space and beyond

Last week-end I finished reading Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures, a book about the African American women who helped launch America’s first astronauts into space. If you’ve seen my previous posts, you’ll know that I’ve been quite engrossed in this book, which is about something that I thought I had next to zero interest in.

Don’t get me wrong — I have a reasonable interest in maths, science and historical events; and the age-old question of what is really out there? has some portion of my curiosity, but space exploration has never rated very highly on the list of things I’m interested in enough to actively and independently research. (What would be on this list? Sounds like it could be a whole other post on its own, but probably stuff that affects my day-to-day, or stuff about why things are how they are. But in truth, I don’t think I’ve done much non-fiction reading, web browsing or other “research” since finishing formal education.)

I guess space exploration, to me, was always something a bit pie in the sky compared to immediate problems like climate change and poverty in developing countries. Shetterly even mentions in the later chapters of her book that the space race left some African Americans of the time quite disgruntled, wondering why their country was so concerned about getting into space (and spending millions of dollars on it) when there were Earthly troubles to be addressed, like why they were still being treated as second-class citizens.

So why did I read this book?

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under-informed

Some time ago (has it been weeks or months? I’m not entirely sure. Timelines have become something of a blur, and perhaps not always relevant), my department was granted access to a new lunch room at work. We have been segregated from the main pharmacy since April (?) so we cannot use the kitchen space there. This new lunch room has the added perk of having a TV, so in my lunch breaks I sometimes watch TV.

Sometimes I watch the news, or a random cooking show, or some snippet of a random movie (SBS shows “world movies” during the day). If I can’t be bothered watching anything, I just put on the radio (ABC Classic, of course). Initially I browsed a lot, and I discovered that ABC have a channel dedicated to educational shows for primary and secondary school students, covering a broad variety of topics from physics and chemistry to history and social sciences. Often I watch this channel because I find it is more informative, interesting and useful than the news.

The other day, the program that happened to be on while I was having lunch was Lest we forget what? — a short show about the WWI Gallipoli campaign. I almost didn’t watch it because it is something that I was taught a lot about throughout school …or so I thought.

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history books

I’ve been reading more of Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures, and I’m finding it really awe-inspiring and thought-provoking. And I’m not even that much further in (haven’t been doing quite as much reading as I hoped, but such is life, and I read slowly).

Yesterday I read the part where some important guy (I forget who — one thing I’m having trouble with is all the names and titles in this book, but that happens with other books too, so it might just be me) — anyway, important guy (some higher-up in the military) is giving a speech to an assembly of staff from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, and he commends them for their work. This is set in the years of WWII, so he tells them that they are helping the war effort as much as the soldiers on the frontlines.

And that got me thinking about how, in all my history lessons in school about the World Wars, no one ever mentions the researchers and scientists and engineers that had to invent and innovate and problem-solve to help “win the war”. I remember being told about the surge in women entering the workforce for jobs that involved things like sewing, cooking, and nursing; and I remember learning about large factories and warehouses that employed a lot of people; but I don’t remember being told about the recruitment drive for scientists and mathematicians.

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uncovering hidden figures

Last week-end, I started reading Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly. It’s a non-fiction book about the African American women who, as the cover states, “helped win the space race”. I’m only a couple of chapters in, but I’m already fascinated by what I’ve learnt so far.

To be fair, I know very little about space exploration, engineering or physics, so it probably seems extra insightful to me, but it is thought-provoking in other ways too.

At the start, Shetterly writes about what it was like for her to grow up in Hampton, Virginia, with a father who was a NASA research scientist. There were a lot of African American women who worked there as “computers” — essentially mathematical geniuses — and to her, it was always normal to see African American women in this role. It was only later that it occurred to her how significant and under-acknowledged they were.

It really goes to show how one’s view of the world and the future can be shaped by the environment in which one grows up. It made me think of all the uproar many years ago about how girls’ toys were very limiting in their scope — always about fashion and beauty and cute things — but boys’ toys were more about action and adventure. It is easier to aspire to something greater if you are shown what is possible.

Early on, Shetterly introduces Dorothy Vaughan, one of the mathematical geniuses. Dorothy was originally a high school teacher, but applied for other jobs over the summer break to help provide for her family. One summer, in the midst of WWII, she applied for two jobs: one to launder uniforms for the military (a job that would, surprisingly, pay better than what she was getting as a teacher (African American teachers were paid much lower than their white counterparts)), and the other to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA).

The book is written really well, in a conversational way, and I’m quite keen to keep reading, so this is all for this week’s post. I will almost certainly write more about this book as I read it.

one small dog

The other night, I went for a walk to visit my parents. I stayed for dinner and then walked back home. On my way over, I walked past a house where there was a small yappy dog in the front yard and, of course, it yapped its little head off at me as I walked past. This is a common enough occurrence in the neighbourhood that it doesn’t really faze me, but it was what happened on the way back that got me thinking.

As I turned the corner and headed up the same street where the little dog lived, I decided to cross the road in hopes of not antagonising the poor thing by my very existence. As I approached its abode, however, I noticed that there was a vehicle parked outside with its headlights still on, and, of course, that little dog was yapping away.

Probably a delivery person or a visitor of some sort, I thought as I approached. Surely it was someone who was not staying long, someone the dog wasn’t familiar with. In a sense, I was right.

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Meditations: on character and expectations

A colleague recently gave me some advice that reminded me of the words of Marcus Aurelius. They didn’t use the same words, but the message was essentially the same. Their words actually reminded me of a part of Meditations that I thought I would never blog about — not necessarily because I disagree with it, but because it never sat quite right with me.

When I first read it (a few years ago), I remember that I felt a bit… uncomfortable about it, I suppose is the best way to describe it. But I think, for the most part, I’ve come to terms with it now. I’m sure there is still some part of me that is bothered by it in a way I cannot quite articulate, but maybe acceptance will come with time. Continue reading