24 July 2012

Thank You, Sally Ride

It is past midnight as I type this, meaning that Monday has given way to Tuesday here in Virginia.  I am saddened by the news that Sally Ride passed away yesterday at the age of 61.  She lost her battle with pancreatic cancer, as almost everyone with the awful disease inevitably does.  This blog post represents a cathartic effort on my part to offer a note of thanks to the first US woman in space.

When the shuttle Challenger blasted off on its historic journey early in the summer of 1983, I was a few months shy of 13 and living in South Charleston, West Virginia.  I had just finished 7th grade, which was my first year in junior high school.  Moses Malone, Dr. J and the rest of the Philadelphia 76ers had swept the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals a month before Sally Ride's famous ride, but I was too obsessed with playing and watching baseball to have paid basketball much attention.  Tony LaRussa had the White Sox from the south side of Chicago winning left and right; Cal Ripken, Jr was having a stupendous sophomore season; the "Wheeze Kids" in Philadelphia were having fun with my former Reds' heroes Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, and Tony Pérez.  Besides baseball, I loved reading and doing math.  I was a sports nerd -- and remain one to this day.  Politics and science also interested me, which really meant that I was a sports NERD.  A kid like me playing baseball all the time on his summer vacation still took the time to follow the news of Sally Ride's trip into space.

As a near teenager who had no idea what he was going to do with his life beyond a hope of playing professional baseball, my mind was ripe for learning, and Sally Ride taught me something in that summer of 1983.  Though much societal progress for women had been made by that time, many stereotypes were still floating about.  Many in my family fit some of those stereotypes, like men working and women staying home.  I saw mostly male doctors and female nurses.  Women dominated jobs like secretaries, elementary school teachers, stewardesses, librarians, waitresses, and bank tellers.  Pilots and scientists, however, seemed to my naïve mind to be jobs for men.  Jobs were not nearly as gender segregated in 1983 as they were in past decades, but perceptions then were much different compared to what they are in today's world.

What did I see in Sally Ride?  The first thing I remember seeing was a woman astronaut.  I fully admit that that sight was weird for me.  Sally Ride surely inspired a countless number of girls by showing them what's possible.  Pictures of Sally Ride working on the Challenger while it orbited Earth also showed me what's possible.  She not only changed the zeitgeist with her flight, she raised the consciousness of the person writing these words.  She helped enlighten and educate me with evidence that women can be astronauts, and good ones, too.

The second thing I remember seeing was a woman scientist, and a physicist to boot.  As far was women in science, I knew of Marie Curie, but that might have been the extent of my list.  Not only was I watching a woman astronaut, I was watching a woman who had earned a PhD in physics, a field I didn't know that much about at the time, but knew that it was a "hard" science.  I can honestly convey now what I thought then:  Sally Ride was cool.

Though I never had the honor of meeting her, the impression Sally Ride made on me 29 years ago was as strong as if I had met her.  I took interest when a career move of hers made the news, and I was more in tune to women in science.  Beginning a decade ago, I devote part of the first class I teach in my introductory physics course to introducing my students to some of the influential physicists in history.  Sally Ride is part of that introduction, but I sneak her in as a goofy "quiz" question.  On a single slide, I show two photos.  For an example of how this goes, click here for mystery person A and here for mystery person B.  I then ask my class to identify each person.  Of course, I learn nothing new when I give this little "quiz."  Almost everyone knows that person B is Paris Hilton, and nobody (with the exception of one or two people in ten years) knows person A, even though Sally Ride dons a NASA shirt in the photo.  The point of my "quiz" is not to embarrass my students or to poke fun at Paris Hilton.  The point is to let my students know that as they embark on their study of physics, women are just as capable as men of becoming physicists, and many women have made great contributions to what we know in physics.  I want my students to know, too, that it is time they start acquainting themselves with women who have made serious, important, and lasting contributions to the human species, and not just with those who dominate pop culture headlines for superficial (at best) contributions.

I'm sure that Sally Ride's life will continue to enlighten people as they learn about her.  Articles about her death revealed that Sally Ride was a lesbian.  I hope that that fact is part of people's enlightenment.  Sally Ride showed that the ability and talent needed to earn a PhD in physics and become an astronaut have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with gender and sexual orientation.

Thank you, Sally Ride, for the indelible impression you made on me nearly three decades ago.

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