Ada Lovelace Day: Mae Jemison

I’m a day late, but I’m going to write this post anyway. I’m probably not quite fitting the brief because the woman I’m going to write about isn’t someone I know personally. Nevertheless, I find her amazing, she is my favourite scientist, and I love that she exists. People like her intimidate me, because I know I’ll never be that good, but they inspire me just by being.

I wanted to write about a modern woman scientist. There are many amazing woman scientists from throughout history (I doubt I have to list any; anyone who’s heard of Ada Lovelace day can name a few off the top of their head), but it’s easy to be put off by how much more romantic and risk-taking science was in the past, and wonder how that can extrapolate to today. Science is also now mostly a team effort, making it impossible to attribute discoveries to just one person.
Knowing our history is important. Being a woman scientist way back when must have been much harder than it is now. But to always commend the scientists of old make it seem that there isn’t anything worthwhile going on right now. This is never true.

I very much admire multitalented people. Bridget Riley combines mathematics with her artwork, as did M C Escher. Hedy Lamarr was a Hollywood actress as well as a physicist, and her groundwork in telecomms is still made use of. Mae Jemison is a doctor and an astronaut. I don’t simply mean she’s an astronaut with a doctorate – I would assume all astronauts have one. Jemison is an astronaut – the first black woman in space, no less! – and a physician. Let that sink in a moment.

Many people say they would like to be a doctor so that they can help people. That’s a perfectly good reason to become a doctor – even though people are tiresome wankmats who vote for reality TV contestants and buy Christmas stockings for their dogs.
Something I love about Jemison was that her desire to be a doctor came from her fascination with pus. As a child, she made a project out of diarising the progress and healing of an infection in her hand. Furthermore, she wasn’t particularly driven to go into space for the sake of being the first black woman up there – she just wanted to go into space. Jemison didn’t set out to be amazing: she just did what she loved, and ended up doing amazing things. As a Peace Corps doctor, she saved the life of a patient with meningitis by requisitioning an Air Force plane, based in Germany, to evacuate the patient from Sierra Leone; something she did not technically have the authority to do. It didn’t stop her.

As someone who is fascinated by both the sciences and the arts (though not particularly good at either), I love Mae Jemison for being proof that you can succeed at both. She was the first real astronaut to appear on Star Trek, playing a character called Lieutenent Palmer in the episode Second Chances. As if you didn’t feel hopelessly adequate enough, she’s also a dancer. She became a doctor because, as her mother pointed out, you can still dance if you’re a doctor, but you can’t practise medicine on the side if you’re a dancer.

I am inspired by just about every woman who succeeds in a male-dominated field, in what is still a male-dominated world. I dropped out of my palaeobiology degree, partly because the sedimentology-heavy work wasn’t what I signed up for, and partly because I had just had fucking enough of the casual misogyny in the all-male department. I’d be surprised if Jemison had escaped having to deal with that. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have the extra difficulties imposed by being a person of colour in a white-dominated world. Mae Jemison succeeded anyway.

I’m nobody you know, but thank you for making the world a better place.

Originally published in October 2012.