Danielle: Yes. How did you interpret that?
Abby: I think what he is saying is that the evidence of reality will ultimately prevail, no matter what societal prejudices stand in the way of the scientist who did the work. That in Payne's case, her published PhD dissertation was ultimately proven right by future research, even if it faced immense, sexist pressure at the time.
But while that does seem to be the case in this story, what if Payne hadn't been able to afford to get to the U.S. to continue her studies at an institution that would, this time, actually award the degree she earned? What if her advisor had buried her work, or taken credit for it when it was eventually proven correct? Or what about a previous episode, when Tyson himself noted how many geniuses may have never overcome poverty, abuse, or prejudice to even begin making contributions to our understanding of the world? I don't think he's directly contradicting himself by noting that the “evidence” did indeed overcome the initial bias of Payne’s advisor, but there is a contradiction there on a wider scale. Know what I mean?
Danielle: Yeah. I feel like he's again pointing to science as a democratic force. You can't be prejudiced against facts—Payne's research speaks for itself, even if her byline speaks to her gender. But this is a somewhat optimistic view of science, that negates some details that allow individuals to make significant scientific discoveries. Like, how many women were thwarted by scale needed to conduct research? I doubt that Payne would have been able to hire a team of computers to bolster her work, like Pickering did. One point in the episode sort of points to this discrepancy. When Payne shares her discovery with Cannon, her fellow researcher asks if anyone has checked her calculations. The answer is no, and we're left to wonder how many scientists scoffed at the idea of checking Payne's work.
Abby: I am not sure that this is what he meant, but if Tyson's intention is to suggest that science isn’t sexist because it is evidence-based, I feel like there are countless examples beyond the Payne story to challenge that through the present day. Plus, it’s very similar to the “merit culture” argument used to justify broad sexism in Silicon Valley.
Danielle: This episode also discussed the folklore behind the constellations, which is kind of a fun thing to know about -- even if its not all that scientific. I like the stories but I sort of wish there hadn’t been all that stuff about chasing women into the stars during the lady-scientist episode.
Abby: Ha ha yes, good point. Look at all these females around the world contributing to science by being fictional, imperiled women (probably imagined by men) asking deities to save them! Cool stories, bro.
Danielle: In addition to women, this episode was also about stars -- how hot they are, how far they are, how old they are, and how they die. That last is one of the sexier parts of science, i.e. supernovas, which are violent and beautiful. And according to Tyson, we might witness the dramatic explosion of the Eta Carinae, which in reality happened several thousands of light-years ago but might only reach our sky within a century. Which would be pretty cool.