Ride with pride

Today would have marked the 70th birthday of American astronaut Sally Ride, who has so many firsts or near-firsts associated with her that it’s nothing short of remarkable.

Born in 1951, she joined NASA in 1978 and became the first American woman in space five years later in 1983. She was third woman in space overall after Soviet cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova and Svetlana Savitskaya, who had gone up in 1962 and 1983 respectively.

She was also the youngest American astronaut to ever go into space, achieving the record with her first flight, when she was 32. She served with NASA until 1987 but still racked up another first — she was the only person to serve on both of the committees that investigated the disastrous losses of the Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia.

And that may be where you had a Mandela effect moment and said to yourself, “Wait. Didn’t she die in the Columbia crash?” While she is dead, the answer is “No.” I think a lot of people get her confused with Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher-astronaut, who died in the Challenger disaster in 1986.

Sally Ride died of pancreatic cancer in 2012, at the age of 61, but she did leave another first as her legacy.

She had been married to a fellow astronaut, Steven Hawley, for the five years leading up to her leaving NASA, but her obituary revealed that she had been with her partner, children’s book author and women’s tennis professional Tam O’Shaughnessy, for 27 years.

In other words, not only was she the first American woman in space, but she was also the first member of the LGBTQ+ community (that we know of) to have been in space.

The “that we know of” is significant there, since Ride was not out while with NASA or, indeed, in her lifetime — at least not publicly. And, due to circumstances, that has been the case with all astronauts for all of NASA’s history but it also extends to China, the USSR, and later, Russia.

There may have been other astronauts that fell into one of the LGBTQ+ categories, but if so, none of them has ever said a word about it. It also didn’t help that a lot of NASA’s operations were centered in Texas (thank LBJ for that) where sodomy was illegal up until 2003.

And the so-called STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — have not been very gay- or lesbian-friendly, let alone any other member of the community. The fields have traditionally been male-dominated, particularly through most of the previous century.

That’s because science, et. al, was focused on big developments for society-at-large. There was also the built-in misogyny of expectations: Men would become the breadwinners, and women would take care of the homes and children.

Complete and utter bullshit, yes, but for decades, women rarely got the chance to even go to college. If they did, it might be “only” a junior college or secretarial school where they would pick up just the skills necessary to work some menial support job in an office or factory, along with all those necessary skills to keep a tidy, functioning household, handle the shopping and budget, and manage the kids along with the housework.

The shorthand code for this was “learning to keep your husband happy,” and that was the whole point. Shortly before that wedding but definitely around the time of the first baby, Mom was out of the workforce and she even added a new, inanimate spouse, going from just “wife” to “housewife.”

I wish I were kidding.

This really started to hit its peak from the 1920s onward, ironically (or maybe not) because of improvements in technology. Home appliances made big advances going into the 1930s, and suddenly it was possible for one woman to do all of the cooking and cleaning and sewing and whatever all by herself, without a fleet of servants.

Not that poorer households had servants, of course. That’s what daughters were for once they were old enough to wield a mop and change a diaper.

There was a brief glimmer of light during WW II, oddly enough, and to this day the image of Rosie the Riveter, actually based on a real person, is still held up as a progressive icon on many fronts. She stands for not only gender equality, but for the power inherent and the change possible when members of marginalized and oppressed groups work together and speak out.

The original “Rosie the Riveter,” as an abstract concept represented all of those “housewives” who went on to take factory jobs in positions more directly involved with STEM because there were not enough men of the right ages to do it. As a song from the era lamented, They’re Either Too Young or Too Old, and that was exactly the case.

It’s all spelled out in this song from 1943, written for the movie Thank Your Lucky Stars, which was one of those late-war feel-good films showcasing a bunch of Hollywood stars as sort of a USO show for the home front.

Her number is absolutely hilarious, by the way, and the lyrics are quite clever. It’s worth a watch.

Anyway, all of these women (plus people of color who couldn’t get in) experienced a few brief years in the workforce, and realized that, well, “Yes, we can!” And then were promptly put right back where they’d been beforehand when the men came back.

But from that point, it didn’t take long for things to come bubbling back, it’s no coincidence that the sexual revolution, the gay liberation movement, the Civil Rights movement, the women’s movement, and all the others began about a generation after the war ended.

Well, okay. The Civil Rights movement began pretty much immediately, but the others started with their own baby steps in the 1950s, and followed the model of the CRM.

Certain groups snuck under the STEM barrier earlier than others of course. For example, the film Hidden Figures finally brought to wide attention the important role a group of African-American women played in the American Space Flight effort from the beginning of the 1960s — although it’s easy to forget that while these women were doing the complex calculations that made sure we put humans into space and brought them back safely, it really wasn’t an appreciated skill.

They were referred to as “computers,” and not as a compliment. It was still the boys having all the fun with the engineering and mechanics and actually building stuff. They never seemed to notice that most of it probably would have come flaming back to Earth without the help of their “computers.”

Still… women and people of color did find wider acceptance in STEM. Openly LGBTQ+ people? Rarer, even up until the middle of the 2010s. This is visible every time there’s some scientific study done with a strong heteronormative bias.

There are plenty of studies on why straight men look at women’s boobs, as well as studies on why, but damn little on things like do straight women look at women’s boobs? Do gay men? Do lesbians look at women’s boobs as much as straight men? And so on.

Unfortunately, the subject of LGBTQ+ experience only entered via the so-called soft sciences, like sociology, psychology, and anthropology. They’re considered “soft” because it’s much more difficult to come up with absolute and concrete measurements in these fields.

These sciences are based on statistics rather than discrete data points. Sure, the entire field of calculus, which underlies much of modern physics, aeronautics, and the like, is sort of statistical in one sense, but it’s a kind of statistics that is narrowed down to such a small degree — and which doesn’t rely on human variables — that it’s not at all mushy.

In case you’re wondering, calculus deals with changes in systems based on vectors of movement; e.g. “If we launch a missile at x degrees, it weighs m kilos with fuel at launch, lifts off accelerating at a meters per second per second squared, and burns fuel at a rate of r liters per second while accelerating, at what height will the missile run out of fuel, and what will its trajectory be when the force of gravity, G, reacts with the remaining mass, m-(r-r1), how fast will it be pulled back to Earth, at what angle and what velocity, and where will it hit?

Sounds complicated, doesn’t it? And it is, and this is the kind of thing those human “computers” had to do by hand. But here’s the thing… each step of the way, there is a specific value to plug in, and exact rules that determine behavior.

Thomas Pynchon called this Gravity’s Rainbow, and he wasn’t really wrong even if he did write a completely incomprehensible book. It’s a phrase that describes ballistic travel and pays homage to the inventor of calculus, Isaac Newton, who also pioneered optics, hence the rainbow.

But, when it comes to the “soft” sciences, there is no rainbow because things cannot be plugged in as neatly. That’s because those equations may evolve things like, “We tried to determine how many men have had homosexual experiences, and out of a sample of X, we determined that the percentage is p.

The big problem, of course, is that there are so many possibilities not only for the number in X, but the source, so the p could wind up being anything.

Start with the question “Have you ever?” and only ask 5,000 males who attended British boarding schools between, say, 1900 and 1950, and you might get something like 75% or higher.

Start with the question “Do you now?” and limit it to 500 American males regardless of school status, and a lot depends on timing. Ask that question in 2021 among people agreed 13 to 23, and you might get a really high percentage. Ask that question in 1990 but only among men over 40, and you might get single digit percentages.

Also don’t forget… the rules of physics and things you can measure on a scale or with a ruler don’t lie. Humans do. So any study in the soft sciences is going to have a huge margin of error because it all depends on whether someone actually answers the questions honestly.

And, come on, when it comes to sex and sexuality, very few people have the gonads necessary to just answer the questions honestly without trying to put themselves in the best light.

So… we really don’t know how many LGBTQ+ astronauts there have been. We could have had half a dozen by now, or Sally could be truly the only example. (Though I doubt it.) The only thing we do know is that there are definitely a ton of LGBTQ+ people in the sciences, and The Advocate recently compiled this self-reported list of 500 Queer Scientists in STEM fields.


THIS JUST IN! Announced right before publish time, Sally Ride and Maya Angelou to be the first two women depicted on American quarters. Of course, the linked article mentions nothing about Sally being gay.

Image source: John Mathew Smith & www.celebrity-photos.com from Laurel Maryland, USA, (CC BY-SA 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Momentous Monday: Backwards and in high heels

The famous astronomer Herschel was responsible for a lot of accomplishments, including expanding and organizing the catalog of nebulae and star clusters, discovering eight comets, polishing and mounting mirrors and telescopes to optimize their light-gathering powers, and keeping meticulous notes on everything.

By being awarded a Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society and being named an honorary member thereof, holding a government position and receiving a salary as a scientist, Herschel became the first woman to do so.

What? Did you I think I was talking about the other one? You know — the only one most of you had heard of previously because he discovered Uranus. Oh, and he had that whole penis thing going on.

Caroline Lucretia Herschel, who was William’s younger sister by eleven years and was born in 1850, did not have a penis, and so was ignored by history. Despite the honors she received, one of her great works, the aforementioned expansion of the New General Catalogue (NGC), was published with her brother’s name on it.

If you’re into astronomy at all, you know that the NGC is a big deal and has been constantly updated ever since.

While she lacked William’s junk, she shared his intellectual curiosity, especially when it came to space and studying the skies. It must have been genetic — William’s son John Herschel was also an astronomer of some repute — and it was his Aunt Caroline, not Dad, who gave him a huge boost.

She arranged all of the objects then in the NGC so they were grouped by similar polar coordinates — that is, at around the same number of degrees away from the celestial poles. This enabled her nephew to systematically resurvey them, add more data about them, and discover new objects.

Caroline was not the first woman in science to be swept under history’s rug by the men. The neverending story of the erasure of women told in Hidden Figures was ancient by the time the movie came out, never mind the time that it actually happened. Caroline was in good company.

Maria Winckelmann Kirch, for example, was also an astronomer, born 80 years before Caroline and most likely the first woman to actually discover a comet. But of course history gave that honor to her husband, Gottfried Kirch, who was thirty years her senior. However, Herr Kirch himself confirms in his own notes that she was the one who found it:

“Early in the morning (about 2:00 AM) the sky was clear and starry. Some nights before, I had observed a variable star and my wife (as I slept) wanted to find and see it for herself. In so doing, she found a comet in the sky. At which time she woke me, and I found that it was indeed a comet… I was surprised that I had not seen it the night before”. [Source]

Maria’s interest and abilities in science came from a person we might think of as unlikely nowadays: a Lutheran minister, who happened to be her father. Why did he teach her? Because he believed that his daughter deserved the same education any boy at the time did, so he home-schooled her. This ended when Maria lost both of her parents when she was 13, but a neighbor and self-taught astronomer, Christoph Arnold, took her on as an apprentice and took her in as part of the family.

Getting back to Hidden Figures, though, one of the earliest “computers,” as these women of astronomy were known, was Henrietta Leavitt. Given what was considered the boring and onerous task of studying a class of stars known as Cepheid variables, she actually discovered something very important.

The length of time it takes a Cepheid to go through its brightest to darkest sequence is directly proportional to its luminosity. This means that if know the timing of that sequence, you know how bright the star is. Once you know that, you can look at how bright it appears to be from Earth and, ta-da! Using very basic laws of optics, you can then determine how far away the star is.

It’s for this reason that Cepheids are known as a “standard candle.” They are the yardsticks of the universe that allow us to measure the unmeasurable. And her boss at the time took all the credit, so I’m not even going to mention his name.

And this is why we have The Leavitt Constant and the Leavitt Telescope today.

No, just kidding. Her (male) boss, who shall still remain nameless here because, “Shame, shame,” took all of the credit for work he didn’t do, and then some dude named Edwin Hubble took that work and used to to figure out how far away various stars actually were, and so determined that the universe was A) oh so very big,  and B) expanding. He got a constant and telescope named after him. Ms. Leavitt… not so much.

There are way too many examples of women as scientific discovers being erased, with the credit being given to men, and in every scientific field. You probably wouldn’t be on the internet reading this now if no one had ever come up with the founding concepts of computer programming, aka “how to teach machines to calculate stuff for us.”

For that, you’d have to look to a woman who was basically the daughter of the David Bowie of her era, although he wasn’t a very dutiful dad. He would be Lord Byron. She would be Ada Lovelace, who was pretty much the first coder ever — and this was back in the days when computers were strictly analog, in the form of Charles Babbage’s difference and analytical engines.

The former was pretty much just an adding machine, and literally one that could only do that. So, for example, if you gave it the problem “What is two times 27,” it would find the solution by just starting with two, and then adding two to it 26 times.

The latter analytical engine was much more like a computer, with complex programming. Based on the French Jacquard loom concept, which used punched cards to control weaving, it truly mimicked all of the common parts of a modern computer as well as programming logic.

Basically, a computer does what it does by working with data in various places. There’s the slot through which you enter the data; the spot that holds the working data; the one that will pull bits out of that info, do operations on it, and put it back in other slots with the working data; and the place where it winds up, which is the user-readable output.

The analytical engine could also do all four math operations: addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.

An analog version of this would be a clerk in a hotel lobby with a bunch of pigeonhole mail boxes behind, some with mail, some not. Guests come to the desk and ask (input), “Any mail for me?” The clerk goes to the boxes, finds the right one based on input (guest room number, most likely), then looks at the box (quaintly called PEEK in programming terms).

If the box is empty (IF(MAIL)=FALSE), the Clerk returns the answer “No.” But if it’s not empty (IF(MAIL)=TRUE), the clerk retrieves that data and gives it to the guest. Of course, the guest is picky, so tells the Clerk, “No junk mail and no bills.”

So, before handing it over, the Clerk goes through every piece, rejecting that above (IF(OR(“Junk”,”Bill”),FALSE,TRUE), while everything else is kept by the same formula. The rejected data is tossed in the recycle bin, while the rest is given to the guest — output..

Repeat the process for every guest who comes to ask.

Now, Babbage was great at creating the hardware and figuring out all of that stuff. But when it came to the software, he couldn’t quite get it, and this is where Ada Lovelace came in. She created the algorithms that made the magic happen — and then was forgotten.

By the way, Bruce Sterling and William Gibson have a wonderfully steampunk alternate history novel that revolves around the idea that Babbage and Lovelace basically launched the home computer revolution a couple of centuries early, and with the British computer industry basically becoming the PC to France’s Mac. It’s worth a read.

Three final quick examples: Nettie Maria Stevens discovered the concept of biological sex being passed through chromosomes long before anyone else; it was Lise Meitner, not Otto Hahn, who discovered nuclear fission; and, in the ultimate erasure, it was Rosalind Franklin, and neither Watson nor Crick, who determined the double helix structure of DNA.

This erasure is so pronounced and obvious throughout history that it even has a name: The Matilda Effect, named by the historian Margaret Rossiter for the suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage.

Finally, a note on the title of this piece. It comes from a 1982 comic strip called Frank and Ernest, and it pretty much sums up the plight of women trying to compete in any male-dominated field. They have to work harder at it and are constantly getting pushed away from advancement anyway.

So to all of the women in this article, and all women who are shattering glass ceilings, I salute you. I can’t help but think that the planet would be a better place with a matriarchy.

For all of the above histories and more, it’s plain to see why finally having a female Vice President of the United States (and a person of color at that) is a truly momentous and significant moment in the history of the country and the world.