Sunday, September 25, 2016

Sarah Ballard's Love of Stars, part 1

(Update (10:49): This post has been slightly altered since first posting.)

In a recent press conference to introduce legislation that promises a "solution" to the problem of "rampant sexual harassment in STEM", House Representative Jackie Speier stated as fact that "at UC Berkeley, astronomer Geoff Marcy sexually harassed students for more than ten years." She later introduces Sarah Ballard as "an astronomer that has bravely spoken out against the harassment she endured as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley" at the hands of Geoff Marcy. The connection is important because Ballard's story is thereby explicitly offered as an example of Marcy's behavior specifically and of the sort of behavior targeted by the legislation in general. Something bad happened to Sarah Ballard, we are told; Geoff Marcy did it to her; this sort of thing is "rampant" in the sciences; it must be stopped. Understanding Ballard's story, then, is crucial to understanding the issue of sexual harassment in STEM. I think that's the spirit in which it is being told.

But to understand a story it is not enough that we simply "listen and believe," as the slogan goes. We have to try to make sense of it; we have to fit it into our own sense of reality; we have to absorb it into our own experience. We have to approach it with what Norman Mailer once called our "full and specific sympathy". It has to become part of our understanding of the way of life we call science. This may require us to adjust our assumptions about reality, and that is certainly Speier and Ballard's intention. They want us to include in our image of astronomy the suffering exemplified by Ballard's story. We have to interpret her story and interpolate it into our own.

That is what I have tried to do. I must say that, while I don't have much difficulty believing her story on a factual level, I have hard time seeing it as an example of sexual harassment. To me, the story doesn't even really seem to primarily about Geoff Marcy. It's a story about Sarah Ballard's discovery of her identity, a coming of age story that is set, as so many such stories necessarily are, during her time as an undergraduate at a university. She learned something about herself as a scientist and as a woman, and she learned something about a scientist and a man. She learned something about scientists and about human beings, about being a scientist and being human.

Sadly, she was told that this formative experience should never have happened. She was told that it was a wrong done to her rather than a natural part of growing up. She was told that her feelings for a man she admired, and his feelings for her, were wrong—that "something was off". She was persuaded that her personal relationship with Marcy (which Marcy described as a friendship) somehow sullied her life as a scientist. She was told that astronomy must be devoid of real, human relationships. Coming of age, coming into her own as an adult, she became a professional.

And where did she learn to interpret her experiences in this way? As is too often the case, it turns out that she learned it in a gender studies class. That, indeed, is where her story begins. As she explains to Kishore Hari on Inquiring Minds, she originally thought she would become a social worker with a focus on gender issues. (This moment is worth listening to. Hari asks her whether she went to university knowing she wanted to be astronomy, obviously expecting her to say yes, that it had been her passion since she was a little girl. "No, it wasn't," she whispers ironically, like a funny little secret.) Her introduction to astronomy came while fulfilling a "useless" natural science requirement. That was Geoff Marcy's class. Indeed, her contact with Marcy didn't begin as a shared interest in astronomy, but as a shared interest in gender issues. He had attended a Take Back the Night rally; and she had written to thank him for doing so.

It is not clear from her story whether this was before or after she discovered her love of astronomy. But the way she made this discovery is itself telling, at least to me. After all, she claims she heard her calling to astronomy, not in a moment of intellectual illumination, when she finally understood something that had until then been mysterious to her. Rather, she was, she says, sitting in class (presumably Marcy's) and was shown "a particular image of outer space" that "made [her] realize, as much as any human being ever can, something of the majesty and scale of our universe." That is, she approaches science not so much through curiosity as through awe and wonder.

Ballard also tells us that she didn't stay in astronomy to solve any particular mystery of the universe. Indeed, she's quite nonchalant about what she was interested in, even going so far as to accept a graduate advisor's recommendation to study exoplanets, a topic which had held no intrinsic interest for her until then, and just happened to be an area that would require her to work closely with her supposed harasser, Geoff Marcy. At the press conference, and in the interview, it is clear that she is interested in science as much for the culture it provides as the nature it studies.

Indeed, my hunch is that, for Ballard, the natural world is an entirely secondary matter of concern. Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it is a primarily aesthetic object for her. She finds the universe sufficiently awesome, even beautiful, and takes pleasure in working in this field. But it is not the physical universe she is really interested in understanding. Hers isn't really a quest for knowledge. The story I hear her telling is the story of finding a place where she might be "valued", not for her intellect and curiosity, but "for who she really is". Being a scientist, she advises young people, means being "intrinsically who you are [yourself]". Who, then, is Sarah Ballard? That's the question we have to answer to really understand what "happened to her" at Berkeley in 2005 when she met Geoff Marcy.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Who is Sarah Ballard? Not totally clear, but what is clear is that she sure likes the attention she's getting playing the victim. One wonders if she will get a job in astronomy or women's studies.