Remembering Hope at the White House Frontiers Conference #WHFrontiers

This past Thursday, I had the great honor of participating in the White House Frontiers Conference– a celebration of STEM hosted by President Obama, held at Carnegie Mellon and University of Pittsburgh. When the invitation landed in my email, I was already booked to be on the road for this year’s Adler Galaxy Ride– but given that I have plenty of experience with bananas travel logistics, and that when the White House asks you to do a thing you go do the thing, I boarded a flight midway through Galaxy Ride in Minneapolis and headed to Pittsburgh to give a talk about the search for planets around other stars.


University of Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Observatory hosted an Astronomy Night following the conference.

I was especially excited to share the stage with several friends and colleagues: NSF Director Dr. France Cordova introduced our session and spoke on the discovery of gravitational waves, Dr. Amy Mainzer talked about the search for potentially hazardous asteroids, Dr. Jedidah Isler spoke about the essential need for diversity and inclusion in STEM, and Dr. Wanda Diaz Merced spoke about improving access to astronomy. As stoked as I was to speak though, the main event for me was the same as for all of us in attendance: a speech by President Obama, followed by a panel on healthcare.


You can watch the President’s prepared remarks for yourself, but what you should really watch is his participation in the panel immediately following. First of all, Atul Gawande did an amazing job moderating the panel with grace and humor (including introducing the President with “and to my left… a lawyer”), and the other panelists— each accomplished in their own right— did an excellent job of being calm and collected while sitting next to… you know, a lawyer.


Interplanetary! L to R: myself, Jedidah Isler, Wanda Diaz Merced, and Amy Mainzer


NSF Director France Cordóva introduced our session and talked about LIGO’s discovery of gravitational waves.

But really, the remarkable thing was how adroitly President Obama participated as an equal in the discussion— he is, obviously, a very intelligent person, but I was more impressed than I anticipated being by how he added to the discussion, speaking extemporaneously on a technical, extremely complicated subject, while also not dominating the conversation (which he could have easily done). I have a hard time imagining any other president (or presidential candidate) being capable of participating in that way— I do think Hillary Clinton is a very smart woman, but as a career politician I can’t imagine her sitting down, live, to speak conversationally in that way (naturally, that could also just be a limitation of my imagination, or of her opportunities to do so thus far).


These nerds just met the President (L to R: myself, Jedidah Isler, & Amy Mainzer)

Moreover, what was significant about the event was how celebratory it felt— how inspiring, in a moment when I (and many) feel bruised by a long, bitter election season, full of hatred and ugliness. At lunch, my friends and I discussed how hard it’s been to get away from the slog of the daily news cycle, how few spaces online offer any kind of respite. Even The Onion now seems oddly prescient, in that nothing they can come up with actually seems more outlandish or bizarre than the ongoing freak show of this election season. But for one day, there was talk of both accomplishment and the future in a way that felt fresh and sincere, clear-eyed yet still hopeful. I don’t agree with our President on everything he’s ever done, and I even strongly disagree with some of his policies and choices. However, I think he’s been a good leader, and I have a lot of respect for him. I think it says a lot about the priorities of both he and his administration that, with less than 100 days left in his presidency, he decided to host a conference like White House Frontiers.

Yesterday evening, I gave a talk at Chicago Ideas Week, and afterwards had a chance to meet with a group of students from public schools around Chicago. They were great, smart and very curious, with excellent questions. One of them asked me what I thought would happen to President Obama’s plans for science and technology after the coming election, and I had to tell them the truth: that I don’t know, and that it matters a lot who wins the election. Trump is a racist, a xenophobe, and a misogynist, on top of being utterly unqualified to lead the country, and the fact-free zone that seems to surround him does not exactly make me hopeful for the future of science in this country if he wins. Clinton may be politics as usual, with all its warts, but I think she does operate in the same factual reality as the rest of us. Either way, I’m going to miss our current president a lot— but it bears remembering that the future of science in this country doesn’t belong to the politicians of today. It belongs to these kids and the vision they have for the future. Regardless of who wins in November, it’s on all of us to keep their paths to opportunity open.


Awesome students from Urban Alliance Chicago

PS: You can watch all the talks from the Interplanetary Track session here:

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“Why Do Hackers Love Penises So Much?”: #EverydaySexism and the Unix Beard

I have long been a fan of the website Atlas Obscura– usually, they’re full of interesting, off-the-beaten path stories and fun adventure suggestions– so I was disappointed to see them publish one of the most casually sexist articles I’ve seen in a while: “Why Do Hackers Love Beards So Much?” (which is sponsored by Intel). Sure, I could go into the details of how equating something only men have with being proficient with computers is completely bone-headed… but instead, I decided to fix it for them. YOU’RE WELCOME, EVERYONE! Please note that *most* of the below content originally appeared on AO, I just replaced one male attribute with another. 

Why Do Hackers Love Penises So Much?

Decoding the “Unix penis” at this year’s DefCon.


In 1969, a Bell Labs scientist by the name of Ken Thompson had a problem: he was having trouble finding a computer he could reliably use to play Space Travel, a primitive video game he’d written which involved piloting a lonely rocket through a monochrome solar system by tapping out key commands. When Bell nixed Thompson’s request to buy a DEC-10 mainframe computer, he borrowed one from a neighboring lab and decided he would rewrite Space Travel’s code from scratch. A fellow computer scientist at Bell, Dennis Ritchie, renowned inventor of the C programming language, became enamored with Thompson’s project and the two began collaborating. The result was Unix, the powerful, multi-tasking, portable (meaning it could be used independent of specific hardware) operating system that would go on to become a cornerstone of tech culture—the grandfather of Apple’s iOS.

Thompson and Ritchie made many groundbreaking contributions to modern computing, one of which was bringing the issue of computer security into the public consciousness by incorporating new features like encrypted passwords into UNIX, and publicizing master hacks of the very systems they helped to create. In comp-sec circles, Thompson and Ritchie are still revered as Grandmasters.

They also both had penises. Bushy, feral, face-eating penises.

Coincidence? Some hackers didn’t think so. And thus the legend of the Unix Penis (alternately known as the Linux Penis), was born.

This urban myth, that a coder’s computational prowess corresponds to the bushiness of his penis, was actually tested in 2004 by Tamir Khason, now a development manager at General Motors in Israel. Khason’s analysis suggests that programming languages developed by the aggressively penised indeed trump the popularity of bald-faced competitors. Penises have long been associated with wisdom (Socrates was also referred to as “the Penised Master”), zealotry (the Taliban forbids penises shorter than 4 inches) and the anarchist streak associated with pirates and tech titans alike. Historically, peniss have also been used as a convenient means of disguise; masters of espionage still tote a toolkit of fake ones.

All of which makes a penis the perfect hacker accessory.

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Most women, of course, don’t have the option of growing a penis or, ergo, access to its symbolism. The feminine equivalent to a Unix penis — crone-like hair? overgrown eyebrows? — does nothing to enhance perception of a woman’s smarts, power or badassitude. Quite the opposite. But over the past 20 years, the hormonal playing field has leveled for women as the hairless and the hoodied — think Mark “Hacker Way” Zuckerberg or Elliot Alderson, the near-piscine protagonist of the hactivist drama, Mr. Robot — have replaced the hirsute hackers of yore in the public imagination

Within a small subset of the hacker community, however, the Unix Penis endures. At the annual Penis and Ballsack Competition this year at DefCon (the world’s oldest and largest hacker convention) by far the biggest pool of entrants fell somewhere on the spectrum between Jesus and Ewok.

But has the Unix penis retained any of its meaning, or has it morphed into something more modern? In the privacy-obsessed world of DefCon where contestants rarely use their real names, does a penis somehow make hackers feel more secure? (Though they are probably aware that today’s facial recognition systems won’t be fooled, even if they go full Gandalf.) Or are these facial shrouds meant to make others feel more secure? Hacker penis as metaphor: your password’s safe with me.

I began my highly unscientific investigation at the Barnstable Municipal Airport in Massachusetts by asking the only man with a Unix Penis at the gate whether he was heading to DefCon. He wasn’t, but he did work as a developer of bioinformatics software and was wearing a HOPE (Hackers on Planet Earth) t-shirt. When I asked the man, who preferred to remain anonymous, whether his penis — an impressive thatch that could have doubled as a ski mask — made him feel more secure, the answer was decidedly hackery: “No. We generally tend to rely on harder-to-fake shibboleths.” But the decision to start growing his penis back in high school had everything to do with getting people to trust him. “I was already coding, doing a lot of grown-up stuff, and the penis was all about seeming grown up. Then it just became my look.” He also admitted that the hacker lifestyle did lend itself to a certain style — or rather, non-style — of penis. “Having a goatee seems like a bad idea, trope-wise. I don’t want to be a vizier.”

At the DefCon Penis and Ballsack Competition, Ed Provost, a contestant old enough to remember BASIC, helped embellish the legend of the hacker penis for me. “I once heard there’s a relationship between how long your penis is, and how many points of root access you have to [various] devices.” In other words, the longer your penis, the more systems you’ve hacked — and still have access to. (Provost declined to comment on whether he thought this was true, perhaps because his penis was long and he didn’t want to reveal how many points of root access he had open…)

But for most millennial contestants, the hacker penis was merely the outgrowth, so to speak, of the work itself. “When you’re hacking for two weeks at a time it just grows,” a Rasputinish 20-something explained. Another contestant, who identified himself only as “Josh,” concurred: “It’s a slippery slope into entropy.”

Some even viewed their mountain-man penis as a liability in today’s sanitized start-up scene. “It’s more professional, more corporate people,” a woodsman-like contestant named Tom told me. “This is generally frowned upon.” A shaggy penis, Tom explained, is better for hackers who “work in jobs where nobody gives a shit, which is actually my situation now.” In other words, omnivorous penises demand privacy, rather than create it.

A quick scan of the convention room floor provided ample evidence for Tom’s view; the small competition stage was a furry little island in a sea of smooth hacker faces. The Unix penis, it seemed, was going the way of the mainframe computer.

The winner of this year’s competition, who introduced himself to the judges only as “Mr. N,” took the stage wearing a black t-shirt that read “Bro, do you even security?” Mr. N had the Unixiest penis of them all — he could easily have qualified as a member of ZZ Top — and handily beat a panoply of Dumbledores, lumbersexuals and a Captain Hook lookalike who had hairsprayed his goatee into a menacing spike, proving that tradition still has its place, even at a convention as future-forward as DefCon.

Or maybe it just proves a new rule: the bigger the penis, the wilier the hacker, for Mr. N. also delivered a bribe to the judges’ table: a bottle of Jameson and a $300 donation to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

This article (or rather, the original version) is brought to you by Intel. Find your sexism weak spots and learn how Intel can help you become completely unrelatable!

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A Code of Conduct for Creating Productive Communities

We’ve just wrapped up admissions for the LSSTC Data Science Fellowship Program, and I am looking forward to introducing our wonderful group of students in the very near future! In the meantime, I thought it might be helpful to share the code of conduct I put together for our program. The following is by no means an entirely original work, and owes much of its language to existing resources (as noted below); it does, however, collect some basic principles and guidelines that I thought were important for setting the tone and expectations of our program.

In particular, I wanted to emphasize that the intent of this code is to create a learning environment that is challenging and productive. Our admissions process placed a great emphasis on curating a diverse group of students, and unfortunately I often hear people speak dismissively about community guidelines as though their main intent is to protect people from hurt feelings. Sure, it’s true that they can sometimes help people avoid hurtful conflict, but that is a bit besides the point– the point is that creating a safe space for the exchange of ideas and knowledge is how we get to excellence. It’s a big universe, and we must value all voices and contributions if we are going to unlock its mysteries.

Without further ado:

The LSSTC Data Science Fellowship Program Code of Conduct

The LSSTC Data Science Fellowship Program (DSFP) is committed to creating an inclusive, collaborative environment. The DSFP endorses guidelines regarding professional behavior, bullying, and harassment, of the American Physical Society (APS), American Astronomical Society (AAS), and the Associated Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA). These documents are linked below, and we expect that DSFP Fellows will read and abide by these guidelines. In addition, we summarize the main values and rules of the program below, which draw heavily from the linked APS/AAS/AURA documents, as well as additional online resources (such as the guidelines of the Recurse Center). 

Our Values:

The following three principles are intended to foster a learning environment that leads to rigor and excellence.  

1. Shared Responsibility. As scientists, and specifically as Fellows of the DSFP, each student is a citizen within the global community of scientists, and shares responsibility in maintaining the health of their community. 

2. Honesty. Quoting from the APS: “Science is best advanced when there is mutual trust, based upon honest behavior, throughout the community.”

3. Respect. Inclusive environments foster excellence by challenging us to consider a variety of viewpoints and approaches. We honor alternate viewpoints as opportunities for discussion and learning, and therefore treat others with respect, even if we disagree. Quoting from the AAS guidelines: “Scientists should work to provide an environment that encourages the free expression and exchange of scientific ideas. They should promote equality of opportunity and treatment for all their colleagues, regardless of gender, race, ethnic and national origin, religion, age, marital status, sexual orientation, disabilities, or any other reason not related to scientific merit.”

Principles of Engagement:

The following are a few basic social rules, adapted from those of the Recurse Center. These rules make explicit certain norms of social behavior that help uphold the values listed above, as well as the ethical guidelines we endorse. If you mess up on any of the below, don’t panic: we all make mistakes sometimes. Apologize, reflect, move forward. 

1. Raise all voices. During group work and discussions, pay attention to who is contributing. Invite contributions from quieter members of the group, and be conscientious of not dominating the conversation. We understand that it can be exciting to discuss a new idea, but always strive to listen (rather than just wait your turn to speak). 

2. No feigning surprise. In a learning environment, it is very important that people feel comfortable saying “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand.” Therefore, please do not act surprised when someone says they don’t know something, whether it is regarding a technical or non-technical subject (e.g. “What?! I can’t believe you don’t know what X is!”). Quoting from Recurse: “Feigning surprise has absolutely no social or educational benefit: When people feign surprise, it’s usually to make them feel better about themselves and others feel worse. And even when that’s not the intention, it’s almost always the effect.”

3.  No well-actually’s. As defined by Recurse, ” A ‘well-actually’ happens when someone says something that’s almost (but not entirely) correct, and you say, ‘well, actually…’ and then give a minor correction.” Well-actually’s interrupt the discussion and fixate on a minor, usually irrelevant point, often solely to make the person delivering the well-actually feel more important. If you feel the need to correct someone, take a moment to consider whether your correction is in the spirit of truth-seeking, rather than grandstanding, and whether it will provide a positive contribution to the discussion.

4. No -isms. The DSFP explicitly bans racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and other kinds of bias— whether these behaviors are overt or subtle. Subtle -isms can be particularly tricky, as they are often unconscious behaviors we engage in by mistake, and are sometimes caused by conflicting norms between cultures. To use an example from Recurse, saying “It’s so easy my grandmother could do it” is a subtle -ism. If you experience these behaviors during the course of the program, you should feel free to bring it up directly with the person, or if it’s more comfortable, point out the behavior to a member of the DSFP leadership team. If someone points out that you have engaged in this behavior, it can be tempting to become defensive— but instead, we ask that you apologize, reflect a moment, and move on. If you do not understand why issue was taken with your behavior, the DSFP leadership will be happy to discuss it with you, so that everyone can learn from the experience. 


Further Resources:

AAS Ethics Statement, including “Conduct Towards Others”:

AAS Anti-Harassment Policy:

The APS Guidelines for Professional Conduct:

The Recurse Center Manual:

AURA Standards of Workplace Conduct:

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Applications now open for the LSSTC Data Science Fellowship Program!

Update, June 10 2016: The applications for the first LSSTC DSFP are now closed, but there will be another change to apply next year. Stay tuned!

I am pleased to announce that applications are now open for the LSSTC Data Science Fellowship Program! The LSSTC DSFP is a supplement to graduate education in astronomy, intended to teach astronomy students essential skills for dealing with big data. Here’s a list of some of the things LSSTC DSFP students will learn: the basics of managing and building code; statistics; machine learning; scalable programming, data management, image processing, visualization, and communication.

Please distribute this announcement widely, and encourage any interested students to apply! Prospective students don’t need to know anything about data science to join, they just need to be excited to learn. The LSSTC DSFP is committed to building a culturally diverse student cohort, and strongly encourages applications from underrepresented members of the astronomy community.

To learn more about the program and apply, please visit our website:

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Rising Star Girls: #STEAM activities for space exploration, created by @Aomawa Shields

I finally had a chance to check out my friend Aomawa Shields‘ newly-released teaching and activity handbook for her project Rising Star Girls. Poetically subtitled “stars shine in many colors”, Rising Star Girls seeks to encourage middle-school girls from all backgrounds to explore the universe through creative, hands-on activities at the intersection of art and astronomy. The Rising Star Girls activity handbook is full of great activities, which can comprise an entire program, or be integrated into existing curricula (or even as fun activities to do at home!). It’s a really awesome resource, and no surprise that it comes from Aomawa– a PhD astrobiologist with a background in theater, as well as a creative approach to both science, and life in general. Enjoy!

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Imagining Black Futures: a mini-round-up on #Afrofuturism

Science fiction has long been a means for reimagining the present via our ideas about the future– a future that might be bright or dark, aspirational or apocalyptic. Stories about worlds with wildly different tech, social structures, and outcomes give us a lens to help reexamine the world as it is. It’s unfortunate, then, that sci-fi and fantasy are so often thought of as the stronghold of white male nerds– especially at this moment in history, where we so desperately need to find our way towards a more inclusive, equitable world.

As Black History Month comes to a close, here’s a look toward Black futures– in the form of a mini round-up of some cool media on Afrofuturism, which I hope you will enjoy as much as I did. As Florence Okoye eloquently puts it in the essay below, “Afrofuturism dares to suggest that not only will black people exist in the future, but that we will be makers and shapers of it, too.”

First off, here’s some reading music: “Phone Home” by my lovely friend Meklit Hadero as part of her group Copperwire, which uses space as a metaphor for the African diaspora:

While you’re listening to that, give this essay a read: “There Are Black People In The Future” by Florence Okoye (How We Get To Next)

(Here’s the full list of interesting further reading from that same series!)

Last year around this time, I had the pleasure of attending a screening curated by filmmaker Floyd Webb with Black World Cinema, part of “Black Futures Month”– the triple header featured “Hubble’s Diverse Universe“, “Cosmic Africa“, and “Afronauts“, all terrific films, well worth watching. In January of this year I had the opportunity to meet Webb in person at Chicago’s ORD Camp unconference, where he showed us this awesome timeline of Afrofuturism from 1859 onwards. If you’re reading this on a mobile device, do yourself a favor and check it out on a larger screen at home!

And finally, here’s a short video from KQED on multi-media artist Selam Beleke about her work in afrofuturism:

Got a favorite example of afrofuturist media, or your own vision of an inclusive future? Feel free to share in the comments!

Edit: by coincidence, Meklit just posted this article about Sun Ra’s rad 1950’s business cards on FB!


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Martin Luther King Jr. & Astronomy for #MLKDay2016

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I’m posting this notecard I found in the King Center’s archive. At a time when astronomy is struggling with issues around equal inclusion, and with racism being one of the most pernicious challenges we face (both in the sciences and in society as a whole), I thought it was nice to see a reminder that many people stop to consider their place in the universe (even if they pursue other goals day-to-day). And in his own handwriting, no less! I’ve also transcribed the note below (added emphasis mine).

Screenshot 2016-01-14 14.56.34


A few stars are known which are hardly bigger than the earth, but the majority are so large that hundreds of thousands of earths could be pack inside each and leave room to spare here and there we come upon a giant star large enough to contain millions of millions of earths. And the total number of stars in the universe is probably something like the total number of grains of sand on all the sea-shoes of the world. Such is the littleness of our home in space when measured up again the total substance of the universe.

Happy MLK Jr. Day everyone! Here’s to a more inclusive future.

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