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.
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.
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).
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.
PS: You can watch all the talks from the Interplanetary Track session here: http://www.frontiersconference.org/tracks/interplanetary