Episode 12: Gender in the American Space Program


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By Leila McNeill and Lady Science. Discovered by Player FM and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Player FM, and audio is streamed directly from their servers. Hit the Subscribe button to track updates in Player FM, or paste the feed URL into other podcast apps.


Hosts: Anna Reser, Leila McNeill, and Rebecca Ortenberg

Guest: Dr. Jordan Bimm

Producer: Leila McNeill

Music: Careful! and Cassie Lace by Zombie Dandies

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In this episode, the hosts discuss the masculine design, construction, and use of technology in the American Space Program. Then the hosts have an extended discussion with space historian Dr. Jordan Bimm about the gendering of primates in the Space Program, the Lovelace Women in Space Program (aka Mercury 13), and space medicine.

Show Notes

Why Masculine Technologies Matter by Ruth Oldenziel

Gender & Technology: A Reader edited by Nina Lerman, Ruth Oldenziel, and Arwen P. Mohun

Dr. Jordan Bimm

Mercury 13 - Trailer

Right Stuff, Wrong Sex: America’s First Women in Space Program by Margaret Weitekamp

Brazil’s Museum Fire Proves Cultural Memory Needs Digital Backup by Emily Dreyfuss

Further Reading

Boys and Their Toys: The Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild, 1930-1968, and the Making of a Male Technical Domain by Ruth Oldenziel


Transcribed by Rev.com

Rebecca: Welcome to Episode 12 of the Lady Science Podcast. This podcast is a monthly deep dive on topic centered on women and gender in the history in popular culture of science. With you every month are the editors of Lady Science Magazine.

Anna: Oh, I'm Anna Reser, Co-Founder and Co-Editor-in-Chief of Lady Science. I am a writer, editor, and PhD student studying 20th century American culture and the history of the American Space Program in the 1960s.

Leila: I'm Leila McNeill, the other Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Lady Science. I'm a historian of science and freelance writer with words in various places on the internet, and I'm currently a regular writer on Women in the History of Science at smithsonianmag.com.

Rebecca: And I'm Rebecca Ortenberg, Lady Science's Managing Editor. When I'm not working with the Lady Science team, I can be found writing about museums and public history around the internet and managing social media for the Science History Institute in Philadelphia.

Leila: Before we jump into the episode, we have some housekeeping items. So, the first one is that next month, October, is going to be Lady Science's fourth anniversary. We started four years ago announcing it on Ada Lovelace Day, so it'll be four years.

Rebecca: Yay.

Anna: Four extremely long years.

Leila: Four extremely. It feels it's really long, but it also feel really short, too. Yeah. It's weird. So, usually for our fourth anniversary we don't do a normal magazine issue. We usually do something different, but we will still have a podcast episode next month. And we'll also have some bonus content next month. And then, also, just going forward, since we did reach that second goal level on Patreon during our pledge-a-thon, we are going to be releasing bonus content. These aren't going to come out on any particular schedule. They'll come out as we have them. So that you don't miss them, be sure that you are subscribing to Lady Science Podcast wherever it is that you happen to listen to podcasts.

Leila: And then, also, just remember to rate us and review us on Apple Podcasts. It really helps new people see us on the platform, so be sure that you're subscribing so you don't miss any content. And then, also, rate and review us. That would be super helpful, and we are accepting birthday presents for our fourth birthday next month. So, please send those in the form of cold, hard cash.

Anna: And then, the other thing I wanted to mention, just a reminder that starting next month in October, we will have in some special blog posts about sports and gender and science.

Rebecca: Yay.

Anna: And those are all, I think, going to be very awesome, so make sure you're tuned in to the blog. I don't know what. Follow us on Twitter because that's how you'll find out about them.

Leila: And also, we had such a big response that you're actually going to do a special magazine issue later on devoted to historical representations or historical pieces about sports, gender, and science, right?

Anna: Yeah. So, in the spring, there will be a more historical series of essays. The ones that we're doing in October, some of them are sort of more contemporary, or they're kind of like personal things. But, yeah. So, we had so, so many excellent submissions that we sort of broke off a piece of those to do later kind of the way we did with our Pain Memoir series that we had some more historical pieces about pain in a separate issue. So, look out for that in the spring as well.

Anna: Okay. So, this month, (singing) we're talking about men and masculinity.

Leila: Finally, they have a space and a voice here.

Anna: I know. It's been 11 episodes with no men except for them and their bad ideas. So, later-

Rebecca: We're still going to talk about them and their bad ideas. Let's not get ...

Anna: Well, that's true.

Rebecca: Let's be real.

Anna: So, later in this episode, in an unprecedented move, we will actually be interviewing a man. We're going to talk to Jordan Bimm, who is a historian of space flight. We're going to him about astronauts, masculinity, history of technology, and that is going to be a really excellent conversation.

Anna: But first ...

Leila: But first, to get us started thinking about these topics is that we want to have kind of a, I guess, theoretical conversation about what gender studies actually means and how that encompasses the study of masculinity and that that doesn't mean that we are now the red pill. And that doesn't mean that when we talk about men in the context of gender studies or masculinity that we're talking about men to the exclusion of women or to the exclusion of trans people or something like that. That masculinity is included in this idea of gender studies.

Anna: Yeah. And I guess I'll just say this isn't, "Oh, what about the men thing?" We didn't get a bunch of emails or anything. We are doing this of our own free will. [crosstalk 00:06:15]-

Rebecca: We're not being coerced by any mens.

Anna: Yeah. Sometimes, yeah. Anyway.

Rebecca: Yeah. But we did. We describe ourselves as focusing on women and gender in the history and popular culture of science. Y'all hear me say that at the top of every single episode, and in practice, it does as is demonstrated by the last year of podcasts mean that we're talking about women and femininity. But we do say, "Women and gender," for a reason, and that means that we do look at men and masculinity and how masculinity is constructed and understood as well.

Anna: I guess the way that I was sort of taught about this and the way that I think about it is that studying men and masculinity is sort of like a way to denaturalize, I guess, what we think of as the default person, that men, in at least Western society that we're familiar with, are the default person, and they are the neutral person. They don't appear, generally, to be gendered, at least in the same way that women and people of other genders are.

Anna: And so, studying the construction of this can kind of help us see how that gets naturalized, and I guess the kind of blowback of that naturalization on people who aren't men. How do they become marginalized by this sort of flattening out of masculinity as the neutral default person, the actor of society? So, figuring out how that occurs, how we come to regard men that way can tell us a lot about the sort of dynamics of gender.

Anna: So, we criticize scholars and publications for focusing on white men to the exclusion of everybody else, but we can study how that exclusion occurs by looking specifically at how is the figure of this, or we talk about this straight, cis-white dude as being this problematic figure, at least in our work, and we want to kind of get behind that and sort of challenge all the assumptions about that we see at play in the way that women and other people are marginalized by that.

Rebecca: I think something that we say a lot that relates to this is that masculinity is constructed against femininity, so it can kind of be a way of... masculinity is defined by what it's not. This also is one of those ways that it's helpful to think about masculinity in a gender-studies context because it can shed light on non-masculine things because so many masculine things are about what they're not. I don't know if that made any sense, but-

Anna: But I think that's a good way of describing it, and I think that oftentimes, especially in our popular discourse about this that we talk about what things aren't-

Rebecca: Masculine.

Anna: ... masculine, or we talk about femininity as we talk about feminine gender roles. A lot of gender studies' things are specifically about feminine gender roles and the gendering of institutions at least that marginalize women and people of other genders, but not the way that that works in reverse, too, the way that femininity is constructed against masculinity. So, I think that there's like a turn toward that, too, toward studying masculinity, and it's not the same thing. But I think about it kind of the way that critical race theories studies whiteness in order to-

Rebecca: Yeah. I was thinking exact same thing.

Anna: Yeah. To make whiteness strange and unfamiliar and to make it something the way that we talk about other sort of racialized dynamics. We can talk about whiteness that way because then it helps us to see how whiteness is naturalized, and whiteness has become default. So, the dynamics are obviously different, and they intersect, too, like talking about whiteness when you're talking about men is not the same thing about when you're talking about women. But there's sort of a similar dynamic there, and it kind of ... I mean another similar but not the same way is the way that scholars of colonialism and empire study the metropole, the center. And so, instead of sort of going out and anthropologizing, anthropologizing the colonized people, studying the heart of the empire, too, to denaturalize its sort existence and to make it strange and make us understand the dynamics of that from the inside, I guess.

Leila: Yeah. And I think a way to bring this concept to the topic that we're actually talking about today is in one of the previous episodes ... I think it was the bonus episode that we did with Dr. Hooks, and we were talking about history as a social justice project, and, Anna, one of the things that you said in writing about the Space Program is that you don't write about specifically women in the Space Program, and that's kind of an expectation is that if you're doing gender in the Space Program, that's what you're talking about. But more of what you look at is how spaces become gendered, how spaces become masculine spaces or feminine spaces, and how gender is reflected in different aspects of the Space Program not necessarily that individual human actors in that story.

Anna: Right, and that's an important dynamic, too, that gender is something that people can have, but it's also something that kind of coheres to other things, too, like space or policy or material objects. Gender coheres to technology in really interesting ways, which we're going to talk about a little bit later, but it coheres I think also to things like the scientific method. We can talk about that, too.

Leila: Right. Yeah. Well, I know something that we've talk about at least a lot in the magazine. I don't know how much we've talk about this on the podcast, but the idea that in the 19th century, science was a masculine word. It was a masculine practice, and it was placed separate and above feminine nature. Nature's be effeminized since I will say, "At the beginning of time," that way you tend not to use such broad, sweeping phrases like that. But how this concept of science became an inherently gendered practice that people enter into.

Rebecca: Yeah. And just to sort of maybe bring this down to some things that also our listeners may have heard about, while there are many terrible things about living in the year of our Lord 2018, I think one thing that is interesting and maybe even positive that's happened is that I do think we are now in non-academic spaces talking about things like gendered ideas or racialized ideas and talking about masculinity, and especially now the phrase “toxic masculinity” is almost a Twitter meme. And so, maybe if you're having trouble all what we have, think about the way that when it's productively discussed on the internet, toxic masculinity is this idea, and it's not that all men are toxic. It's not what that means, but it's that there are certain constructions of masculinity that are toxic to everyone and create sort of toxic relationships amongst people.

Rebecca: One example, another example of this that I love because I wrote about it in undergrad way back when is the idea of the sort of male breadwinner or the male provider. The idea that a part of a man's masculinity is being able to economically, financially take care of their family, and I did work on this in the context of early 19th century, early industrial revolution labor movements in Britain. The fact that working hours in factories were restricted for women and children before they were restricted for men and part of the arguments coming from working class reformers about that was, "Oh, well, men are being demasculinized or emasculated because women are working, and they are not able to get jobs."

Rebecca: The fascinating thing about that is that all of that is a new idea. While obviously, there have ... Again, don't use this very often, but it's probably true ... for all of time, been different kinds of gender role work divisions and certainly in kind of the Western world, those have had value placed upon them based on gender roles. The idea that there's this economic provider component doesn't really work before you have wage labor. But then wage labor comes in, and people are paid for the number of hours they're working outside of the home. And then, that becomes gendered, and then we become obsessed with the idea of the male provider. So, this is something that we think of as inherent to what men do that's actually this relatively recently constructed thing, and I think that that's one of these interesting examples of how masculinity is this thing that is created by social circumstances.

Leila: Yeah. And I think we've seen how people have projected that image of the provider and the homemaker on to the very distant past as far as like the hunter-gatherer dichotomy, and that there because of that dichotomy, there was this idea for a long time that we survived because men brought home meat. That that was an image of our present gender roles that we were imposing on a very distant past for people who lived very different lives, and there's new research and different research coming out to show how that actually wasn't even if the men were the ones bringing home the meat, it was really the women that were putting the caloric, the calories on the table because they were doing and bringing home so much more than what the men could. And so, there's just a lot of ways that we have naturalized our present gender roles onto the past.

Anna: I think that's such a good example, too, because I think the distance is it's just a good one to think with. Because you have researchers who live in our present society and are embedded in these gender roles already. They're looking at a past society, and they see a whole bunch of things. They see that these people were nomadic. They see that these people ate roots. They see that these people hunted wooly mammoths or whatever. They have all of this stuff, and they need to sort it somehow and make it make sense. Usually, without even thinking about it, you just say, "Well, men are big and strong, so they did the hunting. That means that the women were probably digging up the roots or whatever." So, it's just a way that we organize our information. It's a way we organize our sort of scientific and technical systems without even thinking about it, and that's what it sort of can be really dangerous I think.

Leila: Yeah. And how that categorization was an inherently gendered categorization to devalue the work that women were doing in the past because we devalue that now.

Rebecca: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And it's this weird thing where also I think we want to think that history and progress moves in a linear fashion, and that everything can kind of be put on a upward moral swing. And so, we say, "Well, obviously, the further we go in the past, the more divided gender roles are because now we know that gender roles are bad." And therefore, in order to prove that we have always been progressing, we sort of have to go back in time and show that it was worse back then, when really all of these things, because they are constructed and have to do with the context in which they exist, it's never quite that simple.

Anna: I think that also pairs really nicely, well, nicely, I don't know, but it lines up, I think, really well with this tendency we have to also have a progressive notion of the history of technology that way back in primitive times when they only had spears, of course, the men did the spearing. But as you go into the future where we have technology that that's somehow going to iron everything out in terms of gender roles. But what we find, and there's a very famous book about this, about how technology just reinforces gender roles, that that kind of thing is not sort of a constant, progressive flow. There's all kinds of snags and retrograde motion with that, but we do love a nice, linear, progressive narrative and one that progresses from strict gender roles to no gender roles fits kind of evenly in with primitive technology to advanced technology.

Anna: So, that's one of the things that we wanted talk about today is the construction of a technophilic masculinity that sort of casts men as naturally more inclined to technology than people of other genders, and so in history of technology, scholars who work on gender have identified this dynamic in sort of the design and construction and use of technology and technological systems.

Anna: And so, an important contribution to this line of analysis, and it's one that I teach my students is Ruth Oldenziel's essay Why Masculine Technologies Matter. I have it as part of a edited volume on gender and technology which is called, I believe, Gender and Technology, and I'll link to that in the notes. It's a really useful edited volume. It has a lot of really great sort of brief essays. It has Jennifer Light's really important essay on computing, And When Women Were Computers. So anyway, in this essay, Oldenziel talks about the history of The Fisher Body Craftsman's Guild, which was a 20th century organization for young men, and it was connected to the Fisher Automobile Company. It was sort of this ... I don't know much about the history of young men's organizations in the early 20th century but that's a thing, and she uses the history of this guild to talk about the ways that the associations, I guess, between men and technology, between masculinity and technological skill or competence, and the way that organizations like this that kind of train young men in various skills for living. They sort of reinforce these associations.

Leila: Yeah. So, the guild like Anna said, was an organization for young men, and it was connected to the Fisher Car Company. The essay focuses on a model-making competition sponsored by the company and open to guild members, where young men were encouraged to perform certain masculine values in the process of making and presenting their models. Oldenziel contrasts this with ads for Fisher Automobiles that use women's bodies to symbolize the sleekness and attractive curvature of their cars. So, in this sort of symbolism, symbolic ecosystem, women are objectified in relation to technology while the young men of the guild are taught to be designers and craftsmen.

Leila: So, Oldenziel argues that these constructions of masculinity and technology are intimately connected to economic and social forces that were mobilized at this moment to, "Shore up male identity boundaries in the new world of expanding consumerism precariously coded as female." She further argues that a technophilic identity for men and boys is constructed by car companies, advertisers, et cetera at exactly the moment when women begin to have more and more access to technology as consumers.

Anna: So, I think one of the reasons that I use this essay to teach my students is because it does a really good job of showing how these constructions of masculinity are they're not inevitable, and they don't come from a kind of amorphous societal ether. They come from the Fisher Car Company. It's a very discreet, specific place that you can look and say, "This company is using these advertisements, and it's using this model-making competition to tell men how to behave and to give them a specific role connected to technology that is constructed in opposition to what women do."

Anna: So, if technology is sort of entering into public life in a really sort of explosive way the way it is in the 20th century where people are ... or the early 20th century where you're able to purchase cars and certain kinds of appliances. People are working in factories where they're running machines and stuff. The role of men in that world has to be decided and negotiated, and it's done by specific companies and advertisers and their economic reasons for those kinds of construction. So, women are working in factories and running woolen mills and running machines and stuff, and so there has to be a role for men there that kind of separates them and shores up this masculine role that's connected to technology.

Anna: So, one of the things that Oldenziel argues is that by participating in this model-making competition the role of designer and craftsman not just a consumer of technology ... That's what women do ... but somewhat or just an operator of a machine ... That's what women do. Men design technology, and they build these things for women and other people to use. So, that's how this kind of role gets constructed, and she uses the ads that use women's bodies to show you that women are either identified with the technology in a material way where they're just meant to symbolize how sexy their cars are, or they are doing this consuming or just operating machines in factories. But they don't have the sort of spark of innovation and design that can be kind of inculcated in young men by things like the model-making competition.

Leila: I mean I was just thinking about that Fiat commercial not too long ago-

Anna: Oh, my God.

Leila: ... where the woman actually turned into a car-

Rebecca: Oh, my God, yes.

Leila: ... or the car actually turned into a woman.

Rebecca: Ah.

Leila: Oh, yes, how far we've come.

Anna: Is that the same? Are you thinking, or is that the same Fiat commercial as the Fiat 500 one with the Viagra, right?

Leila: I think so, yeah.

Anna: I just remember. I think that was like a Super Bowl commercial, and we were at a Super Bowl party, and all of the women in the room were like, "Excuse me."

Leila: Yeah. It's really bad, and one of the things I was thinking about while you were talking about positioning men as designers and women as consumers is about how that does actually trickle into public consciousness and actually trickles into the way companies hire people because if we have this kind of understanding that these are the things men are meant for, those are the ones who get hired into those jobs. And then, of course, you have the kind of underlying discrimination that goes along with that, but then you also have a homogenous group of people creating technology for a culture and a society that is not homogenous. And so, that's why feminist critiques of technology are so important so that we can continue to call attention to how these ideas about how technology is gendered and the people who use them are gendered and the people who create them is also a gendered idea, but then how that creates shitty products that not everybody can use or actively hurts other people in a society.

Anna: And this like what you were saying, too, Leila, about the way that this translates into our kind of current jobs' ecosystem for women in tech is that there's people out there like that Google asshole whose argument was that women are psychologically unfit to work on technology, and that's like a compounding of these gender roles that has been sort of filtered through a kind of scientific objectivity filter that makes it seem reasonable to a frankly terrifying number of people apparently are willing to buy into that. But I think that's an interesting example of the way that these kind of assumptions about gender are sort of built up like sedimentary rock over time. That it starts with things like boys are the only ones who can build these car models.

Anna: And then, over the course of history, you keep adding things to them and adding different dynamics to them and shifting these very old ideas in ways that make them sort of fit with our current understanding of society. So, yeah, if that dude says that it's psychological, there's research about it or whatever that like, "Science says, 'It's true.'" That just fits a very old idea into our current sort of way of processing the world.

Anna: And so, it's really important to dig deep and find the kind of roots of these ideas and where they come from and to show how they're constructed. I think that is the thing I like most about that essay is that it's so specific to this one thing, this one sort of group of young men that are participating in this kind of symbolic exercise, and you can see all of these norms being created kind of in real time.

Anna: So, yeah, I guess we can wrap it up-

Rebecca: Seems like a good place to, yeah, leave it.

Anna: ... and get to our conversation with Jordan. Okay. So, with us today is Jordan Bimm. Jordan is a post-doctoral research fellow at Princeton University. His PhD dissertation, Anticipating the Astronaut, focuses on the early history of space medicine and space psychology, and his next project, Putting Mars in a Jar, investigates Cold War era military astrobiology. Welcome to the show, Jordan.

Jordan B.: Thanks.

Rebecca: Yay.

Jordan B.: Thanks so much for having me.

Anna: I think we would be remiss if we didn't mention that you're the first man who has ever been on Lady Science. So, it's true. We-

Jordan B.: I'll take that as an honor, I guess?

Anna: Yeah.

Leila: Good for you. Breaking glass ceilings and-

Jordan B.: Yeah.

Leila: We're very exclusive about the men we allow on this podcast.

Jordan B.: Oh, my gosh.

Anna: Oh, oh, definitely. Yeah. So, I hope you're suitably honored.

Jordan B.: Very much so. Couldn't be more.

Anna: So, this whole episode has been about technology and masculinity, so we wanted to just start, I guess by if you could tell us about your research interest in the history of space flight. There are not that many of us out there, so what appeals to you about the field and the history of technology, in general?

Jordan B.: Well, my interest in space flight goes back to my earliest memory as a child when in 1986, January, I tuned into the launch of a space shuttle and watched it explode a few seconds into flight killing its crew of seven. That seared itself into my mind. There was a teacher onboard, Christa McAuliffe, who was going to be one of the first teacher astronauts, so that as a child really impacted me.

Jordan B.: Within the larger history of technology, one thing I've noticed about space history is that it's very technology-focused and centric. So, you get people writing about rockets and space capsules and even spacesuits, but very rarely do you get someone who's interested in the human inside the spacesuit or the animal inside the space capsule. So, that's what I'm most interested in is sort of human-machine interactions within space history, but then, also, approaches like the social shaping of technology applying that and just to the technologies of space flight but to the human as well, like how is society, politics, and culture reflected not just in the physical manifestations of machines but in the humans we put inside them and send to space as well.

Leila: So, let's talk a little bit about your dissertation, which I'll admit I didn't read all of it.

Jordan B.: I wouldn't blame you.

Leila: I did read most of it. I read a lot of dissertations, and I have to say this one was actually really easy to read.

Jordan B.: Thank you.

Leila: It was really, really just I don't know. It kind of broke the mold for me as far as dissertation reading goes, so thank you.

Jordan B.: Thank you. Thank you. That's high praise. I really appreciate that.

Leila: So, the dissertation is about the construction of the image of the astronaut in the 20th century, so if you could just give us a little bit of a rundown of ... I mean, it's like over 200 pages, so as much of a little bit of a rundown of your dissertation and maybe just your main arguments that you can.

Jordan B.: Totally, yeah. So, the summary of the dissertation goes something like this. When I started investigating the history of astronauts, I found out that it's mostly like a space race story that takes place like after Sputnik within NASA. It's focused on white male, military test pilots who eventually became sort of the famous astronaut in the 1960s, but what I learned was that instead of focusing on astronauts, I should be focusing on the people selecting astronauts--the doctors and psychologists in a field called space medicine.

Jordan B.: And as I read more, I found out that space medicine existed for like 10 years before NASA existed as a military science within the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy, and that a lot of the key people in military space medicine were actually German scientists brought over after World War II as part of Operation Paperclip. So, that was incredibly interesting to me because they had their own ideas about bodies and minds and superiority, men and women, that sort of thing that I don't think the sort of checked at the border. They brought it with them. They sort of baked it into the cake.

Jordan B.: So, I decided, "What would a history of the astronaut look like that wasn't about NASA, and it wasn't about these white male, military test pilots?" So, I found within the decade of pre-NASA, military space medicine these sort of four episodes that each one kind of focuses on an unexpected or different type of test subject that was used to build up the astronaut that wasn't a white male, military test pilot.

Jordan B.: So, the first chapter looks at the first attempt to simulate life in space by putting this sort of unskilled, young airman inside a space cabin simulator for a week and seeing how he would fare inside this very tortuous environment. The second chapter focuses on a high-altitude mountain experiment with mountaineers and high-altitude indigenous people in Peru for the purpose of astronaut acclimatization to low pressure. The third chapter takes a detour from human to animal astronauts and looks at the case of Able and Baker, the first primates recovered successfully from a space flight, who went on to become America's first celebrity space animals and this sort of fantastic, gendered afterlife.

Jordan B.: And the final chapter looks at the Lovelace Woman in Space Program, which was an unofficial test of women pilots for space fitness that has been written about and is the subject of a recent Netflix documentary. It's probably the best known of the four episodes I focus on, so each one of those kind of complicates this image that we have of the white male, military test pilot and shows that other types of humans were in the mix earlier on. It brings to the fore I think a number of interesting themes about the construction of the astronaut.

Rebecca: So, building on that, of course, as you mentioned, one of the subjects you talk about is animals, and so can you tell us a little bit about this idea of animal biography and what that can teach us about how we constructed astronauts and the human norms?

Jordan B.: So, I was fascinated by this animal chapter and this animal episode because it gives us a chance to think about humans without focusing on humans specifically. It becomes like a foil, and you can really see some things that you wouldn't normally see. So, when I was looking for methodologies, I came across animal biography, and that's sort of outline by Helena Pycior, who's an animal historian in animal studies. She applies it to the lives of First Dogs, so dogs that are owned by the President of the United States of America specifically Laddie, who was owned by Warren G. Harding in the '20s.

Jordan B.: So, she says there's a number of problems with the way we normally write about animals. The most common one is that we sort of recklessly anthropomorphize them. We ascribe them human characteristics, and we write about them in that sense. And the other major problem is that there's just not a lot of records about animal lives, so she says, "Yes. We need to not ascribe them sort of human qualities when we write about them. Stick to the facts, and then we also need an archive that's thick enough to give us enough information about these animals."

Jordan B.: So, while Pycior writes about First Dogs because they're owned by the President of the United States ... There was a lot of things generated about these animals when they lived ... the same is true in space science. For some of the animals that were used in high-profile space experiments, their lives are pretty well recorded both in terms of their lives as laboratory animals and specimens, their encounters with the technologies of space flight during experiments themselves, and then also their afterlives where there is intense public interest on them. So, that afforded me an archive big enough to be able to tell the life stories of Able and Baker in this way.

Leila: Before we move on, can you actually just explain to our listeners who Able and Baker are? Because I think a lot of people might know about Ham, but, of course, or I don't know. If you could, yeah, just explain who Able and Baker are.

Rebecca: Yeah.

Jordan B.: So, it's kind of my jam to go one step back before the thing everyone knows about, so, yeah. Everyone knows about Ham, and they think Ham was like the first animal in space or the first primate in space. Ham was a chimpanzee that was used by NASA in 1961 as part of Project Mercury, but Able and Baker were two monkeys that were sent into space two years earlier in May 1959, and when they were recovered, they became the first large animals to be successfully recovered from a space flight. So, a lot of people know Laika, the Soviet dog, the first sort of animal in orbit. Unfortunately, she died about four hours into the flight. That was a secret that was kept secret for a long period of time, but there was never any plan to bring Laika back. It was always intended that she would die up there at some point.

Jordan B.: So, to actually have animals back alive after the experiment was a big deal because you could do things with them. You could subject them to further experiments, but then you could also parade them around for public relations purposes, which is exactly what NASA did with Able and Baker. They had a giant press conference for them at NASA Headquarters. They appeared on the cover of LIFE Magazine together, and they sort of had these very long and interesting afterlives as these sort of unwilling representatives promoting space flight.

Jordan B.: The most interesting thing about Able and Baker is that both of them were female monkeys, but afterwards, they were sort of gendered in this binary, where Able was sort of crafted as the stereotypical Cold Warrior and assumed to be male and is referred to as “he” whenever it appears in movies, whereas Baker was fitted into the image of this sort of suburban housewife, and she was confined to an enclosure they called Baker's Bungalow. They even found another male monkey that they called her monkey husband, and they expected her to reproduce. So, the focus there was on her reproduction capacity and the study of her offspring.

Jordan B.: So, anyways, it's a fascinating story. It shows how masculinity in the space program was under construction even before the first humans even flew in space. These ideas were already there, and it was sort of already this really important shoring up around space flight that it comes out even in the case of monkeys.

Leila: Yeah. I thought some of the examples that you gave in the dissertation about how they were gendered was just super bonkers though and it was like super heteronormative as well and that they described as marriages and weddings, and it was bonkers. I was giggling to myself during those whole descriptions.

Jordan B.: And I think that one of the interesting things that it hits on which is we oftentimes we ascribe human qualities to animals as an attempt to elevate them, as an attempt to say they become more human after a space flight. But, why do we need to think of them as like little humans to afford them some respect and care? We shouldn't be masking what we do to these animals with these fantastical stories about how they've become little honorary humans after they return from the magical land of space or whatever.

Anna: Yeah.

Rebecca: Can I also ask, did you find yourself sometimes having to stop yourself from anthropomorphizing them as you were writing, and what was that like?

Leila: That's a great question.

Jordan B.: Yes. I mean, one thing I learned from reading Lorraine Daston and Gregg Mitman's book, Thinking with Animals, is that is just how common it is to anthropomorphize animals. We all do it every day. I do it with the cats in my house and all that kind of thing, so it was something you had to constantly check yourself with. I did write the methodology section before I wrote the actual meat of the chapter, so I had it front of mind sort of the rules that I was trying to follow, Pycior's rules. But, yes. You definitely do find yourself. It's inescapable.

Jordan B.: So, I think what Daston and Mitman say which is instead of trying to argue, "Should we do this, or should we not do this?" it's more interesting to understand how we do it and why we do it. And in the case of space monkeys, it serves a number of different purposes. It makes space flight seem natural. It makes the participation of animals in this thing seem like a transformative technology, like things that intersect with space flight become more human in a way. Animals that get used in atomic testing, for example, after the experiment don't get elevated in the same way that animals who participate in space flight get elevated to honorary human status.

Anna: That's really interesting, and I like that you brought in also how that elevation extends to like what happens to space animals after they died and the different sort of negotiation over, "Well, what do we do with their remains?" And, "Should we have a funeral, or do we take their skeletons out?" That is also a very kind of creepy part of the chapter, and I saw Able earlier this year. She doesn't look great, man, at the museum. It's really kind of horrifying the way that she's preserved.

Jordan B.: Yeah. I find it incredible that she's still on display there, and as part of writing the chapter, I visited the graves of all those space monkeys. I visited Able at the Smithsonian. I visited Baker's grave in Huntsville at the Space & Rocket Center. I visited Ham's memorial at the International Space Hall of Fame in Alamogordo, New Mexico, just to try and get a sense of what these places are like where these animals are memorialized and presented in the case of Able. So, yeah. I think part of my research was archival. Part of it was also just going to places.

Leila: Can you explain a little bit about how even the way that they were memorialized is gendered as well?

Jordan B.: For sure. So, Able, the monkey that sort of became this male Cold Warrior or Ashma caricature. Able died four days after returning from space during a botched, unrelated, medical procedure, and then the decision was to stuff Able and display her body at the Smithsonian. And in there, she's presented as still part of the experiment inside the little capsule they had built for her, and in a way, that is like it is Able's sort of at work perpetually. Whereas, Baker got to live this huge afterlife for almost, I think, 20, over 20 years in captivity after the experiment in a very domesticated space that they called a bungalow that they populated with different monkey husbands at different times.

Jordan B.: So, when Baker died in 1984, there was no longer a public taste for taxidermy. She'd become I think too anthropomorphized, too real for them, so they buried her under a marble headstone, which is much more of like a sort of human, domestic marker. So, whereas Able's sort of always at work at the Smithsonian, still forever inside that enclosure with all the wires wrapped around her, and her finger still on the telegraph key, Baker is sort of laid to rest in a much more pastoral, human way.

Leila: Wow. We went really off script there.

Rebecca: That's so weird.

Jordan B.: That's okay.

Rebecca: But, it's so great and so fascinating.

Anna: I know. It's just that chapter was super awesome.

Rebecca: Yeah.

Anna: I'm like, yeah. Are you-

Jordan B.: Thanks.

Anna: Just the idea of using animal biography to talk about like human gender norms I think is really awesome and really well done.

Jordan B.: Thank you. Thanks a lot.

Anna: I think the other thing that we're very interested in is the chapter about the Lovelace Program, and because I think more people are familiar with that than they will be with Able and Baker or some of the other episodes in your dissertation. But I think you have a really fresh take on it, so the thing that struck me most about that chapter was this idea of male performance. That the women and people who are not men have to sort of degender themselves by acting less feminine or acting more masculine if they want to enter masculine spaces and to be perceived as not gendered. I guess they have to do this sort of male performance, so can you talk about that in the context of the Lovelace story and this kind of myth I think that we're still struggling with that gender somehow doesn't adhere to men, that men are just neutral actors at least in the same way it adheres to women and in the case of astronauts, too, I think that's the case.

Jordan B.: Definitely. So, I mean, for people who don't know the Lovelace Woman in Space Program, it began in 1959 and ran until 1961. It was basically a comparative study where the doctor, Randolph Lovelace, who had designed and conducted the medical testing for NASA's first astronaut group, the Mercury Seven, decided a year later that he would try and find women test subjects and put them through what he said was sort of the same group of tests ... In actuality, it was a little bit different ... to see if they could pass and meet sort of the standards that he had set for space fitness.

Jordan B.: And famously, the first couple women test subjects through the program did incredibly well by his standards. He judged them fit for space flight, but then there was a big pushback from NASA and from the women themselves advocating to try and get added to the official program that led to Lovelace canceling the program early and without it sort of being a finished study. So, it sort of lives as this moment in the history of space flight where women tried to get access to the profession of astronaut and were denied. But it is a space medicine story, and that's what I've tried to highlight in my chapter because oftentimes what you'll see is people telling the stories of the women themselves, their biographies, but then sort of leaving space medicine untouched as sort of this neutral, value-neutral thing or even something that was totally valid.

Jordan B.: So, if you look at something even as innocuous as the title of the Netflix documentary, it's called Mercury 13, and I have a number of problems with this title. The first is that they used Mercury which was NASA's project Mercury. It makes it seem like the women were actually part of an official program when they weren't, and I don't think it helps anyone to gloss over where the barriers really were for them.

Jordan B.: The other thing is the number 13, which refers to the number of women who passed the tests, and I think that sort of writes out of history the test subjects who didn't pass. We should remember them as well because to only concentrate on the ones that passed the test kind of implies that, yeah, these tests were actually valid judgments of who belongs in space and who doesn't. When I think if you look at the tests, they were made by an ex-military doctor whose primary concern before astronauts was high-altitude spy plane personnel and all this other kind of stuff. So, his interest in women I think is not so much about equality and achieving sort of gender parity. It really has these other Cold War concerns about weight restrictions, about trying fly as high as you can with efficient human factors as they would call them.

Jordan B.: So, anyways, yeah. The chapter kind of tries to bring out the politics of space medicine and tries to present them, the tests themselves, as political. So, your question was actually about male performance, and I haven't got to that yet. But I think-

Leila: Take your time.

Jordan B.: The space medicine and the interiors of spacecraft were basically extensions of male-dominated military spaces, so as much as NASA tried to position itself as a civilian agency, it, in fact, inherited culture, machines, personnel from the military which was already super, super masculine. So, even something like if you go back into the pre-NASA history of space medicine and look at the space cabin simulator, the very first attempt to simulate life inside a space cabin, that was super masculine space right from the start, and women were not tested in that space. There was only men.

Jordan B.: So, when women were finally recruited into NASA in the mid-1970s, and the first women flew in space in the early 1980s with Dr. Sally Ride being the first, there was this institutional non-knowledge of women both at the administrative level and at the medical level where they just didn't know. It was like they didn't want to know, and now that they had to know, they were really just uncomfortable with these things. So, male performance works in so many different ways. You can find it just in the way that if you listen to women astronauts speak in space, they will try and sound like a fighter pilot or something calling into the tower. That is very subtle, but that's part of the culture that they've sort of assumed.

Jordan B.: So, space medicine constructs men as sort of the normal or the standard component within sort of like a system configuration, and anything that's abnormal is seen as dangerous and unwanted. So, what women do when they finally are allowed access to the astronaut core is try to eliminate all those things that might make them seem different and might make them seem less desirable than a man to send to space. So, that goes from everything from suppressing their periods, which were seen by space medicine doctors as one of the most problematic parts of a woman. And hello, men have leaky bodies, too.

Jordan B.: I find it super interesting that these space scientists, in general, will go to insane lengths to solve a technological problem. They will be like, "We got to fit this round thing into a square hole." They'll spend all night, and they'll come up with the most complicated solution possible. But it'll work. And then, they're like, "Oh, yeah. We want to send a woman into space." And they're like, "Oh. I don't want to work on that problem." When it's a human, they just suddenly shut down, and they don't have that ingenuity that NASA's so famous for.

Jordan B.: So, yeah. Suppression of periods was something. They offered Sally Ride drugs to do that. They also just totally didn't understand what women needed in space. For example, they famously asked her if 100 tampons would be enough for seven days in space. So, stuff like that, all the way down to when she landed, and the crew was sort of coming to a press conference. Someone stepped forward with a bouquet of flowers for her, which they had never done for any of the male astronauts, and Sally Ride was like, "No. Don't give it to me. I don't want it."

Jordan B.: So, just ways like that they felt the need to not demarcate themselves as women, and I think that's unfortunate because space is always presented as sort of this utopian place where humanity's future is. But in fact, what I've found through my study is that that's a bit of a myth and a bit of a fantasy, and in fact, it's a pretty dystopian place where a lot of these Cold War gender politics are reproduced both in terms of heteronormativity and masculine superiority. So, I think if we are going to actually create the vision of humanity in space that we really want to which is to sort of reproduce human diversity as it exists on Earth in space, we have to go back and sort of dismantle space medicine from its very earliest beginnings because that's when it was sort of all baked into the cake.

Leila: Yeah. I think it's super important to highlight, and you did this in dissertation, and you mentioned it just now, is that Lovelace Program wasn't some sort of huge step towards equality. It was not constructed for that purpose, I think that there's a lot of as the "Mercury 13" in quotes has become a more public story that more people in the public know about it is that it is often written about that way. I think it's really important that just because women are allowed somewhere, doesn't mean that it's some just huge step for equality and progress when it was kind of doing the opposite.

Jordan B.: Totally, and Lovelace gets sort of written about and thought about as this sort of advocate for equality, and in space medicine is seen as sort of this value-neutral thing and if only we can appeal to science, then, of course, women will be seen as equal to men. And it's like no, space medicine was a conservative practice from its core, from its very beginning. It was basically founded by Luftwaffe doctors from Nazi Germany, so their opinion of women, surprise, it was not very high, and that get built into all sorts of things like just even their lack of interest in women, the design of different machines in the laboratory to not accommodate women's bodies. There's just a million different ways in which their disinterest and their sort of dissuasion of wanting to include woman is apparent.

Anna: And if I'm not mistaken, it was only white women that were included anyway, right?

Jordan B.: Oh, yeah.

Anna: So, yeah.

Jordan B.: There's that as well, and there's a number of different intersectionalities that just get totally ignored even heteronormativity in space flight today is still super problematic. The number of people who have been to space is approaching 600, but the number of people who have been openly queer or out in space is like one or zero. And Dr. Sally Ride had to come out in a letter published after her death. That's how much there's still sort of a de facto, "Don't ask. Don't tell," in NASA, even though it wasn't even part of the military that that law applied to.

Jordan B.: So, anyways, yeah. For example, you'll get these space psychology studies about long-duration Mars missions, and they're like, "How do we stop inter-crew problems?" And they're like, "Well, we should maybe only send men so that people don't have sex with each other." I'm like, "What? Wait a sec."

Leila: Because men don't have sex with each other.

Jordan B.: Yeah. Or like, "We should only send married couples," and then they'll just write about how it should be men and women and not understand that other types of people get married and whatever. So, there's still a very super conservative theme in space medicine and also extends to not wanting to include disabled people in the astronaut core and that sort of thing. Even though the ability and disability is kind of totally reworked in the zero-G spacecraft environment, there's not sort of an interest there in trying to select anyone other than sort of who's super-normate on Earth.

Leila: This value neutral science thing kind of leads into the next question that we had that one of the challenges posed to the masculine figure of the astronaut is the idea of the "Data body" that was created when space medicine practitioners created machine-readable punch cards for the astronaut candidates. So, can you tell us a little bit about what the data body is, and why it was a potential challenge to that astronaut image?

Jordan B.: So, data body is a term that I invented myself, and it was inspired by a course I took during my PhD with a medical anthropologist named Naomi Adelson called Bodies in Biotechnologies and Anthropology. So, I was really interested in this system of machine-readable punch cards that Randolph Lovelace, the NASA space medicine advisor, who selected the Mercury Seven and also did the tests on the women pilots in the Lovelace Women in Space Program, was also working on. So, these machine-readable punch cards were basically going to record all the different types of information that they collected about the human body in these sort of exacting and exhaustive medical tests.

Jordan B.: So, in the end, when they're judging who's going to go into space and who's not, they're not judging a physically present person. They are judging a stack of basically Scantron cards, and it wasn't just like 10 or something. There's 76 cards that sort of represented the human body, and, of course, you can ask questions like, "What's included? What's not included?" You can talk about like cuts like Karen Brad talks about. You have to choose what you want and what you're interested in, and one thing I thought was super interesting was that Lovelace's cards did include a mark for sex, either male or female. That was the first time that that had appeared in these types of cards because they had been used by the military previously, but they'd never included an option for sex because it was assumed that it would be only men taking it.

Jordan B.: The thing that I thought was sort of interesting was that this can cut both ways. You can say, "Okay. It's good that they're including women sort of assuming that they might take these tests by putting that on there," but then what that does is it allows you, affords you a sense of control over that. So, you could sort all your candidates and basically say, "Anyone who ticks that box for women, don't include them." In the dissertation, I sort of reference a 1960s TV show about military space operations in which they use the computer punch card system to select candidates, and they don't include a control for men or women. And then, they find themselves accidentally selecting a woman candidate, and all the military brass are in a huff because like, "Oh. We can't have this. How did this happen? This is a mistake, and the computer's not supposed to make mistakes," and that sort of thing.

Jordan B.: So, yeah. The data body is just like a representation of the body as data that then can be judged separately of the body itself. There's definitely a political dimension to what you choose to include and what you don't choose to include, and how that affords you different control over the output that you then select.

Rebecca: So, before we wrap up, I want to talk a little bit about the idea of shoring up male identity, and so I was wondering if you could talk about how astronauts identity was constructed as against femininity and what that can tell us about how the masculine identity gets formulated?

Jordan B.: Sure. So, space travel, it really reworked American masculine and challenged masculinity in a number of ways. So, if you think back to like sort of the Teddy Roosevelt American masculinity, it's rooted in like autonomy and freedom and the environment, whereas spacecraft, you were basically cocooned inside a machine, and you had almost zero agency. It was all automatic, so there was a challenge in that to masculinity. It did not seem super masculine to A, not be in control, so the Mercury Seven went to great lengths to try and get control over the spacecraft in certain ways. They were given some control over backup systems in the end.

Jordan B.: So, yeah. There was this sort of challenge to: Would the person inside the spacecraft be inherently masculine? And it turned out like, "No." So, in a lot of ways, they had to work to reproduce masculinity in this space so that even went down to space monkeys, for example, and the way that they had to be sort of binarily constructed as male and female.

Jordan B.: There's another way, though, that it gets constructed, and that's in relationship to space as an extreme environment. When you look at the history of mountaineering and polar exploration, the environment is sort of constructed as this hostile enemy that needs to be physically resisted by like a strong, masculine body, and it becomes like an extension of the military culture that way. So, not only is it a question of technology and automation and agency, it also becomes a question of a challenging environment and which bodies are appropriate for resisting that. And in that moment, in the Cold War, there was sort of this culture of masculinity that emerged around resisting physically extreme environments that had become strategic all of a sudden because of the sort of globally-scaled nature of the Cold War. So, that became part of the shoring up of the masculinity of the astronaut as well.

Leila: Good. Does anyone have anyone have any other questions, or, Jordan, do you have anything that you want to say just to put a little bow on the conversation?

Jordan B.: One thing I would like to add though is that for years, I have kept a Lady Science postcard next to my-

Rebecca: Aw.

Jordan B.: ... writing desk, and it's like a really awesome just a design piece. I don't know. I've found a lot of inspiration in it over the years.

Rebecca: Aw.

Anna: Aw.

Leila: Thanks.

Anna: That's so great.

Rebecca: Yay.

Jordan B.: Yeah.

Leila: Thank you.

Jordan B.: So, thank you for the work that you guys do. I think this podcast is awesome, and it was a real honor to be asked to be part of it.

Anna: Aw.

Leila: Oh.

Rebecca: Yay. You go.

Leila: Well, thank you so much for sharing your dissertation with us and sharing your time with us. We really appreciate having you on.

Jordan B.: Thank you. Thank you so much.

Leila: Yeah. Thank you.

Anna: At the end of every episode, our hosts will unburden themselves with something in the news, their work, whatever that's just really annoying the crap out of them. So, this one annoying thing.

Rebecca: Hey. Okay. So, it's my turn this time, which means we're going to talk about museum stuff.

Anna: Woo hoo.

Rebecca: So, over Labor Day weekend, which will have been a couple weeks by the time everyone is listening to this, something not annoying but devastating happened, which is that the Brazil National Museum burned down, or large amounts of the building burned. At this point, as of a couple of days ago, they are still estimating that they have lost 90% of their collections. Particularly hard hit by the fire were records of the indigenous languages as well as a lot of their natural history collections. Those were areas of the museum where it just, the fire, raged.

Rebecca: It's pretty awful. This is the most significant museum in Brazil, one of the largest both historical and natural history collections in South America, so this is a pretty devastating loss.

Anna: And if I'm not misspaken, misspaken, mistaken, the museum is older than Brazil was an independent country from Portugal, right?

Rebecca: Yes. Yeah.

Anna: Yeah.

Rebecca: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's, yeah, like a few years older than it, and it has been seen as kind of like, from what I've read, a symbol of Brazil as an independent country as well. So, yeah, it's really sad, and it's sort of been something that as a member of the museum community, my heart has been with that museum and the people of Brazil lately.

Rebecca: But, of course, when terrible things happen, someone out there has to have annoying, stupid responses to it. And so, I want to just talk, so I want to complain about a couple of stupid, annoying responses that I've seen. One of them is something that unfortunately is going to always be bubbling beneath the surface in discussions of museums that are not in the West or historical or natural history collections that aren't in the West, and that's this assumption that brown people, essentially people who aren't Western, aren't able to take care of their collections, and that's why they should all just be at the British Museum.

Rebecca: I saw some discussions online of people kind of saying that they had seen, "Oh, yeah. Well, obviously, Brazil doesn't know how to take care of its museum." They tell us it's financial crises, da, da, da, da, da. So, maybe we should just have all these collections in more stable countries like the U.K., and this has essentially been the argument for stealing national treasures from across the world since white people started stealing national treasures from across the world, so it's pretty horrifying to see it.

Anna: The beginning of time, you mean?

Rebecca: Yes.

Anna: Yeah.

Rebecca: Since the beginning of time. We are using “since the beginning of time” so much in this episode, but it feels both inevitable and just really frustrating to see how easily it is for people to make that leap. Especially, when God knows there are museums all over that don't have their shit together. Not always, and it's often because of lack of funding and because of lack of national support. The U.S. does a really bad job of funding and supporting its many museums and historical treasures and even the Smithsonian is pretty badly funded by the Federal Government.

Leila: It's awful on several different levels. One, it's incredibly disrespectful to the people who did the work at that museum.

Rebecca: Yes.

Leila: That they worked really hard, and they did their jobs really well with the means that they had. That had nothing to do with them not being capable of taking care of their museum and taking care of their collections. This idea that so archeology and anthropology has always been tied to nation and Europeans and Americans think that they can just go into other people's backyards and basically pillage their shit and take it back home and put it in their national museums, right? And so, throughout the history of these fields, people in other countries have been consistently stripped of their right to own their national identity by being able to keep the things that people took out of their backyard. And that is basically what this argument is. It's saying that we still have the right to own your shit. You don't get that because you can't play nicely with your toys.

Rebecca: Yeah. You have proven that you can't take care of it.

Leila: Right. Yeah.

Anna: I think what you said about being disrespectful to the people who work in the museum is a really important thing to reiterate. The people work in a museum are not in charge of paying for it. That's not how museums work.

Anna: It's not their fault they didn't have the money to take care of the building. We have to be able to, I don't know, be careful about and understand the dynamics of how these things are funded and the differences between different kinds of museum work and who's responsible for what, and, yeah. The curators on the floor, this is not their fault.

Anna: So, you can talk about the mismanagement of the funding for museums in Brazil or whatever but even if you want to make some kind of argument that Brazil is in economic turmoil or whatever, sorry, but that still doesn't give you the right to lay claim to someone else's shit.

Anna: You don't get to say that. You don't get to swoop in and say, "Well, you can't take care." You don't get to do that for other people's kids. You don't. I don't understand this argument. It's bananas to me. Like, "What?"

Anna: And that's just to let that's like the ... It's such a ... I don't know. It's one of those imperial kind of legacies that is just floating on the surface of our culture that nobody seems to take any issue with. It's incredible to me that we would assume that the U.K. or the U.S. is somehow entitled to doing this, and that our argument is that our argument is that, "Well, we have to preserve it for posterity." No. We don't have do anything. We don't get to do anything with other people's stuff. What are you talking about?

Leila: Rebecca, that article that you sent from Wired about, "Well, they should have digitized everything." First of all, digitization takes money, and it takes labor. And if they're already thin on both, it's going to be real hard to crank out digitizations that even if we consume for free on Internet Archive, doesn't mean it was free getting it there.

Rebecca: And the idea of digitization as a substitute for the actual thing, or a way of preserving the actual thing, is one of the things that makes digital museum people look bad in this way that makes me super angry. Because digitization often is and should be about access, not about preserving things, and there are so many people out there who say, "Digitization is bad because it's a way of ... " because people think it's a way of preserving things, and then we're going to end up throwing away all this stuff. And I always want to say, "No, no, no. That's not what the digitization is for." And then, something like this fucking Wired article comes down, and it's like, "No, actually, this would have helped preserve stuff," and I'm like, "Stop it. Stop it."

Leila: I think that this is the first time Rebecca has said the F word on this podcast.

Rebecca: Is it?

Leila: Welcome, Rebecca.

Anna: We did it.

Rebecca: Is it?

Leila: Let's just hope.

Rebecca: Oh, my God. Yay.

Leila: We got you upset enough.

Rebecca: See? Me being angry about people being stupid about museums. It's appropriate.

Anna: I'm just going to say that also digitization does not ... It is not automatically preserved. You have to then preserve the infrastructure that kind of holds up the digitized product, and we have no idea how to do that. We are flying by the seat of our pants here on Planet Earth-

Rebecca: Oh, my gosh, yeah.

Anna: ... with our internet shit. We have no idea what we're doing. What? Are you just going to build more data centers until the whole surface of the planet is covered in data centers?

Rebecca: Yep.

Anna: Digital things require physical infrastructure to survive. It's not just ... I don't know how people think that works, but you got to have servers and shit.

Rebecca: If the server, if the digital file server, or I don't know. We don't use hard disks anymore, but disks or whatever, was still-

Anna: The tapes.

Rebecca: If tapes were still in the museum, they also would have burned up. I mean which is why part of most digitization plans involve the shit being stored on like five different servers in different parts of the world, even really, really basic digitization plans often involve that, which that's also super expensive.

Anna: Which I'm sure is super affordable for a museum that doesn't have money for fire sprinklers. Just saying.

Rebecca: Exactly. Exactly. To be fair, honestly, the Wired article does go into more detail about the money and labor that the process takes than a lot of places, but it still concludes that this all a totally doable, rational solution to this problem.

Anna: It's also like we talk about this all the time about, "Oh, well, there has to be some technological solution to our problems that is somehow removed from the physical reality of the world." And not only is we've discussed that not true, but we don't have the technology to preserve all of the information that is contained in a physical artifact. So, say your natural history collection has a bunch of preserved dead birds. That's a thing. How are you going to preserve everything that that actual bird contains, all the data that's inside that? Data that we might not even be looking for right now, but that someone else might look for later? There's no way to preserve all of that, so even if that were a solution, it's not like a complete solution. You're only going to be able to preserve probably at most like an image of the bird and some metadata about where it came from and when, and that's probably all you're going to get out of that.

Leila: Well, hey, if we bring in that 3D body scanner ...

Anna: Oh, no.

Leila: ... that we talked about last time. You'll be able to do that.

Rebecca: Sure.

Anna: Thanks a lot, Peter Thiel.

Leila: Peter Thiel to the rescue.

Anna: Oh, my God.

Leila: Okay. Well, I guess that's a good place to close up since I just said, "Peter Thiel to the rescue."

Anna: We'll all be departing this hell planet right now. I mean, just shoot me into the sun.

Leila: I'm dead now.

Anna: I'm done.

Leila: Okay. So, if you liked our episode today, please, please, please leave us a rating interview on Apple Podcasts so that new listeners can find us. If you have questions about any of the segments today, Tweet us at @ladyxscience or #LadySciPod. For show notes, episode transcripts, to sign up for our monthly newsletter, read monthly issues, pitch us an idea for an article, and more visit ladyscience.com.

Leila: We are an independent magazine like we keep reminding you, and we depend on the support from our readers and listen, my pleas get more and more desperate. You can support us through a monthly donation with Patreon or through one-time donations, just visit ladyscience.com/donate.

Leila: And until next time, you can find us on Facebook at @ladysciencemag and on Twitter at @ladyxscience.

Anna: Oh, and we're on Instagram, too.

Leila: Oh, and we're on Instagram, yes.

Anna: It's also @ladyxscience.

Rebecca: Yay.

51 episodes