Thursday, February 29, 2024

DEIA Activism in Astronomy

book cover
Brief Summary: Since the first half of the twentieth century, an increasing number of astronomers have pursued parallel careers as both academics and activists. Besides publishing peer-reviewed papers, they have promoted a great variety of underrepresented groups within their discipline. Through conferences, newsletters and social media, they have sought to advance the interests of women, members of racial and ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+, and disabled people. While these activists have differed in the identities they focus on, they have come to share a conviction that diversity and inclusion are crucial for scientific excellence as well as social justice. This book covers the biographies and institutional contexts of key agents in the diversification of modern astronomy. Central to discussions about who has privileged access to the tools of astronomical inquiry, including powerful telescopes and extensive databases, they have also significantly shaped views of our universe.

The editors of the Women in Astronomy blog virtually sat down with author Jörg Matthias Determann to learn more about his scholarly work.

What was your motivation for writing this book?

I wanted to write a history of the broader movement for diversity, equity, and inclusion in astronomy. We have some excellent accounts of individual astronomers who advanced women and other marginalized groups in the discipline, including Vera Rubin, the subject of an outstanding biography by Jacqueline Mitton and Simon Mitton. However, we do not know as much about how activists organized and networked. In addition to the lives of specific astrophysicists, I wanted to cover the history of groups, committees and conferences. Since the 1990s, much of this networking has taken place in online spaces, facilitated by listservs, blogs and social media. Yet, many of these digital sources are at risk of disappearing or becoming inaccessible over time. Who knows about the future of X (formerly Twitter) as a platform for activism, for example? I wanted to preserve key developments and debates, before valuable information gets lost.

Why did you make the choices you did? For example, how did you decide whom to interview or whose story to record and tell?

I was especially interested in interviewing astronomers with a long history and memory of diversity activism and service. Examples include Meg Urry of Yale University and Gibor Basri of the University of California, Berkeley. People like them could look back over decades and trace important changes in the profession. I was also trying to complement the older with younger voices, like that of Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, in order to uncover similarities and differences among different generations of activists. Some of my interviewees emerged organically, through recommendations by others. For instance, Prescod-Weinstein suggested that I contact Ashley Walker and Charee Peters. On the other hand, some astrophysicists on my list declined or never responded to my requests for interviews for various reasons.

Tell us about the geographical distribution of the people and topics you write about.

To a certain extent, the geographical distribution of my book’s protagonists reflects that of astrophysicists in general. You will find many people who have worked in the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany, South Africa and Australia. These countries have all had high numbers of astronomers per capita (that is, relative to the size of their populations). However, I have been limited in the languages I and my research assistants can speak. I wish I could have interviewed more astronomers in Japan or Korea, for example, and read more about them.

What do you hope people will take away from this book?

I hope that readers will take away that there are many ways to bring about revolutions in science other than publishing research papers. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, astronomers contributed to a social revolution that is perhaps of a magnitude similar to that of the Copernican Revolution. Like Nicolaus Copernicus promoted a new view of the natural world, his modern successors championed a different view of the social world, one with concepts like diversity, equity, inclusion and access at the center. Just as the Copernican paradigm shift went through different phases and involved different generations stretching over more than a hundred years, so does the diversity and access revolution. As regular readers of this blog know, this social revolution in science is still ongoing and unfinished. However, just as the centrality of the Sun had become widely accepted by the time of Isaac Newton, nowadays few would argue against the notion that “the sky is for everyone,” to quote the title of a recent book by Virginia Trimble and David A. Weintraub. Thanks to the work of numerous “astro-activists,” we have generally accepted the idea that people of all identities and backgrounds should be able to participate in the study of the universe. This is evident not only in the increasing number of women in academic leadership roles, but also in funding mandates for open access and public outreach as part of major research projects.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I invite readers of this interview and of my book to get in touch with me. Historians of science like myself have only begun to write the history of the movement for diversity, equity, and inclusion in astronomy. I would greatly appreciate any suggestions or corrections, especially from people who have engaged in, or observed, activism and accessibility work. Please help me and other historians better understand what you have lived through and what you care about. Please also consider sharing any material you may have. Unfortunately, many of the sources on which I have drawn (including webpages, blog posts, newsletter items, emails, social media posts, et cetera) are not preserved in archives or databases like NASA’s Astrophysics Data System (ADS). However, this material is still very valuable for understanding the past and for shaping the future development of astronomy as a discipline and as a global community.

Eds note: In the near future, we will have a more in-depth interview with the author, in a forthcoming “Career Profile” post. Stay tuned!

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Celebrating Black in STEM - Part 2

In honor of Black History Month, Science Buddies has highlighted 38 African American scientists and engineers who made important contributions to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). 

For each of them, author Amy Cohen has included a short biographical highlight, links to hands-on science projects related to the scientist's area of study, links to relevant science career profiles, and a link to a biography for further reading.

There is also a career worksheet that can guide student exploration and reflection about STEM careers.


Thursday, February 15, 2024

Cross-post: Meet the scientist protecting women of color from the wrong side of AI

[Eds. note: February 11 was the International Day of Women and Girls in Science.]

Dr. Joy Buolamwini during 2023 Massachusetts Conference For Women in Boston, on Dec. 14, 2023.
(Image Credit: Marla Aufmuth / Getty Images file)

By Daniela Pierre-Bravo, for

At 34, computer scientist and poet, Dr. Joy Buolamwini, has already made her mark as a pioneer in the rapidly developing field of artificial intelligence.

She’s advised President Biden and Big Tech on the benefits and dangers of AI, was named one of Time’s "100 Most Influential people in AI," has worked on documentaries about the subject, and she recently released a book about her personal journey in the space: “Unmasking AI: My Mission to Protect What is Human in a World of Machines.”

Her research as an AI scientist came into focus during her time as a graduate student at MIT: addressing the downfalls in machine learning (the building blocks of AI systems).

At the time, Dr. Buolamwini was working on a face detection technology for an art installation she was building. She noticed the software program was having trouble detecting her skin color. It wasn’t until she decided to place a white mask on her face that it finally started to work properly.


Friday, February 9, 2024

AASWomen Newsletter for February 9, 2024

AAS Committee on the Status of Women
Issue of February 9, 2024
eds: Jeremy Bailin, Nicolle Zellner, Sethanne Howard, and Hannah Jang-Condell

[We hope you all are taking care of yourselves and each other. --eds.]

This week's issues:
1. Celebrating Black in STEM – Part 1
2. AAS Announces Honors
3. Help Protect Funding for Astronomical Sciences
4. Herschel Medal Awarded to Roberta Humphreys
5. Other Astronomy Prizes Awarded 
6. Passion, curiosity and perseverance: my mission to capture women in science on camera
7. Soapbox Science’s 2024 speaker call is NOW OPEN!  
8. How to Submit to the AASWomen Newsletter
9. How to Subscribe or Unsubscribe to the AASWomen Newsletter
10. Access to Past Issues of the AASWomen Newsletter

An online version of this newsletter will be available at at 3:00 PM ET every Friday.