stellar evolution and binary systems until she passed away last year.

Stephanie Wilson - An astronaut who has flown into space three times, her graduate work in engineering focused on flexible structures in space.

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson - One of the current faces of astrophysics, teaching us about the Cosmos while running the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Get on over to Vanguard STEM. Founded by Dr. Jedidah Isler (who studies blazar jets at Vanderbilt University, where she is an NSF fellow), this monthly web series highlights women of color in STEM, and provides a community for them as well.

Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein studies axionic matter and ways it can address holes in our understanding of the formation and evolution of the universe. She is also a passionate advocate for minoritized voices, especially Black women in STEM.

The National Society for Black Physicists (well worth a visit and your support) is highlighting a different Black physicists every day of this month. Go check it out!

And lastly... go get familiar with this collection of African American Women In Physics. Still a small group of women, but growing every day. Become familiar (if you aren't already) with the work they are doing in our field - and commit yourself to making this list grow exponentially by supporting our Black colleagues.

History of Science

This article provides a quick roundup of discoveries frequently attributed only to western cultures, including astronomical work such as time keeping, navigation, and trans oceanic travel - even observations of our galaxy - that was discovered, developed, and deployed on the African continent.

This book review from 2014 highlights some of the deeper issues around colonialism and the way knowledge is created, valued, eliminated, or controlled depending on its source. These issues are at the heart of our failures to create a robust scientific culture supporting our minoritized colleagues including Black astronomers.