An Intergalactic Travel Bureau in Midtown

The New Yorker, July 29, 2013

                                                              Steve Thomas Art

                                                              Steve Thomas Art

[Read at The New Yorker]

The other day, a woman set out for a midtown Manhattan storefront to plan a trip to space, in a bid to escape the sweltering heat. After weaving past Times Square tourists, she entered the Intergalactic Travel Bureau, on West Thirty-seventh Street. “Can I interest you in a space vacation?” asked a smiling travel agent wearing a jaunty hat.

After a brief discussion of the woman’s travel goals—no warm weather!—a trip to Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, was recommended. Temperatures tend to be several hundred degrees below zero on Titan, and underneath its thick, nitrogen-rich atmosphere, it offers the possibility of long walks along the shores of methane lakes. “They probably smell like cow farts,” the agent said, “but you’ll be in a space suit.” The woman was sold. The agent searched among stacks of papers for a price list, and did some quick calculations.

The quote, unfortunately, was billions of dollars. And there the spell was broken: the Intergalactic Travel Bureau was not, in fact, facilitating actual space vacations; the travel agent was really Lucianne Walkowicz, an astrophysicist. She was one of eight scientists involved with the project, which was first staged in the U.K. by Guerilla Science, an outreach organization that combines science with performance art. Olivia Koski, a physicist turned journalist, and Jana Grcevich, who studies dwarf galaxies in the astronomy department at Columbia, brought the pop-up travel bureau to New York City.

Over the ten days that the project took place, all kinds of people came in to plan vacations and talk about space—“the entire cross section of society that passes through Thirty-seventh Street and Eighth Avenue,” Koski said. The goal was to rekindle a love of science in passers-by. “At some point, people get the message that if you don’t become a scientist, science isn’t for you,” Walkowicz told me. The bureau was designed to counter that idea, and to give people a place to connect with the world around them.

There was a particular focus on reaching girls. While five of the bureau’s eight collaborators were women, the most recent data from the American Astronomical Society’s Committee on the Status of Women, which tracks the number of women in tenured positions (or the equivalent) at universities and observatories, indicates the average department is just fifteen per cent female. More broadly, the National Science Foundation notes that less than a quarter of all full-time full professors with science, engineering, and health doctorates are women; women represent only twenty-eight per cent of the science and engineering workforce; and less than fifteen per cent of female students consider a degree or career in a science, technology, engineering, or mathematics field, according to STEMconnector, a group that advocates for STEM education.

Longstanding cultural factors explain some of these disparities, but the lack of female role models may have something to do with it as well. Walkowicz had the rare opportunity to do research in a female-led physics lab while she was in high school, as part of a special program. “Nobody ever had to tell me that this was a career path I could do, because I saw women who were already doing it,” she said. “It’s important to stand up and be seen, because then there’s an example for someone else, that they see that they can do this too. Before high school, the only female scientist I knew of was Marie Curie.”

One day, a family came into the bureau; they had travelled an hour from the suburbs to get there. The daughter, who was eight, was very interested in science, but didn’t have much encouragement at school. She talked to the scientists for an hour, asking questions. “I told her I was a laser engineer, and she was excited about that,” Koski said. “We were talking about the different types of science you can do. My own personal experience—I found I was interested in being in a lab, turning wrenches. She related to that. She was thrilled to just be in this space, with all these women.”

By the time she left the Intergalactic Travel Bureau, the girl was talking about going to graduate school for science—a destination, the scientists hope, that will seem far less exotic to young women than a distant moon of Saturn.