Bibelots

a place for the curious

Category: adventures in science

Science, astronomy, wonders of the world, and all round things that make me curious.

A matter of gravity: women in space

Last week, The Mary Sue had a small piece about the dull and quite insane question of ‘periods in space’.

In typical Mary Sue form, their approach was both tongue-in-cheek and appropriately dismissive. Their story refers to a longer NPR article about the same question. Neither of them are, in reality, about answering the question. They’re about women, NASA and feminism.

In fact, the NPR article is so focused on NASA’s culture, it seems to skip over the fact that a woman first went into space in 1963: Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova. That’s not to say the Soviets were sending women up every other month. After they nabbed this important ‘first’, it was another 19 years before any more woman cosmonauts were launched into space – for the curious, that was Svetlana Savitskaya.

In the article, there’s a snippet from a NASA report in 1971:

“The question of direct sexual release on a long-duration space mission must be considered. Practical considerations (such as weight and expense) preclude men taking their wives on the first space flights. It is possible that a woman, qualified from a scientific viewpoint, might be persuaded to donate her time and energies for the sake of improving crew morale; however, such a situation might create interpersonal tensions far more dynamic than the sexual tensions it would release.”

– NASA technical memorandum, 1971

This snippet reminds me of a scene in an old Heinlein story; All You Zombies. Written more than 10 years before the NASA report, it too talks about sexual tensions:

“It was when they first admitted you can’t send men into space for months and years and not relieve the tension. You remember how the wowsers screamed?—that improved my chance, since volunteers were scarce. A gal had to be respectable, preferably virgin (they liked to train them from scratch), above average mentally, and stable emotionally.”

– All You Zombies, Heinlein, 1958

Both story and snippet in turn remind me of a fierce and angry piece by science fiction author Alice Sheldon – James Tiptree Jr. Her short story ‘With Delicate Mad Hands’ was republished in a collection, ‘Her Smoke Rose Up Forever’. It focuses on a young woman with a disfigured face. Her name is CP. Her nickname is far worse. It’s this scene about CP that came to mind as I read the NPR article:

“And to these tinderboxes you want to add an even reasonably attractive woman, sonny? We know the men do better with a female along. […] But on board a long flight, what we need sexually is a human waste can.”

– With Delicate Mad Hands, James Tiptree, Jr. 1981

I won’t quote any more. The words are ruthless. Tiptree at her best. Written 10 years after the NASA report, the sentiment is clear. When Tiptree wrote, she wasn’t extrapolating. She was responding. She always was. Her fiction is as harsh as the truth.

I read Tiptree as a young woman. I would sometimes find her in a pile of other stories about space and space adventures that were mostly written by men. I knew she was different. Her words filled me with fire. It wasn’t until much later that I realised she was a woman and a fierce and unrelenting feminist. I imagined that much of what she wrote was as a response to the other stories being told at the time. But snippets like this NASA report make it clear it wasn’t only in response to fiction. It was to the world.

The question, the extract, the stories. None of them are funny. They aren’t happy. And they don’t end well. They just are.

It’s good to take a moment and remember why all of this matters. Why people matter. People, refugees, women – any and all of us.

Better‘ isn’t good enough. It’s better, and that’s all.

Staying blue

two types of cyanotype images on paper - one pale, washed out blue, the other a vibrant cyan blue

feeling a little blue

A bit of backyard science

A few weeks ago I was experimenting with a different sort of cyanotype – a digital image of an underground tunnel, printed on a clear transparency. I had captured the slow steps of someone moving through the low, dark space. I’d hoped to use it in a group ‘thing’. Unfortunately, it failed terribly. That is to say, the chemicals failed.

I’m used to photos not successfully translating to cyanotype, but this image seemed to have the right stuff. After waiting through a week of rain and sunless sky, I was at last able to set up. I painted my paper, watched for a longish moment of late-winter sunlight and exposed the cyanotype in the usual way. A raindrop or two got caught with the sun, but as it’s a ghostly and indistinct image, I figured it would be okay. It looked beautiful. I rinsed the paper and let the chemicals wash away… and with horror watched the lovely blue image wash away too. I had managed to produce a damp, wrinkled, blank piece of paper.

A couple of weeks later, when the sun reappeared, I tried again in the somewhat futile hope that I’d mixed the solutions incorrectly. But, no. That image washed away, even after a 40 minute exposure – longer than needed in Australia at that time of year. There was no more than a hint of an image.

It turns out that the unmixed liquid cyanotype solutions have an end shelf-life. The best information I could find was ‘it should last a few months’. I did my googling, as any good internet citizen would, but couldn’t spot anything more definitive.

In case you’re one of the few who want to know, I’d kept the two solutions in separate bottles in a dark cupboard for about six months. One week they were working pretty well. A few weeks later, not so much. Obviously, I’ve had to discard the solutions. New chemicals have been ordered and I await their blue-toned arrival.

Next time I prepare the solutions, I’ll put a date on the bottles and track what happens. I’ll do one test strip a month, and keep a record of the date and changing sunlight. I’m sure can get a better idea than ‘a few months’. Data, baby. That’s what I want. Data. Failure is okay, so long as you learn from it and try again.

And that, my friends, is my little bit of backyard science. Science in the sun. Cool, huh?

Where is the hope?

Recently I listened to an action-packed, science and sci-fi friendly podcast from studio360.org. There are so many fascinating and stellar ideas and names in the Will Sci-Fi Save Us podcast that it would fill up a week’s worth of blog articles to go into it. Think of everything from David Brin to the Benford brothers and you have a hint. Add in a touch of electric sheep and blade runners… and I know you’ve run off and are ignoring the rest of this article.

One of the main themes at the start of the podcast was the notion of the loss of hope – or the onset of dystopian popularity – in science fiction.

I am not here to say what’s wrong about that. I’m a fan of both China Miéville and James Tiptree, Jr. (aka Alice Sheldon). You couldn’t get much further from hope than the stories of dear Alice. But I am also a fan of hope.

To quote the podcast: “…everybody ‘knows’ that good science fiction is grim…”   But it hasn’t always been so and it doesn’t need to be that way. As David Brin says “It’s so easy to make money with a tale that says ‘our civilization is garbage’…”.

So, the more hopeful your sci-fi story the harder it is to sell? Yet author after author has done just that. I can give you examples, but it is best you discover them for yourself. No spoilers here.

I won’t leave you hopeless though.

As a way to celebrate National Science Week I’ve written a short-short that has a smoking gun of hope. It was done as a writing challenge, so it’s under a hundred words and in the first person, but a story it is. Enjoy.

Found

a short story by Rosalie Wodecki

“Oh, my god. I can’t believe it.”

I looked back over my shoulder. My family looked as stunned as I felt.

There was smoke rising from a chimney in the rundown house on the hill. There were no flames nearby. No trees burnt from lightning. But there was a garden. I couldn’t remember the last time we had seen a garden. My youngest probably wouldn’t even know what it was. We’d been walking for so long.

I touched my wife’s arm. “We’re not alone.”

For the first time in what must have been months, we’d found it. We’d found hope.

 

A bucket full of science

photo of a scientific experiment, showing the bubbles forming in a cup of oil and other ingredients

Froody Science

I’ve been to some beautiful and thought-provoking events at the RiAus over the years.

As a volunteer, I also get a little bit of extra behind-the-scenes training. Usually the training is more about the how-to of events or bigger concepts, such as evidence-based medicine.

All very grown-up and helpful. However, last week saw us get our hands dirty. With a bit of bucket science.

Bucket science is slang for scientific experiments you can do in the comfort of your own home. In fact, most of the ingredients for the experiments can be found in the kitchen. I know that you’re ahead of me on this one: it is also known as kitchen science.

I’m guessing that the phrase bucket science is a local one as, while quite a few of us at the training session knew the term, Wikipedia has no article for it. (Yes, budding wikipedians, here is your opportunity to start a new article.)

But were there any actual buckets? Most certainly! And it was full of slime. Of course, this particular cornflour slime was there to show a little chemistry in action, specifically non-Newtonian fluids.

In addition to buckets, there were lava lamps, condiment / Cartesian divers, and secret bells. On the night, the Cartesian diver got the most scientific discussion going and, for me, has sent me off to find out some science history about Cartesian divers.

And, as always, that’s the trick. To get people interested in the world around them, to get them asking questions. They might accidentally learn a thing or two.

Coathangers for ears?

a woman (mostly her hair) bending over, fingers in ears, has two coathangers attached by string to her fingers

Coathanger Girl

So, what was the most fun? That is just too hard to say. The experiment that surprised me the most was without question the Secret bell: coathanger ears.

I won’t try and attempt to explain this for you. The mere act of explaining might ruin the scientific discovery you are about to experience. That’s because – in the true spirit of bucket science – you need to try it for yourself.

You can see me trying it out in the image to the right. As silly as I look… Ah, just go try it out.

If you want to find out the how-to without any spoilers, I would recommend the youtube clip by Science Off Center. Go on. Stop reading. Start doing.

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