Future Tense Fellowship

I’m thrilled to announce that I’ve been selected as a Future Tense Fellow.

Future Tense is a remarkable interdisciplinary collaboration between Slate, Arizona State University, and the New America Foundation that explores the frontiers of science, art, and policy.

Earlier this year, I joined Future Tense for a conversation on Mars exploration with science fiction author Karl Schroeder, and I also met the director of Space X and leading NASA officials.

I’m excited to be joining the extraordinary list of current fellows, and look forward to our collaboration.

Notes from my mind-blowing event at ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination

In April, I was invited to participate in a special workshop on the future of space exploration at Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination. This unique think tank was created on a dare after author Neal Stephenson complained that scientists today lacked the grand visions that inspired previous generations. Instead of scoffing at the idea, ASU’s President Michael Crow took up Stephenson’s challenge and within a few short years helped the Center get off the ground. Today the Center unites artists with scientists while inspiring and influencing public policy.

I have been following the Center for Science and the Imagination since its inception, when it created a blog site called Project Hieroglyph that aimed to foster online dialogue between creators, engineers, and scientists. While that effort didn’t succeed, the Center released Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future, a unique compendium of fiction that explored what could be possible while avoiding dystopian modes of storytelling. The Center has since hosted scientists and artists from around the world.

The purpose for the gathering was to discuss a new book on space exploration, where I contributed an essay on inequality in Low-Earth Orbit. We met with NASA engineers, ASU scientists, artists, science fiction writers, and even the president of the acclaimed Planetary Society, Professor Jim Bell. I spoke about Nigerians in Space and my forthcoming sequel After the Flare, and also discussed my work at Access Now, where I fight to ensure that technology respects human rights. Below is a short photo tour of my experience at ASU.

I truly enjoyed the trip and I have been talking about it non-stop to whoever will listen. We need more risk-takers like the Center for Science and the Imagination. I just finished Joi Ito and Jeff Howe’s new book Whiplash: How to Survive our Faster Future (Hachette), and they argue that inter-disciplinary research centers — just like ASU — can model how people can thrive in our rapidly innovating, unsettled world.

I’ll follow up soon with details about the new book collection — it should make for a great read.

Appearing at NASA Space Futures launch at Center for Science and the Imagination

I’ll be in Phoenix on April 13 and 14 for the launch of a new book collection on space futures produced by NASA and the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University. I’m thrilled — ASU is the leading institution focusing on working with science fiction authors to imagine a better future. My essay in the book focuses on diversity and inequality in space, including how private space companies like Space X and Blue Origin may impact the new space race.

Speaking at New America with NASA, Virgin Galactic on March 8

I’ll be speaking at the New America foundation about efforts to go to Mars, competition, and science fiction. There will be several extraordinary guests, including the CEO of Virgin Galactic, George Whitesides, and the former Lead Scientist at NASA.

In April this year, my essay on equity in space exploration will appear in a joint NASA / Slate: Future Tense book. More on that soon.

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Celebration of Black Scientists: my visit to Austin’s George Washington Carver museum

About the Museum and Cultural Center

I travel to Austin at least once per year to visit with family. This time, besides scarfing down world-class barbecue and Tex-Mex food, I wanted to learn more about the African-American community. I had a radio interview with Kazi.fm to discuss by book Nigerians in Space and the gracious host of the show, Hopeton Hay, recommended that I visit the George Washington Carver museum.

Carver Display

This display of George Washington Carver was located in the main atrium. A text panel explained his achievements: scientist, professor, and inventor. Carver was born into slavery in 1864 in Missouri. After slavery was abolished, his perseverance in the face of racism and poverty enabled him to become a professor at Iowa State before leaving his post to work under Booker T. Washington (no relation) at the renowned Tuskegee Institute, a university devoted to uplifting blacks. The display case held some instruments from his lab—many of them custom made because he had little funding—as well a "pet corn snake" preserved in formaldehyde, which apparently slithered around his lab.
Even though there is scant information about Carver throughout the museum, you can sense his immense intellect and devotion to mentoring others. Among other achievements, he completely revamped the cotton industry by recommending that farmers replenish the soil with other plants, such as peanuts. And when they expressed doubts about the value of peanuts, he developed several hundred innovative uses for the plant, many of which are in use today.

Mae Jemison

The most interesting part of the museum was actually a gallery meant for children. But since there were no children in the museum, I wandered in. (More on this later.) This graphic explained the achievements of Mae Jemison, a medical doctor who became the first African-American woman in space. She entered Stanford at the young age of 16 and graduated with dual degrees in chemical engineering and African-American history.
A NASA photo of Jemison while she was in space on a joint research mission with Japan.

Garrett Morgan

Garrett Morgan was an extraordinary inventor who invented traffic signals—later developed into the stoplight—and the modern day gas mask. Interestingly, Morgan demonstrated the effectiveness of his gas mask by rescuing workers trapped underground after a tunnel explosion under Lake Erie.

Why the Museum Matters

I learned a lot from my visit to the George Washington Carver museum. In reality, it seems to be used more as a cultural center than as a museum—there is an auditorium and several modular spaces. But I can't stress the importance of learning about these African-American scientists enough. Some people are pioneers, but many are not and like to see what others have achieved before striking out. I think I'm probably in the latter category—I like to learn from the other choices that people have made. This means that I rarely experience the elation of true discovery like a pioneer, but I do get to try out some really cool things while avoiding pitfalls.

I won't sugar coat this—the museum definitely could use your support. The displays were not all working properly and it was not even possible to buy anything from the gift shop. The best thing to do is probably just visit the museum itself. But if you can give more, then you should. It could create the next George Washington Carver or Mae Jemison, or just instill a young mind with extraordinary belief.