Tuesday, March 24, 2009

channeling ada: carolyn porco rules the solar system

Today marks the beginning of a new holiday called Ada Lovelace Day. For those of you not up on your 19th century scientists, Ada Lovelace was the only legitimate daughter of British poet Lord Byron and a contemporary of inventor Charles Babbage, who is famous for having invented an early computing machine, his so-called Analytical Engine. Lovelace became a correspondent with Babbage, and many historians hold that she wrote several programs that would have helped the Analytical Engine run had it been built. For her contributions, Lovelace is often considered the world's first computer programmer.

A few months ago, I learned that an online petition was going around asking bloggers to celebrate Ada Lovelace Day by writing a post, to be published on or before March 24th, that told about any woman who had contributed in some way to the field of technology. Since I regularly read up on, and often write about, women in science and technology in my professional life, I figured this assignment would be a no-brainer. And while I am aware of quite a few women who have in one way or another made significant contributions to technology, there was really no woman that I wanted to write about more than Dr. Carolyn Porco.

Even if you've never heard of Dr. Porco, you've undoubtedly seen her work. She is the lead imaging scientist for one of the most successful—and sexy—planetary space missions of all time: Cassini-Huygens. She also participated in the Voyager missions and is currently on the imaging team for the New Horizons mission, which is on its way to the outer solar system to photograph and study Pluto and its three known moons (among other things) for the first time.

Born in New York City, Porco was drawn to astronomy as part of a spiritual quest, after her explorations of various religions proved unfulfilling. "But it was the sight of Saturn with a telescope from a New York rooftop that clinched it," she admitted to me the last time I spoke with her at length about her career. Today, Porco works out of the Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations (CICLOPS) in Colorado. She's become an expert in imaging Saturn, its rings, and especially its moons, and in coaxing secrets of these bodies from mere pixels of light sent back to planet Earth. She's also been a NASA advisor on numerous occasions, and she has experience as a university professor, teaching both undergraduates and grad students.

In speaking to Porco, she quickly betrays her roots with her Yankee accent, her persuasive New York style, and her cutting humor. Undoubtedly shaped by her early quest to understand our origins, Porco is passionate about human destiny in the cosmos. And like another famous New Yorker, the late Richard Feynman, she's adept at explaining complex scientific principles so that even the most elementary learner can catch her meaning. She has the tendency to comport herself as a young girl for whom the realization that stars aren't just pinpricks of light but giant balls of superhot gas millions of miles away is, like, the coolest thing ever. Of course, the best thing about this excitement is that it's as infectious as an office cold in mid-February. To see what I mean, I urge you to check out the talk that she gave, entitled "Fly me to the moons of Saturn," as part of the TED lecture series in 2007.

Last, but certainly not least, Porco has become an ambassador for women and young girls who so desperately need exemplars to look up to in technology and the physical sciences. When I asked her about her role as an accomplished woman in a field dominated by men, Porco didn't shy away from the issue but rather acknowledged that the glass ceiling is a shifty thing: "Women have won the strategic battles; all the laws are in place to make sure that we don't get abused with gender bias and so on," she said. "But it's the tactical battles that are difficult for women. The way science is conducted is very combative...If a man behaves aggressively, he's a stud, he's admired. If a woman behaves that way, people are shocked. It turns people off. It's different cultural expectations that we are up against."

And so, on this Ada Lovelace Day, I salute Dr. Carolyn Porco for her perseverance and her enthusiasm; for her insight and her curiosity. Let us hope that more women like her will read this and some of the other 1,600+ blog posts pledged for this event and be inspired to do great things.


  1. Anonymous12:48 AM

    Great post! I'll have to check out that TED Talk. Also, I think Mike has almost got the other blog post up- I love spreading the word about this. Thanks! -K.

  2. Wonderful tribute to Dr. Porco. And thanks for cluing me in about Ada Lovelace.


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