Skeptic season is upon us! Right now, everyone I know and love is either on aÂ pilgrimageÂ to Minneapolis for Skepchicon, which starts tomorrow(!!!) or packing for TAM8.
Me? I’ll be sitting at home watching the action unfold, live, via Twitter… and sobbing into my breast pump. Just one more reason to never get pregnant ever again. The postpartum blues have never been harder.
Anyway, while every one of you heads off to Skeptic Mecca, I thought Naomi’s rant was especially relevant. No, none of you will be meeting Carl Sagan this July, but you will be meeting people who you admire and even strike your awe.
And on the eve of Skepchicon, this rant shows us how far we ladies have come. We still have a long way to go, but we’re well on our way.
Meeting Carl Sagan
By Naomi Baker
Actually, I did not meet the great man, but I did talk to him.
I knew about Carl Sagan from his TV seriesÂ Cosmos, and owned the heavily illustrated companion book that was published in 1980. When his fiction novelÂ Contact appeared in 1985, I immediately bought it. Although I viewed the novel itself as merely entertaining, I was captivated by a scene involving the heroine, Ellie Arroway, interacting with her colleagues:
She set out to broaden her education, to take mathematics, physics, and engineering. but there was a problem with her central interests. She found it difficult to discuss physics, much less debate it, with her predominantly male classmates. At first they paid a kind of selective inattention to her remarks. There would be a slight pause, and then they would go on as if she had not spoken. Occasionally they would acknowledge her remark, even praise it, and then again continue undeflected. She was reasonably sure her remarks were not entirely foolish, and did not wish to be ignored, much less ignored and patronized alternately. Part of it – but only a part – she knew was due to the softness of her voice. So she developed a physics voice, a professional voice: clean, competent, and many decibels above conversational…every time she found herself in a new group she would have to fight her way through again, just to dip her oar into the discussion. The boys were uniformly unaware even that there was a problem.
What has stuck in my memory is how accurately Sagan, a stereotypical privileged white male, captured the essence of experiences at that time of a female student, and later a female professional in a male-dominated field. Sagan might have been looking over my shoulder when he wrote this passage.
I used to spend quite a bit of time driving to field locations as part of my energy industry job. At the time, company cars were typically stripped down Ford LTDs with manual controls and an AM-only radio.Â I frequently listened to a national talk show hosted byÂ Michael Jackson (not the pop singer).Â As I returned home one afternoon, Mr. Jackson announced his guests, Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, who were promoting their new bookÂ Comet. I rushed home (no mobile phones in back then) and began calling the toll-free number.Â I got through.
Although the guests were there to talk aboutÂ Comet, I told Dr. Sagan that I was calling aboutÂ Contact, and specifically how intrigued I was that he was able to capture so accurately how women had been treated in academia and industry. He credited his wife Druyan for his insight. He asked a bit about my college education and my profession, and the conversation ended.
I think today, having read so many of Sagan’s subsequent works likeÂ Demon Haunted World andÂ Pale Blue Dot, I’d be a little bit more awestruck, but at the time I was talking to an author that I admired.Â For some reason, I had completely forgotten about this until last week, when I cataloging my books.Â I was telling a friend about this essay, and she commented “I was struck by one thing when I read that part you quoted in your blog.Â That it is very possible that women will readÂ Contact today and not have a clue what Sagan was talking about.Â They will not be able to associate themselves with her character.Â And Naomi, that is a good thing.”
Naomi Baker, aka GeekGoddess, founder of the Houston Skeptic Society, is a skeptic, engineer, directs a private energy company, and has two grown sons that also attend TAM every year. You can follow her at @goddessgeek on Twitter.
The Skepchick Reader Rants,Â posted every Wednesday at 3PM Eastern, is a feature where you, the Skepchick readers, get to tell the Skepchick community what you think about whatever you want! Â To be considered, please submit an original rant, preferably unpublished anywhere else, to skepchick(at)skepchick(dot)org with the subject: My Rant.