Monthly Archives: December 2016

On Vera Rubin and the idea of needing permission to do science

A friend just forwarded me the link to the obituary for Vera Rubin by NPR. She faced gender discrimination in her career as an astronomer but also became a trailblazer for women, eventually making a groundbreaking confirmation of the existence of dark matter.

In reading the obit, I found a couple of compelling points. First, that she championed science literacy (much as I hate that term), particularly among elected officials. Second, she reiterated the importance of role models for imagining future careers, saying, “”I didn’t know a single astronomer, male or female … I didn’t think that all astronomers were male, because I didn’t know [what an astronomer was].”

Finally, most strikingly, she wrote about her three assumptions that she lives by in her book Bright Galaxies, Dark Matters, in thinking about whether women can do science and do it successfully. However, in particular in the third principle she starts out with “we all need permission to do science.” That just about floored me, but upon reflection, I feel that’s a really smart encapsulation of what is enacted in weed-out courses and more broadly, in precollege (and even some college and grad school) science education.

This is especially true of the jargon science uses. If you don’t grasp the lingo, and don’t learn the vocabulary through memorization as you’re often expected to do in school, you can’t join the club and “do science” – you won’t “gain permission”. To me, it was never an issue – I naturally was good at memorizing science, so I got permission early on. So I’ve rarely had to think about having permission at least to speak science.

It’s one more hurdle many people who want to do science have to jump – and for people of color and women who start out behind, maybe that’s what keeps them from starting to jump in the first place. That’s one of my major goals – to get rid of the language barrier, at least – so that science is no longer something people feel they need permission to speak about. Thinking about it in this way helps me look at the problem differently (and actually makes the term science literacy even more problematic). So thank you, once again, to Vera, pioneer in so many ways.

#equity #citizenscience #nojargon #youreinvited

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