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Hali Felt

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What Happened to the Astronauts-to-Be?

Posted: 07/17/2012 9:14 am

I.

In December of 1942 an English, music and philosophy major named Marie Tharp took a big risk. At the time she was a student at Ohio University, and she'd seen a flier for the University of Michigan's accelerated wartime geology program hanging outside of her adviser's office. "It only takes two years," this adviser told her when she asked about the program, "you don't like it, you can do something else." With his support and that of her father, Tharp decided to graduate early. In January of 1943 she stepped off a train in Ann Arbor, into a snowstorm so thick she couldn't see the ground in front of her.

By 1945 Tharp collected her master's degree in geology and was working for an oil company in Oklahoma. By 1946 she was bored and had started attending night school to earn a degree in math; by 1948 she had moved to New York and convinced the director of the newly-formed geophysical lab at Columbia University to hire her as a research assistant. And, in the nearly 30 years that followed, she created maps of the entire ocean floor, sketching the 70 percent of the Earth's surface that had been invisible until she came along, sparking a scientific revolution with her discoveries.

II.

During my childhood, when a newly-introduced adult asked a bunch of kids what we wanted to be when we grew up, we would belt out a string of professions that sounded perfectly reasonable to us -- Astronaut! Artist! Archaeologist! -- but outlandish to the adult. We would be met with the oh-aren't-you-precocious smile. I don't find myself crossing paths with many small children these days, but I know this interaction still happens: the students at the large research university where I teach write about it -- unprompted -- again and again. It's a shared experience, this moment when a child realizes her dreams can be analyzed for feasibility.

Since I started teaching, the number of students who enter my classroom in August undecided about their majors seems to have remained steady. What has changed in the past few years, however, is the number of students who fall into a group that tends to be -- how should I put this -- very decided. These students don't just have one major, they have two or three. They don't want to graduate having devoted four years of their lives only to neuroscience -- they want to make sure that their resumes reflect that they were also devoted philosophers and linguists. Some of these students are truly interested in forming interdisciplinary connections. But most of those double and triple majors eventually reveal that their motivations have to do with something much different. They are, they tell me, "being realistic." "Covering all the bases," they reply when I ask what exactly that means.

Where are the astronauts, artists and archaeologists? Where does all of their childhood exuberance go?

III.

Think about the stories that reporters, documentary filmmakers and the producers of reality television tell you about how scientists spend their time. Picture the vulcanologist, bracing himself against the rugged slope of some volcano in South America. Picture the marine biologist swimming with sharks, a beam of sunlight piercing the turquoise water to highlight her valiance. Just think about an expedition -- any expedition -- scientists spending weeks or months trekking through subzero temperatures in the Antarctic, bushwhacking through dense vegetation and humidity and malarial mosquitoes in the Amazon, coaxing gear-laden Land Rovers across sub-Saharan deserts. And don't forget the recent developments in white collar citizen science: movie director James Cameron's solo submarine dive to the Challenger Deep; PayPal co-founder Elon Musk's recent attempts with SpaceX; and the announcement of a venture by Planetary Resources, a company backed by the billionaire co-founders of Google, to survey and then mine minerals from asteroids orbiting close to Earth.

This is exuberant science. That's why such stories get communicated to the public. Because they're exciting, shiny tales, full of exotic locales, cutting edge technology, the bountiful wealth one assumes is funding all of it, and dogged participants who are energetic, extroverted and fearless.

What aren't these stories? Realistic.

IV.

Marie Tharp didn't pursue being a scientist until the end of her undergraduate career. Her choice had nothing to do with her gender, for Tharp's parents always encouraged their daughter's intellectual pursuits; her soil surveyor father regularly took her out into the field with him to "read nature." Rather, she focused on the humanities because of something that had happened in middle school, where she'd had a class called Current Science. The stories of enterprising scientists she heard from her teacher in that class were simply too exciting, she told an interviewer late in her life. There couldn't, she remembered her younger self thinking, possibly be anything left for her to discover.

But several things happened as Marie Tharp grew older, things that don't seem to have taken place for the children currently growing into young adults. Recall the words of Tharp's adviser, encouraging her to go to Michigan's graduate geology program: you don't like it, you can do something else. Think about her scientist father, who had taken her out into the field with him to model for her his daily work, encouraging her to pursue a career in a field that only a handful of women had entered.

No one, in other words, ever encouraged her to be realistic.

V.

The average American young person has grown up seeing the oh-aren't-you-precocious smile in response to her exuberant childhood career aspirations. She has grown up during a major economic recession, has perhaps seen her parents lose their jobs and struggle to pay the mortgage. Maybe she sees herself as the source of financial hope for her family because she can go out and get an education and leverage that education into a job that's well-paying enough to keep her parents afloat.

When this young woman is confronted by narratives of swashbuckling scientists, she does not see herself. She sees exuberance, but knows that exuberance is unrealistic. She needs encouragement to take risks, but has learned that risks are a luxury. If only she could see the bigger picture, the grand outline of how the scientist got from point A to point B, life and work intertwined, got to hear the details of the struggles and failures. If only she knew that Marie Tharp attended almost 20 schools before graduating from high school, that her mother died when she was 15, that it took her until the end of college to find the right path, that she had a soft high voice but used it to be assertive anyway. Maybe then this young woman could imagine herself as a scientist, and that would be encouragement enough: confidence to hold out for the unrealistic.

HALI FELT is the author of Soundings: The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Mapped the Ocean Floor. She currently resides in Pittsburgh where she teaches creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh.

 
 
 
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