At Connecticut College, astronaut Mae Jemison urges people to 'look up'

New London — Dr. Mae Jemison has traveled into space, appeared on "Star Trek: The Next Generation," served in the Peace Corps, taught environmental studies and danced at the Alvin Ailey school.

Now, she is encouraging people to look up — and otherwise think about different perspectives in science.

LOOK UP is Jemison's initiative encouraging people to go outside between midnight and 11:59 p.m. GMT on Oct. 18, look up, and record a picture of the sky — or thoughts about what is seen — on the Skyfie app.

"The reason I am doing LOOK UP is because we have so much technology, we have so much knowledge, but we've become more and more disconnected with ourselves, with each other," she told The Day.

Jemison also talks about the importance of incorporating different perspectives, whether it's from minorities or from people in different disciplines. She also views the interplay of art and science through the lens of perspective, saying that one is about expressing personal perspectives and the other expressing universal ones.

Jemison, who in 1992 became the first woman of color to travel into space, gave a talk at Connecticut College on Wednesday evening. Following her talk was a conversation with Harvard University astronomy professor John Asher Johnson, and a question-and-answer session with students and community members gathered in the Palmer Auditorium.

Jemison was the keynote speaker for Syzygy, the theme of the current school year for programming between the Center for the Critical Study of Race and Ethnicity and STEM departments.

Syzygy is the alignment of celestial bodies, biology professor Deborah Eastman explained in her introduction. She added that "the alignment of race, science and power has historically been fraught with exclusion, exploitation and oppression."

One of Jemison's inspirations to become an astronaut was Nichelle Nichols, who portrayed Lt. Uhura in "Star Trek" and helped NASA recruit minority and female candidates in real life.

But before that, she was surprised to enter Stanford University and find she had some professors who didn't believe in her.

Jemison spoke to how important it is for people who have a seat at the table to use it wisely, noting that they're responsible for deciding on research topics, data sets and methodologies to measure success.

"Everybody has some biases one way or another, and to assume that you don't means you're not very aware of yourself or the world around you," she said.

Her emphasis on different perspectives is evidence in the title of her proposal for 100 Year Starship: "An Inclusive Audacious Journey Transforms Life Here on Earth and Beyond."

100 Year Starship, of which Jemison is principal, is a project with the goal of making sure humans have the capability for interstellar travel — beyond our solar system — within 100 years, she explained.

She noted that at the speed the Voyager probe is traveling, it would take 50,000 to 60,000 years to get to Alpha Centauri, the closest star system. And even if travel could be lessened to several decades, it's not like astronauts will be able to slow down to get groceries.

"It's a tremendous effort, but that's what's so important about it," Jemison said, "because the extreme nature of it makes us re-evaluate what we think we know."

She added that she's working on 100 Year Starship because "everything we need for an interstellar spaceship is everything we need to survive as a species on this planet."

Jemison said the concept we need to "save the Earth" is misleading because the Earth will be here; it's the earthlings that need saving.

e.moser@theday.com

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