MAE JEMISON: 100 Year Starship is about making sure the capabilities for human interstellar flight exists within the next 100 years. Capabilities, not building a starship or launching a starship, but having the capabilities. And the reason for that was the challenge that it requires, right? The radical leaps in knowledge that are required. We can’t ease up on this.
KEVIN SCOTT: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Behind the Tech. I’m your host, Kevin Scott, Chief Technology Officer for Microsoft.
In this podcast, we’re going to get behind the tech. We’ll talk with some of the people who have made our modern tech world possible and understand what motivated them to create what they did. So, join me to maybe learn a little bit about the history of computing and get a few behind-the-scenes insights into what’s happening today. Stick around.
CHRISTINA WARREN: Hello, and welcome to Behind the Tech. I’m Christina Warren, Senior Cloud Advocate at Microsoft.
KEVIN SCOTT: And I’m Kevin Scott.
CHRISTINA WARREN: And today on the show we talked to Dr. Mae Jemison. Mae is a doctor, an engineer, an educator, a philanthropist, a entrepreneur, a writer, a dancer, and a NASA astronaut. Her list of accomplishments is long, diverse and incredibly inspiring. Kevin, how did you first learn about Dr. Jemison and her work?
KEVIN SCOTT: I have always been a huge space nerd. And I just watched all of the space shuttle launches, you know, since the very first one. And like it was, I believe her first space mission was in ‘92 or ‘93, and like I can just distinctly remember learning about her, and like not just that she was a passenger on the shuttle flight, but like all about her biography and background, like back then. So, I’ve known about her for, you know, 27 years. I’m an enormous fan of her and what she’s done in the world.
CHRISTINA WARREN: I’m actually an enormous fan too. A – a couple of years ago, Lego came out with the Women NASA Lego kit, and she’s one of the featured women in that kit, and that’s actually, when you walk into my house, that’s on display when you first walk in. You, it’s with some of my other toys, so I’m really excited about this conversation with the two of you too. So, let’s get into the interview.
KEVIN SCOTT: Our guest today is Dr. Mae Jemison. Dr. Jemison is an astronaut, engineer, entrepreneur, physician and educator. She served six years as a NASA astronaut and was the first woman of color to go into space aboard a joint space shuttle mission with the Japanese Space Agency.
Her cumulative work has earned her induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, New York Academy of Sciences, the National Organization for Women’s Intrepid Award. Besides founding several organizations Mae leads the 100 Year Starship Project, a nonprofit global initiative to ensure that capabilities for human travel beyond our solar system to another star exists within the next 100 years, transforming life on Earth in the process. Welcome to the show.
MAE JEMISON: Thank you.
KEVIN SCOTT: So, this is the first time that we have had a real-life astronaut on this show, which I am guessing, given the great breadth of your interest, like might not be the way that you want to be identified, even though like it might be the thing that you’re most famous for.
But I am a space nerd, straight up, so I’m a little bit in awe of being able to have a conversation with you. The thing that I would really love to start with is, how did you get interested, as a child, in science and technology, or were you – like was that interest sparked later in your life?
MAE JEMISON: So, I think that I, just like all children, you came out the shoot. I loved science. And I think there’s a difference because we get tied up with what the word science means. Like is science the scientific method and process? I think of it more about understanding the world around you.
So, every child wants to experiment, they want to explore, they want to figure out what’s going on. The issue, I think, is usually how we maintain that interest and how we don’t beat it out of them when you go to school, right?
Or how the parents or people’s fear of what, quote-unquote science is, right? It doesn’t mean that we all have to want to do it as a profession, but I think kids are excited about it. They like doing the hands-on stuff. So, I always say that I was lucky. I chose my parents well.
KEVIN SCOTT: Mm-hmm.
MAE JEMISON: They facilitated this interest I had and you know, sometimes people think of the interest – means that you had to go out and get a telescope for the child, right? At five. But that’s not what it was. I played with mud pies. I think mud pies were some of my best science experiments.
Because if you think about, as you’re sitting there, you look at it. It’s, okay, how much dirt do I put in here? What’s the drying time? Can this – will this little stick that I put in here grow for fun?
I mean, they’re all these things, and we sort of pull that out of kids, right? But I was lucky enough to have schoolteachers who encouraged me. Some did, some didn’t, but what I mean is that they liked my interest. I was a third of three kids, and my brother and sister had science projects, so I got to hang around with their science projects all the time. It’s all of those things. And I went to Chicago Public Schools.
KEVIN SCOTT: Were your parents scientists, or mathematicians or educators?
MAE JEMISON: Well, I always say that my parents are the best scientists that I know, because they never allow you to just say, “I don’t want to know.” I mean, my mother would tell me to go look stuff up. I was like, how can I look it up, if I don’t know how to spell it? You know?
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.
MAE JEMISON: She would do things like that. My, and my mother was a schoolteacher, and my dad did multiple jobs. He was the head maintenance supervisor for this charities program. And he was also a contractor.
So, he built housing additions and things like that. And I can tell you, one of the things that was really interesting is my father was always said to be really, really good in math, right?
And I remember that, you know, I went to Stanford, I’m coming back home, I have a – I guess it was a calculus problem that I had to work on. I was working on a calculus set. And he had dropped out of high school at 16, and then gone up to and started into a trade school in Massachusetts, and all that.
He was really a very outgoing he – there’s a lot of stories there. But my mother said, why don’t you ask your dad? And I’m thinking, you know, he’s not going to work out calculus, right? So, I asked him, and he tells me how to set up the problem.
KEVIN SCOTT: That’s amazing.
MAE JEMISON: How to think, how to think through it, you know – what flow is, and think about – and I was like, hmm, damn.
KEVIN SCOTT: That’s amazing.
MAE JEMISON: But it’s those kinds of things that we sometimes miss out on what is – what is this really about? I tell you about my mother, who always said that she wasn’t a science or math person. But yet she knew some of everything. And I remember once when I was a little kid, I got a splinter in my thumb.
And I pulled it out, and you know, I didn’t tell anybody. I was just like a little rough-and-tumble little kid. And then it started swelling up, and it got swollen, and it was hurting, and I’m like fascinated. Like because I love scabs and stuff. And I’m fascinated by this problem, this swelling up.
And so, then I hit it, and then this stuff comes out of it. And I’ll go around my mother, she says this pus, and I’m like, wow, what’s pus? And she tells me to go look it up, and I’m like six years old, and she says it’s like your immune system and the antibodies that’s helping to – and so I got this life-long fascination because I had to look it up and read things about it, and here I had this real, live experiment. Is that enough?
KEVIN SCOTT: That, that is great, like really great, and I think it’s one of those interesting commonalities that you see across a bunch of people who pursue careers in science and technology, is something about them starts off curious, and their environment supports the curiosity. And I was really interested with you. Like you sound like you were a precocious child. You went to Stanford when you were 16.
You had this real diversity of interests, and like I’m sort of fascinated with, not just the science, but you are also a serious and are still a serious dancer. And so, you know, it’s always fascinating to me to sort of see how environments that children are in support that curiosity. Because I think it’s really easy for people to be intimidated by that or frustrated with a precocious child as always asking questions, and to try to tell them to stop. And that’s almost the worst possible thing to do, right?
MAE JEMISON: Well, I think, again, because I was a third of three children, my parents had already had really precocious kids. My sister is a child and adolescent psychiatrist. My brother was this incredible artist and stuff. Unfortunately, he got to be like one year behind her, which is really unfair, because boys are a little slow anyway. You do know that, don’t you?
KEVIN SCOTT: I am so well aware of that.
MAE JEMISON: And she was teacher’s pet, but anyway, I actually talk a lot about my childhood in a book that I’m re-releasing soon, called *Find Where the Wind Goes.* And it was really about the fact that you get clues throughout your life, right, and you can choose to follow them or not follow them, and what do you learn, if you take risks, or if you decide to stay back? And what are really risks?
I never thought of myself as precocious. I just always thought of myself as capable, right? And again, I had great teachers. So, yes, I did all these things at home. And I had science projects and part of that was having the nerve, right, the audacity, the brazenness to try different things, or to ask people to help you.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.
MAE JEMISON: Right, and that actually translates into the work that I did. So, when I first left NASA, I started something called The Earth We Share, which is an International Science Camp. And it was about building critical thinking and problem-solving skills. And this was in 1994, with the first camp. And the reason I started it is because I felt like we missed a lot of things. We missed the fact that science crosses boundaries, right? It crosses over different disciplines that engineering – it wasn’t called STEM back then, but all of those things cross disciplines, and they’re built up of people’s ambitions and thoughts, the tools that they want to create based on their life experiences.
And so, I wanted kids to have that experience. I also wanted it to deal with teachers, because teachers are the ones who facilitate things. And there’s always going to be a child, if they delve deep into a project, that’s going to know more than the teacher about that project. And so, the teacher has to become – especially when you get into middle school and high school, they have to be the guides, rather than the knowledge authority figures.
So, we created The Earth We Share to task adolescents, 12- to 16-year-olds, with problems to solve, global problems like predict the hot stocks of the year 2030. Remember, this is back in 1994. Or design the world’s perfect house. Or how many people can the Earth hold. Or what to do with all this garbage. And we would just give them the problem, and then we would teach them how to think about the problem, and know that their social context to the problems, they’re cultural contexts, they’re economic, they’re environmental, right?
And then they’re – the technical social, and we taught them to ask questions, because I think the thing that we lose a lot is the fact that you need to ask questions, and not try to answer those questions right away, because you have to figure out what the problem is. And the other part of it was that we always work with other folks. No matter how cool, no matter how jazzy you are, and how smart you are, if you can’t communicate what you’ve learned, if you can’t learn from other people’s observations and incorporate them into what you’re doing, then you’re not going to be as effective as you could be. You’re not going to create tools that are as impactful.
KEVIN SCOTT: What you described is so amazing, and I think all of these things, like placing science in context, respecting the – you know, interdisciplinarity of what you have to do to be a successful scientist or engineer, or like – you know, human being, you know, honestly, like the fact that everything is in context, and the context is complicated and not just the technical context, and that collaboration is so important. It seems like these are such critical things to teach kids, like I’m almost at a loss, like I want you to go be the wise person that is like teaching all of our kids, like how do we make this happen at scale?
MAE JEMISON: What we tried to with The Earth We Share, when we started off, was to work on the curriculum because I had this idea that I know the reason I like science was because of my science projects, right? When – and that’s the reason I stuck to it because I got to experiment. And I know that adolescents particularly like to push the edge. They don’t want to fall off the cliff, right? But they want to toe right up to the edge. So, how do you guide them along that journey? And it’s by having them solve problems, it’s by having them work in teams, because peer pressure, that’s where it works, because they don’t want to let their teammates down.
So, we crafted it around that. We made sure that we had kids from all around the world, because they also needed to share their cultures and their thoughts and their ideas. It was free to kids. Even though it’s a four-week residential program, we’ve modified it over the years, and we even are doing stuff and we’ve done day-long programs in different countries. But the way you spread it is by teaching teachers.
So, even though that camp was for the kids, it was actually giving teachers an opportunity to do experiential learning in a nonthreatening environment, where they did not get dinged because of scores or things like that. It was during this time, and I think it’s still happening, where there was a lot of punitive attitude toward teachers, that they have to score this on test, otherwise, the schools are going to close all these – really crazy things.
And so, we did tell the teachers do something wonderfully creative. Well how are you going to be creative, and you’re scared? So, you get people teaching to the test, which is really not what education is about. And so, I wanted to give teachers an opportunity to do this, because they can impact many more kids than I will. So, if you get one teacher comfortable with experiential education with this methodology, then they go and use it with other folks, and it sort of perpetuates. So, that was our thought with scale.
We’ve also worked with Los Angeles Unified School District for four years, with a summer program, so it was nonresidential, but it really is about experiential education, and training teachers and supporting teachers. Why did I choose teachers? My mother was a schoolteacher for 25 years in the Chicago Public Schools, and we named the foundation that houses The Earth We Share, after her.
It’s called the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence, and it was about that word. This was the training I got when I was growing up. Everybody can be excellent. Everybody can’t be number one, and so if you’re just striving to be number one, a couple of things happen. Do you get disappointed when you’re not number one? Or you can be number one and really not achieve your level of excellence, what you’re capable of, right? I remember I used to get A’s in English, and things like that. My mother, who had been an English major in college, that’s another thing. But she decided she wanted to grade my papers, that I was sending into Advanced U.S. History, and stuff like that, and I was getting good grades.
Oh, my gosh, she sent me my papers back all filled with red ink, called me redundant, verbose, you can write better than this. And so that challenge was to do better than what you’re getting credit for in school. And I think that that’s one of the things that has continued to imbue this idea of excellence in us, that you know, it’s not about being number one. Somebody’s always going to come around and be better than you at something, but how do you achieve your own level of excellence? And let’s push for it.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, that’s a really great – I mean, like this – this thing you just said. Do better than what you get credit for, like I’m now going to be using that a lot, that is a very powerful thing.
As a child, you had this really intense interest in dance, and you were also interested in writing, it sounds like, and you had this interest in science.
MAE JEMISON: And space.
KEVIN SCOTT: And space.
MAE JEMISON: Yeah, I loved space. There’s an African proverb that says, “No one shows a child the sky,” right? It’s one of those things that’s common to us. We all look up at the stars. We may not want to go, but we all wonder what they are.
KEVIN SCOTT: So, how do you choose, like when you go to Stanford and you choose what to major in, when you graduate from Stanford and you go to graduate school, and you have to choose a discipline, like how did you make those choices?
MAE JEMISON: So, I wanted to do biomedical engineering, and this was back in the time where there was no formal biomedical engineering, and which I know people cannot possibly believe right now.
And so, I went to Stanford. I majored in chemical engineering because the professor that I was referred to as an advisor to try to do biomedical engineering, he said, by the time I completed what he would consider a course for biomedical engineering, I would be one or two classes shy of being a chemical engineer, and it was more important to get the classical degree because people would know what I could do.
That’s how I chose Chem E. So, all along in college, though, I took more biology than a Chem E would take. I took biomedical instrumentation, which was a graduate-level course, when I was a junior in college. I took biomedical fluid mechanics that was taught out of the astro-aero department, as a graduate-level course at the same time I was taking my first fluid mechanics course, as a Chem E, but you know, you sort of do these things, and you put them together.
And all along, there were some things that happened, where I was just very interested– I kept doing other things. That’s what was cool about going to Stanford, is that you can take classes as long as you have the prerequisites. You weren’t tied to a particular department. So, I ended up also majoring in African and African American Studies, with a depth in linguistics with Swahili, because I could just take those classes, and they were fun, and I looked up and I was just about finished, complete with that course, except for I had to take a couple of, you know, anchor classes that I didn’t just accidently take. But it was really just keeping that energy going and thinking about all these things I wanted to do.
And I danced all the way through college, it melds things together. And some of the energy that I got to finish engineering at a time when there weren’t a lot of women in engineering, and there still aren’t, and there are very few women of color in engineering. And I met, for the first time in my life, some professors who doubted me. I got the energy some from some of the other places, and I didn’t realize it until after the fact that that’s what I was doing, right?
You get that positive energy and from some of my dance – like one of my dance professors, Halifu Osumare, she would always encourage me with what I did. She always, you know, like yes, the dance, and yes, you’re a good dancer, but she also believed in me, and the confidence in me, for engineering and the sciences as well.
KEVIN SCOTT: How important is having that breadth of experience? So, it sounds like part of this was just sort of giving you energy, and you know, nourishing you as a person, like being able to express yourself in all of these different ways, but like how important, as a scientist, has it been, to you, to like have this breadth of experiences to draw upon?
MAE JEMISON: It’s been incredibly important. What we do, what we see, even what we research and the questions that we ask, are based upon who we are, and our experiences, right? What we’ve seen, what we’ve observed. So, coming back to some of the projects that I work on now, even 100 Year Starship, the title of the proposal that won this DARPA geek prize of the year, right? It was “An Inclusive Audacious Journey Transforms Life Here on Earth & Beyond.” And that first word, inclusion,
I doubt that it would have been there, if I was not the one leading the project, but the inclusion was not only across ethnicity, gender and geography. It was across disciplines, because you cannot solve a problem, like human interstellar flight, you cannot even start to approach it, without taking into account, the full breadth and scope of human experiences.
So, 100 Year Starship is about making sure the capabilities for human interstellar flight exists within the next 100 years. Capabilities, not building a starship or launching a starship, but having the capabilities. And the reason for that was the challenge that it requires, right? The radical leaps in knowledge that are required. We can’t ease up on this.
Why is that different than going to Mars? We’ve been to Mars a bunch of times, right? There are some engineering challenges. There are some life science challenges. But we can actually create a technology roadmap to get there.
I’m a little irritated I wasn’t on Mars. That’s what I assumed when I was a little kid, growing up, right? At least I’d be on the moon. They’d just announced, you know, potential Artemis crew members, right, that are going back to the moon for NASA. I’m trying to figure out how I missed the original one, and how I missed the other, 50 years later.
Interstellar is so different because of the vast distances, because of the enormous amounts of energy, for example, that you’d have to generate, in order to trans – go across those distances in any reasonable amount of time. The autonomy that has to be developed, within a vehicle, within a system. What we have to know about the life systems, you know, from them microbiomes that help us to digest our food, to the microbiome in the soil that help plants grow. All of these kinds of things need to happen.
Even what makes us human, right? So, people can come up with all these other things, or why is it important for humans to go, but what do we learn by place, by physically being there? But even before you go, right? Let’s not even think about that. How do you develop a public commitment and the will to support something like this? How do you develop the behavioral characteristics that are really needed on a starship?
Because I get to actually see the behavior becoming the long pole in the tent. It’s not, it’s not going to be the tech. It’s going to be when I tell you I’m not going to do something after you wake me up out of suspended animation, right? And I say, “Yay. You know, how are we going to work as a team? I don’t know, but I’m not doing that?” But it’s such a wide range of challenges, and each one of those challenges, if you think about it, and I did not go through all of them, at all, but you know, just think of the energy.
How much energy, you know? So, we can’t do it through regular chemical propulsion. There’s not enough chemical propulsion in the solar system to get us there. We’ll have to do, fission, fusion, antimatter. We’re okay with fission, but we really don’t contain and control it really well, right? Fusion, we go back and forth with whether we can do fusion, right? And antimatter, we don’t know how to contain antimatter, but each one of them is an order of magnitude greater energy resource, but imagine what that would do to our world, if we learned how to generate control and store that kind of energy? How would it impact us?
It’s the same thing with understanding the microbiome. The same thing with understanding investing financially in something like this. What is the return on investment? So, when I look at all of this, and human behavior – don’t, let me not leave out human behavior, right? When I look at all of this, these are really the challenges that we face in the world today, right? In our world, on this planet, and if we don’t solve those, we have a problem.
I know people like to think of space as a Plan B, but it really is not a Plan B. And I will tell you, I would volunteer in a heartbeat. I’ll go anywhere, you know, that would be me, but it’s really a Plan B, because for generations to come, we are going to be on this planet. We’re not going to be on the moon, we’re not going to be on Mars. For generations to come, we’re going to be on this planet, so we have to figure out how to live on this planet, which was the reason for The Earth We Share.
You asked before how do these experiences change you? How do they impact what you do? So, I was Area Peace Corps Medical Officer in Sierra Leone and Liberia for 2-1/2 years. I took care of the volunteers’ health, the embassy personnel health. I taught health programming and other things. I worked in a Cambodian refugee camp. I worked with the Flying Doctors, previously, in East Africa.
Like I said, I was also an African Studies major in college. And what this taught me was a respect for wisdom and knowledge from what we call the developing world, and also how that world, as we put it over here, has supplied us with so many resources, and at some point in time, they’re going to want their own resources, right?
So, I learned at NASA, as an astronaut, so much about the environment, so much about what the world is like when we look at it from a distance, a remote sensing, all of these technologies. As a physician, I learned so much about, you know, human interaction and behavior, but it was epidemiology, right? It was the things about microbiomes. It’s about food. We learned all of those kinds of things.
So, when you put them together, it forces me to look at interstellar flight in a very different way. And by the time I got there, I had also been an environmental studies professor at Dartmouth because I wanted to use advanced technologies in developing countries.
So, I’d looked at how do we look at creating sustainable technology? All of that went into thinking through what does human interstellar flight look like? But the biggest issue was getting people to change their minds. When DARPA came out with the RFP, it was sort of what DARPA is talking about interstellar flight. Interstellar flight was really woo-woo, for real people to talk about. Human interstellar flight was really – and that woo-woo was a technical term, right?
So, once our team won the really modest seed funding, our task was to take it out of the woo-woo. So, I used whatever credibility I had to say, “Hey, you all, you know me, I’m not bonkers.” And that was to say how we’re going to include other people. How do we tell the story better? How do we connect with his real love of space that, you know, almost everybody has? I don’t go anywhere where people don’t ask me. “What was it like?”
I don’t go anywhere where people sort of want to talk about it, but they’re afraid to talk about space, because it’s been put into that zone of only certain folks can talk about it. So, our tag – one of the taglines we developed with folks who do storytelling, who do marketing, who do mission design, and translating information, that space isn’t just for rocket scientists and billionaires, right? Just a tagline. Or “We believe pursuing an extraordinary tomorrow creates a better world today.”
So, you know, how to make that connectedness, but that was by working with people who could help us solidify the ideas. What was my contribution, as we went on, besides making sure we had lots of different people in? So, one of the things was the Skyfie app, which was – really started to go along with Look Up, One Sky. This initiative was part of 100 Year Starship, and it started when LeVar Burton and Jill Tarter and I were at South by Southwest, premiering 100 Year Starship. Jill and LeVar are both on our advisory board, and we started thinking about how do we get regular people connected with space in a visceral, emotional way?
And we thought about this whole thing, “Look up, no one shows a child the sky,” and eventually it evolved into Look Up, One Sky, where in a day in October of 2018, we asked the world to look up, and connect with them through a Skyfie app. So, Skyfie, sky selfie. Share with the world what you look, hope, dream, think, feel, fear, want, can offer, when you look up at the sky. And you could supply it as a video, a photo, an audio or text clip. It would immediately be displayed on an interactive globe that you could spin around, and you could see what other people were doing.
So, it’s time-tagged, it’s geospatially tagged, so you can look through it, and there are points, and the globe expands and contracts, and all of those things. So, our task was to us this technology, and use our software products, our knowledge about various things to connect people through the sky.
You know, what’s above us, unites us. And it’s to turn it on its head, where people a lot of times, you know, quote astronauts as saying, “When I look down at the Earth, it changed me.” That wasn’t my experience. It was really great. But my experience was looking up. And I think the experience of looking up is as profound as the experience of looking down from space. But we just have to connect it.
KEVIN SCOTT: That is such an inspirational – inspirational thing. I actually downloaded the Skyfie app this morning and was playing around with it before our conversation. It’s really cool, and people should go – go check it out.
MAE JEMISON: And we made it free, because you want to make the connection with folks. Yeah, and we wipe the globe from the images, from time to time. Sometimes we put them all up, but it’s really about, like how do you connect people?
Because I think that’s the one thing that we’re missing these days is how science and technology, engineering, mathematics is built by the folks who work in it.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yes.
MAE JEMISON: And they’re people.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yes. It’s not magic, it’s not knowledge handed down from on high. It’s what we create together. I totally, totally agree with you. So, we are almost out of time here, and I wanted to take a few seconds to chat about what it is that you do, outside of your professional life, for fun.
And like maybe that’s a nonsense thing because what you do in your professional life is so broad and interesting. Are there things that you do outside of like this incredible work in – in science that you do?
MAE JEMISON: I like to try to have fun with the things that I do, right? But there’s so many. I read a lot. I try to dance and do things because music and all of that, and connecting it to yourself, makes a really big difference.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, so I am curious, like what’s your favorite science fiction? Do you still read sci-fi books?
MAE JEMISON: You know, I read David Brin. I read Octavia Butler. She’s, you know, passed away, so I’ve gone through Octavia Butler. I have one now I’m getting ready to read, called *Lightless.*And I have a couple, The Space Between the Stars.
I’m really enjoying the television series, His Dark Materials, because I loved the book. If you read all three of the books, rather, they were phenomenal. And I guess I can’t say anything where it talks about dust and consciousness and stuff.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, I’m reading – right now, I’m in the middle of To Sleep in a Sea of Stars which is very space opera-y, and you know, like what would first contact look like, and sort of interstellar conflict, And it’s like, it’s a really good book.
MAE JEMISON: Well I, you know, when you started talking, I thought about—there’s another book called The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, which I think is a phenomenal book, because—
KEVIN SCOTT: Great book.
MAE JEMISON: Her first contact is not from the point of view of the engines and the vehicle. It’s from an anthropological, biological anthropology point of view, about the conflicts and the misunderstandings. The Sparrow is by far one of my favorite books.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, it’s a – it’s a very, very good book.
MAE JEMISON: And the two things I also do, is I cook. So, I try things, and you know what I learned how to cook really well? I was a decent cook all along. But when I really learned how to cook and do baking and stuff is when I realized it was just chemistry.
KEVIN SCOTT: Hmm. Yes.
MAE JEMISON: It’s chemistry. So, you know, when I tried to modify those baking recipes when I was in high school, because I was like, oh, I’ll just add a little bit of this. I forgot it was chemistry, right? And sometimes you can’t just substitute anything and get the same result.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah. It’s really interesting that you say that because one of the ways that – my daughter, who is 12 years old, really, really loves to cook, and one of the ways that I try to introduce her to concepts in science and in chemistry is through cooking. And like you know I always think people could be fundamentally better cooks if they just understood the behavior of water.
MAE JEMISON: Or just understood the behavior of water, or you understood that every ingredient in there is doing something with the other ingredient.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yep.
MAE JEMISON: Right?
KEVIN SCOTT: What’s your favorite thing to cook?
MAE JEMISON: What I’d like to cook and what I’m particularly good at, I like all kinds of things. You know, it really just depends. Some folks really like the lamb shanks that I cook. I cook lamb shanks, and with lots of spices, and then I have some dishes that I learned to cook in West Africa, like groundnut soup, which is a chicken peanut butter soup which is like really, really good.
KEVIN SCOTT: It sounds amazing.
MAE JEMISON: I asked my sister for her birthday, because we still aren’t around each other, all the time, but we’re going to come – and she’s going to social distance, what would she prefer? I could have cooked, you know, a really great steak recipe, or that I made up, with a coating and stuff, or groundnut soup, and she’s like groundnut soup, we’re good.
But I also do plant. I love plants. Plants don’t necessarily love me. Sometimes they hide when I show up at the nursery. But I love plants. And I think that really came from my father who could grow the most extraordinary plants in urban Chicago. And he composted. He did everything. And he used to be famous for this fertilizer he made called Super Dirt, but again, that’s the science.
We forget that the science, the understanding about the world around us, is everywhere. And that’s the piece, and I want to help people to feel comfortable with it. So, I do lots of different things that are outside of my professional career. But we have to remember that those things influence us backwards and forwards. It goes both ways.
KEVIN SCOTT: That’s so awesome. So, we are unfortunately out of time. I could have spent hours more chatting with you. I just want to say that you are really inspiring to me, and I am so grateful for who you are, and what you have done and are doing, and I just want to thank you so much for spending time chatting with me today.
MAE JEMISON: You’re very welcome. I would encourage people to go to lookuponesky.com, and to look at – too, as we’re doing a program in South Africa, but to never believe that they can’t be involved. It’s really important for us to pay attention to the world around us and have an impact in any way we can, any effective beneficial way we can.
KEVIN SCOTT: That is amazing advice. Thank you so much.
MAE JEMISON: You’re welcome.
CHRISTINA WARREN: That was Kevin’s conversation with Dr. Mae Jemison. Wow, what an amazing conversation, like I could listen to the two of you talk, even longer. I mean, there was so much there, and she’s so inspiring.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, she really, really is. You know, she said a handful of things in our conversation that I am now going to be repeating, and using in my day-to-day life, like the, you know, this one of – you know, aspire to achieve more than what’s expected of you. I’m paraphrasing now, but like that is a really, really powerful idea. So much of what she was advocating for, and like, what she’s actually practiced in her professional life is just amazing.
Like this fact that science and technology are not just these narrow things that are about the technical or the scientific complexity of a problem, but like the problems are all in these very complicated, interdisciplinary and social contexts, and that you have to think about all of this stuff.
And moreover, like all of this stuff can benefit the actual technical and scientific parts of the problem that you’re trying to solve if you are sufficiently open to it. I mean, it’s just incredible how much wisdom she packed into a very brief conversation.
CHRISTINA WARREN: I totally agree. I mean, I thought it was really interesting when she was talking about the need for having real diversity, you know, to be able to solve those – I think she put it audacious goals, like interstellar flight, and that made me think a lot.
And I was like, yeah, that’s exactly, we say that a lot in computing, but you know, she’s talking about things that are much, much bigger than the sort of computing problems that at least I work on, right?
And it becomes even more true, how many more types of inputs you need and perspectives, and a lot of the stuff that she’s doing, and working on, and hearing her talk about the work that she’s done and continues to do is really, really inspiring.
KEVIN SCOTT: One of the last things that she said in the conversation, this sort of notion that aspiring to a better tomorrow is not just about the better tomorrow, and where you want to be, just the act of pursuing those audacious goals can create a better now.
Like that is a thing that I have believed, deep in my soul, for a very, very long while. And it’s one of the reasons why I get up and do the job that I do every day. Because part of my job is imagining what that future is. Like, it’s really important how that future we’re trying to create, you know, impacts what’s happening right now.
CHRISTINA WARREN: Absolutely. I thought that was really interesting too, when she was kind of in that same vein of what you’re talking about, you know, she was saying – you know, like space is not a Plan B– to, you know, to your point, you know, you have to care about the future that you’re living in now, the world you’re living in now, and what it’s going to be for the next generations, and it’s not about, okay, we’re going to have this, you know, new chance to start over. It’s like, no, we have to make the world that we’re actually living in, as good as we can make it.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, and to the points that you raise and she raised about inclusivity. Like we all have a stake in this. And like we, we in a very inclusive way like have to all be involved in a – you know, and not just sort of formulating, like where the destination is, but the how it is that we’re going to get there.
CHRISTINA WARREN: Definitely. I was glad to hear, you know, the two of you talking about things because it’s interesting, you know, space and computers have always kind of had an interesting intersection, right? Like, at least to me, there have been a lot of people that I know, who are, you know, interested in computer science.
There’s been a strong correlation, you know, being interested in space. And it’s interesting to think about what the next generation will do, you know, from both perspectives and how they’ll work together, and what that will mean for, you know, kind of the future of our universe.
KEVIN SCOTT: I very much agree. Like one of the questions I didn’t get to ask Dr. Jemison that I think for her, and for me, space was this idea that really inspired us, I think, to go explore new frontiers. You know, it was this imagination of this thing that, you know, for me at least, like made me want to study computer science, because – like that was the most interesting terrestrial frontier I could go explore.
And like you know, the thing that I wonder about is like what that frontier is, like what that inspiration will be for the next generation of scientists, and engineers and explorers. You know, like maybe it’s synthetic biology, but it’s going to be interesting to see whatever it is.
CHRISTINA WARREN: I couldn’t agree more. I look forward to watching and learning from all of that. All right, well, that’s a wrap. Thank you so much to Mae for joining us today. And to our listeners. Thank you for joining us and for being part of the conversation. Send us a message anytime at **[email protected].**com and tell us what’s on your mind.
KEVIN SCOTT: All right, see you next time.