Interview with Madame Saturn: Planetary Scientist, Carolyn Porco

This interview originally appears in our 5th Issue of Got a Girl Crush Magazine, but we wanted to post it online in honor of her birthday today! 

Like what you read? Consider purchasing the full issue which also features interviews with Chicana punk icon Alice Bag, the band Childbirth, Feminist Library On Wheels, human rights activist Grace Lee Boggs, National public policy chair at Black Youth Project 100, Janae Bonsu, menstrual activist & drummer Kiran Gandhi, artists Lazy Mom, single mother and future lawyer Marcella Jayne, and musician, writer and MTV News anchor Meredith Graves.

By Amanda Stosz and Katie Edmonds
Collage by Beth Hoeckel
Photos courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

Carolyn Porco, planetary scientist, Imaging Team Leader for the Cassini mission orbiting Saturn and member of the New Horizons mission, has been dubbed a rockstar in the science world and it’s a title well earned. When New York Times editors insisted their journalist ask Porco why she never married, Porco, in retelling her experience during her StarTalk Radio interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson, gave them two options to print, “Just tell them I have a different man every night and I like it that way,” or “There are no high maintenance items in my house of any kind - pets, plants or husbands.” As someone who studied in the sciences and imaging and has always maintained a love and curiosity in continuing to learn and follow new discoveries, I was already enthralled with Carolyn Porco’s intelligence and her life’s work.  However,  her wit and humor that comes through in her talks, interviews, and social media presence sealed the deal on becoming a full on fangirl.

Growing up attending Catholic school in the Bronx, Porco’s existential questions led her to study spirituality and religion, but she ultimately dedicated her life to answering those questions through science by exploring space and discovering exactly how we got here.

After finishing her dissertation focusing on the spokes in Saturn’s rings and earning a Ph.D from California Institute of Technology, Porco joined the Voyager mission’s imaging team where she collaborated with her friend and colleague, Carl Sagan, on the famous Pale Blue Dot image. Porco was awarded the Carl Sagan Medal for her efforts with promoting public understanding and enthusiasm for planetary science. In 1990 Porco was selected to lead the imaging team for the Cassini mission, which has been in Saturn’s orbit since 2004. Her work with Cassini has contributed to many discoveries, including the discovery of a habitable environment on Enceladus, one of Saturn’s 62 moons. She has taken the public along for the ride by journaling Cassini’s discoveries and images through the Captain’s Log on her team’s website, ciclops.org.  

Although we wish we could follow Carolyn around and bug her with a million questions for as long as she could stand, we’re grateful she obliged us by answering some of our questions about her life, career, missions and the science community.

You’ve said in other interviews that you were attracted to planetary science as a way of approaching your own existential questions. What made you seek out math and science as the place you’d find those kinds of answers?

From the very beginning I loved science, which is, for me, a deep involvement in the natural world around us.  And math came along with that.  Both allowed an objective, precise way to arrive at the truth.  I found that enormously appealing ... that there was actually a means, almost like a secret code, for separating truth from falsehood.

My existential musings led me to the study of the cosmos ... astronomy ... because I figured I would first need to know where we were in relation to everything else to know how we came to be.  And I was right!

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

You didn’t come from a family of scientists. Were your questions about existence something you talked about at the dinner table growing up? After school with your friends?

Certainly not at home.  I did have a friend with whom I shared the wonder of science.  But I don't recall discussing my longing to know the meaning of my own life with anyone else.  Maybe I did, but if it happened, I don't remember it.

We’d really like to know what your social life was like in highschool and when you were deciding to study at SUNY. What were your friends considering for their futures?

I was not then, nor am I now, a person with a vibrant social life. I've always had just a few, close friends, never liked partying with big groups (though I did love dancing --see attached pic), and spent a lot of time alone.  I only had one high school friend who liked science; she ended up becoming a chemical engineer.   I was pretty much on my own.   And my parents, being Italian immigrants and therefore very 'third world', expected that I'd get married and have kids.  My mother died disappointed, I believe, that I never did. I'm just very glad I was a rebel and found my own way through life.

How did you evaluate your options and ultimately decide to study planetary science?

The period of time when I was deciding which graduate school to go to was 1973/74.  The Apollo program had come to an end, but the robotic exploration of the solar system was underway.  By that time, I had decided to specialize in the study of the planets because I knew we'd actually be able to study the planets up close.  And I chose Caltech for graduate school because it operated the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which ran most of the planetary missions. That was a critically important juncture in my life and I chose well.  It turned out even better than I had planned.

You credit part of your success in the field to having grown up in a household full of brothers and learning how to argue. Can you walk us through a moment when this came in handy? Any instances where you’ve met some controversy or opposition?

I've met so much opposition and resistance and controversy, it isn't funny!   I can't think of any one particular instance.  It's just been a backdrop to my professional existence, and a major feature of my job as the imaging team leader on Cassini ... comes with the territory.

Science, as a professional field was and is male dominated with a large gender gap. Yet over time there have been improvements as more women have entered the field. To what do you attribute those improvements?

Persistence on the part of those foresightful people years ago who pushed for equal opportunities for women.  And legal infrastructure that made it illegal to deny women access to education.

Do you feel there is anything that still stands in the way of women entering the field?

The very basis of the scientific culture is criticism.  It is the job of a scientist to be on the lookout for what might be wrong in the assumptions or methodology of an offered piece of research. This very often descends into the personal arena and becomes combative.  It's not supposed to, but it does.  That can turn off someone who is not used to 'hand to hand combat'.

Our core mission as a publication is to pursue Anne Friedman’s concept of shine theory. Basically it’s an alternative to competition between women. We pursue relationships with women we admire instead of being jealous or competitive. Is that happening in your field? Is there a formal platform for it, or does it ever happen spontaneously?

Some of the worse opposition I've gotten is from females who were resentful and jealous of my success.  Not to say I didn't get opposition and 'dissing' from males, but it surprised me how other females behaved...maybe because I assumed they'd be allies and they were the opposite.  That ubiquitous conflict between expectations and reality gets us every time.

It's not gotten better in my age group, but I see it improving for the younger generation of women in science.  And I think because of that, their more cooperative attitudes will change the 'scientific culture' which is now based on male behavior.

What advice do you have for girls interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics)?

I've said many times as have others:  You have to love what you do. If you have that, and of course a good analytical mind and respect for the truth and a personality that doesn't fold in the face of adversity , you'll make it and be able to make great contributions to your chosen profession.  There's nothing more gratifying than that.

You worked with Carl Sagan to help create the famous Pale Blue Dot image of Earth photographed from the outer solar system, appearing as only an insignificant dot in a sea of black and stars, as Sagan put it, “A very small stage in a vast cosmic arena.” Using Cassini’s more advanced cameras you concepted the photograph The Day the Earth Smiled as a sort of remake of The Pale Blue Dot, but this time around you announced the exact moment the image would be taken, calling for people to smile for the camera. Why did you add this public participation component? Where did the idea come from?

The idea just came to me. I wasn't even thinking about adding anything special to the Pale Blue Dot re-do when I started it.. But as I was planning the image it occurred to me that instead of doing what every mission since Voyager had done -- ie, take a picture of Earth from afar and tell the world about it afterwards -- I thought, 'why don't we tell the people of the world in advance and invite their participation'. I realized immediately it would be a way to get people truly thinking of themselves as cosmic citizens, and as fellow creatures living on Planet Earth.

What outcome were you looking for?

I wanted people to feel the cosmic love! I wanted them to feel a connection with every living thing on Earth and to appreciate the rarity of our home planet among those that orbit our Sun, and to revel in the magnificent achievement that this interplanetary salute between robot and maker represented.

And it worked. It was a great success. I was very pleased.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

Your goal starting out as the Cassini Imaging Team’s leader was to create beautiful images that also have scientific purpose. When I look at Cassini’s images, I often see imagery that rises to the level of fine art. Do you think of yourself as an artist?

From the beginning  I had in mind to make our images beautiful and artful, as well as getting as close to true color as possible.  I wanted also to take the public along for the ride ... and for them to feel like they and we, the scientists, were on-board the spacecraft together and physically there at Saturn.

I remember that at our first imaging team meeting, way back in 1991, I said to my team that wherever possible, we were going to take video clips of any and every moving phenomenon we could capture.  We made a lot of video clips, too... of  moons in orbit around Saturn, shadows of moons moving across the rings and the face of the planet, clouds coursing through Saturn's atmosphere, eclipses, occultations, and on it goes.   We have a theater webpage on our website, ciclops.org, featuring all our videos.   It allows an immediate, almost primal way to feel like you're there and not just looking at a picture.

Have you studied art, in any capacity, to inform your work? Are there any artists you look to for inspiration?

No, I've never studied art, though my mother was artistic.

I must say that I'm tremendously inspired by astronomical artists ... those individuals who capture,in their art, visions of alien worlds and astronomical phenomena.  I just love that genre because it can take you places that can only be imagined.  I have devoted a whole section of our website to the works of these space artists.   I hope your readers will go have a look at ciclops.org/art_index.php

Do all of the images serve both artistic and scientific purposes?

Oh no.  Not at all.  The vast majority are for science. I must here give credit to my team members who shared fully in the planning of all our Cassini images.  Their goal was to take those images that allowed them to conduct their research.

But some of those turned out to be beautiful.  Those ones were pretty obvious and we chose those for processing and release to the public.

You’re working on a project that could prove life exists on Enceladus [the sixth-largest moon of Saturn]. What would happen if you found it?

Whether a second genesis of life has occurred beyond Earth is the most exciting scientific question before us at the moment, and we're very, very close to being able to actually do it. And should we ever find life that is chemically distinct from life on Earth, it would be a staggering find.   Scientists would be all over that one in a heartbeat ... examining what the two life forms had in common, what was different, trying to figure out the differing conditions under which each emerged and of course extrapolating that to the universe at large and wondering, 'Could there be more than two?'

It would be utterly tremendous and usher in a fascinating time in the history of science.

It would also be the kind of result that would, once again, allow us to put ourselves and the 'garden of Eden' we have here on Earth into a clearer cosmic perspective.   And that would bring me full circle to my original quest of wanting to know the meaning of life.

I hope I live to see it!

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

Cassini’s mission is scheduled to end September of 2017 by way of crashing the spacecraft into Saturn. This is both sad because it’s the end and this amazing tool is being destroyed, although necessary to avoid contaminating the moons.  It is  also pretty badass, like a rockstar smashing their guitar on stage. What comes next? What are some of your upcoming projects that you’re most excited about?

Well, I'm part of a group writing a proposal to go back to Enceladus to look for evidence of life. I've been hoping for this ever since we discovered the geysers on Enceladus (here's just on example: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/space/life-on-tiny-moon.html)  And of course, I very much intend to continue studying Enceladus with Cassini data.  After all, i've spent 25 years making sure we collect all those images, it would be a waste to not spend my 'out years' enjoying the fruits of my labor.

But I'm also eager to learn more about other fields that I've long had a curiosity about:  energy, population growth, microbiology, oceanography.  The list goes on and on.

Finally, I am looking forward to being able to write and lecture and maybe do TV documentaries.  I have so much I want to say!   With Cassini over, I'll hopefully have the time to say it!

If you had any such thing as free time, what would you do? What kinds of hobbies would you pursue? Where would you go on vacation?

See above.  As far as hobbies, learning about other areas of life would be my hobby!  And vacations?  I know that I feel drawn to want to see more of the natural beauty on this planet.  I've seen enough cities and human-made structures and things.  It's the Earth I want to come to know intimately before I leave it.   I see road trips in my future, deep into northern California and the Pacific Northwest.  And overseas too. Too numerous to mention.

What do people assume about your job that is totally not true? What is your day to day life like?

I think that people usually assume the leader is the person waving the baton and not doing any of the real work.  Well I surely waved the baton for the last 25 years, or maybe (some might say) cracked the whip.  But for the vast majority of my time as the Cassini imaging team leader, that was decidedly not the sole thing I did.  For many years, even after getting into orbit in 2004, I was in the trenches with my staff, sleeves rolled up and designing software, doing science planning, running software to generate observational sequences, participating in (endless) teleconference calls, writing press releases and figure captions, directing the processing of images and videos, writing scientific papers with my team members, and on and on it goes.

To really do this job well, the way I wanted to see it done, required a complete clearing of the decks, including any semblance of a normal life, to make it work.   And it went on for years.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

We’d love some ammunition at the holidays directly from a planetary scientist! What would you say to climate change deniers at the Thanksgiving table?

I'd say, 'You have been proven completely wrong.  Shut up!'

Because this is a publication that highlights women we admire and who inspire us, we’d love to know if there are any women who you have admired and been inspired by?

I'm inspired by many.  Jane Goodall comes to mind.  She's so elegant and pure in her devotion to save her beloved chimpanzees.  I often say, 'Thank the stars for Jane Goodall'.  I love Michelle Obama, a woman with perfect pitch and great poise and equanimity.   I admire Taylor Swift for her values, and her rejection of the female 'sex object' chanteuse and becoming outrageously successful anyway.  I admire Cher (yes, THAT Cher) for doing it her way, being a survivor and so fearlessly forthright and saying unedited just what she means. [In the late 1980s, I was trying to look like Cher (see attached picture). ]

Of course, there's The Queen of the Deep, Sylvia Earle, who is a *real* explorer and so committed to the most unique part of our planet, the oceans.  She and I bonded recently over our concerns for the growing human population and what it’s doing to the biosphere and oceans (see attached pic).    And I love so many professional young woman today that I meet in the course of my speaking engagements who are so outrageously smart, competent, oozing confidence and clearly making a difference.   Even though they are younger than me, they make me feel good.

You were a character consultant for Jodie Foster’s role of Ellie Arroway in Contact, consulted on J.J. Abram’s Star Trek and you’ve given talks advocating for the portrayal of science in Hollywood films. If you could make a movie, what would it be about? What story would it tell?

I know exactly what it would be.  But I can't say it because then I won't be able to do it myself. So, you'll just have to wait and see.  ;-)

Find more info about Carolyn at carolynporco.com  

Follow her on twitter @carolynporco     

Find more information, imagery and Captain's Logs at ciclops.org     

Find NASA's site about the overall mission, a timeline, the spacecraft and some interactive features at saturn.jpl.nasa.gov

 


 
Issue 05
18.00

Featuring: Chicana punk icon Alice Bag • planetary scientist Carolyn Porco • the band Childbirth • Feminist Library On Wheels• human rights activist Grace Lee Boggs • National public policy chair at Black Youth Project 100, Janae Bonsu • menstrual activist & drummer Kiran Gandhi • artists Lazy Mom • single mother and future lawyer Marcella Jayne • musician, writer and MTV News anchor Meredith Graves

Cover Illustration by Molly Bounds // Edited by Meg Wachter & Amanda Stosz // Printed by The Prolific Group // With contributors: Ariel Roman, Beth Hoeckel, Brit Julious, Emily Simpson, Karolin Schnoor, Kat Thek, Katie Edmonds, Kelly Thorn, Lauren Denitzio, Malaika Dower, Michelle Chen, Natalie Snoyman, Ness Lee, Sam Paul, Taylor Emrey, Whitney Blank

Limited run of 1000. 6.5” x 9”, 88 pages, 100% recycled matte paper, full color, perfect bound.

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