How success and failure co-exist in every single one of us
NASA's director of science communication explains why success and failure are vague, impractical metrics to give young people.
Dr. Michelle Thaller is an astronomer who studies binary stars and the life cycles of stars. She is Assistant Director of Science Communication at NASA. She went to college at Harvard University, completed a post-doctoral research fellowship at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, Calif. then started working for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's (JPL) Spitzer Space Telescope. After a hugely successful mission, she moved on to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), in the Washington D.C. area. In her off-hours often puts on about 30lbs of Elizabethan garb and performs intricate Renaissance dances. For more information, visit NASA.
Michelle Thaller: I have a slightly different career in the sciences in that I am a professionally trained scientist—I have a doctorate in astrophysics and I’ve done my own astrophysical research—but I decided to emphasize science communication and actually go more into education and policy and trying to communicate science to the public. And the interesting thing to me is that means that there are a lot of people that don’t know me very well that have seen me on television that assume that I’m a brilliant scientist. You know: “the reason this person is on television, she must be the best astronomer of the day,” and that’s certainly not true at all.
And then I have a lot of professional colleagues, you know, who are not necessarily cruel but they really view me as a bit of a failure: I didn’t become a publishing scientific professor, a research professor—which is what I was really trained to be. And especially in these days of social media, a television show will come out and all of a sudden I’ll get messages from strangers who say that they love me and strangers that say that they hate me.
I often get questions from young students and they say, “Well, how did you become a success?” Or another great question these days is, “How did you overcome failure?” And the funny thing is I found myself really kind of at a loss because the very concepts of success and failure I think are words that never really meant anything. And actually, I strongly suspect they have a lot to do with privilege: that if you can make yourself in the model of a research professor of 100 years ago, that’s defined as a success, and if you do something different, it’s defined as a failure.
There’s never been any time in my life where, even after having received an award or having been on a television show, I sat back and said, “Boy, I really feel like a success.” It was always wrapped up in feelings of, “I should have done something differently, I should have had a different career path.” There’s never been a time where I felt like a success. And at the same time the idea that you ever really fail at something. There are plenty of times that I very nearly failed differential equations and calculus, you know. There were things that I was not very good at, but I eventually got them on, say, the third or fourth try.
And the problem was just, you know, staying around and telling yourself that, “I really want to learn this and I’m just not going to leave until I do.”
There wasn’t any really true failure either. It was always kind of twisted up with things I was proud of that I was actually working through and trying to learn. So this idea that at some point in your life you’re going to stop and feel like a success. “Yes, I am successful now.” I get very, very nervous when people ask me about that, about, “How did you become a success?”
I want to sit them down and tell them all the things I screwed up and all the things I did wrong and all the reasons I’m not a success. Now at the same time when anybody calls me a failure, it’s like, I want to sit you down and explain why what I’m doing is actually getting your money and your funding for the rest of science, you know. I’m not a failure either.
Everything in life is going to be a flow between those two things. Everything is going to be a jumble of success and failure. Your personal life, your professional life, the way you feel about yourself. And it’s a strange model we give young people. “Try to be a success. Try to overcome failure.” All I can do is just kind of breathe and just realize that at no point in my life am I going to separate those two.
When it comes to success and failure, the message is loud but overwhelmingly simple: do one and not the other. However, NASA's Michelle Thaller thinks pitching these concepts as absolutes is problematic when there is so much gray area between them. Thaller knows this personally: she has a doctorate in astrophysics but is NASA's assistant director of science communication. To career physicists, she's sometimes looked upon as a failed scientist who crossed over to the humanities. To members of the public, she's a shining example of scientific success. Who is correct here? There's a problem with hingeing our self-worth on external evaluations: success and failure are actually rather vague, impractical metrics to give young people.
The 'People Map of the United States' zooms in on America's obsession with celebrity
- Replace city names with those of their most famous residents
- And you get a peculiar map of America's obsession with celebrity
- If you seek fame, become an actor, musician or athlete rather than a politician, entrepreneur or scientist
Chicagoland is Obamaland
Image: The Pudding
Chicagoland's celebrity constellation: dominated by Barack, but with plenty of room for the Belushis, Brandos and Capones of this world.
Seen from among the satellites, this map of the United States is populated by a remarkably diverse bunch of athletes, entertainers, entrepreneurs and other persons of repute (and disrepute).
The multitalented Dwayne Johnson, boxing legend Muhammad Ali and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs dominate the West Coast. Right down the middle, we find actors Chris Pratt and Jason Momoa, singer Elvis Presley and basketball player Shaquille O'Neal. The East Coast crew include wrestler John Cena, whistle-blower Edward Snowden, mass murderer Ted Bundy… and Dwayne Johnson, again.
The Rock pops up in both Hayward, CA and Southwest Ranches, FL, but he's not the only one to appear twice on the map. Wild West legend Wyatt Earp makes an appearance in both Deadwood, SD and Dodge City, KS.
How is that? This 'People's Map of the United States' replaces the names of cities with those of "their most Wikipedia'ed resident: people born in, lived in, or connected to a place."
‘Cincinnati, Birthplace of Charles Manson'
Image: The Pudding
Keys to the city, or lock 'em up and throw away the key? A city's most famous sons and daughters of a city aren't always the most favoured ones.
That definition allows people to appear in more than one locality. Dwayne Johnson was born in Hayward, has one of his houses in Southwest Ranches, and is famous enough to be the 'most Wikipedia'ed resident' for both localities.
Wyatt Earp was born in Monmouth, IL, but his reputation is closely associated with both Deadwood and Dodge City – although he's most famous for the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which took place in Tombstone, AZ. And yes, if you zoom in on that town in southern Arizona, there's Mr Earp again.
The data for this map was collected via the Wikipedia API (application programming interface) from the English-language Wikipedia for the period from July 2015 to May 2019.
The thousands of 'Notable People' sections in Wikipedia entries for cities and other places in the U.S. were scrubbed for the person with the most pageviews. No distinction was made between places of birth, residence or death. As the developers note, "people can 'be from' multiple places".
Pageviews are an impartial indicator of interest – it doesn't matter whether your claim to fame is horrific or honorific. As a result, this map provides a non-judgmental overview of America's obsession with celebrity.
Royals and (other) mortals
Image: The Pudding
There's also a UK version of the People Map – filled with last names like Neeson, Sheeran, Darwin and Churchill – and a few first names of monarchs.
Celebrity, it is often argued, is our age's version of the Greek pantheon, populated by dozens of major gods and thousands of minor ones, each an example of behaviours to emulate or avoid. This constellation of stars, famous and infamous, is more than a map of names. It's a window into America's soul.
But don't let that put you off. Zooming in on the map is entertaining enough: celebrities floating around in the ether are suddenly tied down to a pedestrian level, and to real geography. And it's fun to see the famous and the infamous rub shoulders, as it were.
Barack Obama owns Chicago, but the suburbs to the west of the city are dotted with a panoply of personalities, ranging from the criminal (Al Capone, Cicero) and the musical (John Prine, Maywood) to figures literary (Jonathan Franzen, Western Springs) and painterly (Ivan Albright, Warrenville), actorial (Harrison Ford, Park Ridge) and political (Eugene V. Debs, Elmhurst).
Freaks and angels
The People Map of the U.S. was inspired by the U.S.A. Song Map, substituting song titles for place names.
It would be interesting to compare 'the most Wikipedia'ed' sons and daughters of America's cities with the ones advertised at the city limits. When you're entering Aberdeen, WA, a sign invites you to 'come as you are', in homage to its most famous son, Kurt Cobain. It's a safe bet that Indian Hill, OH will make sure you know Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, was one of theirs. But it's highly unlikely that Cincinnati, a bit further south, will make any noise about Charles Manson, local boy done bad.
Inevitably, the map also reveals some bitterly ironic neighbours, such as Ishi, the last of the Yahi tribe, captured near Oroville, CA. He died in 1916 as "the last wild Indian in North America". The most 'pageviewed' resident of nearby Colusa, CA is Byron de la Beckwith, Jr., the white supremacist convicted for the murder of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers.
As a sampling of America's interests, this map teaches that those aiming for fame would do better to become actors, musicians or athletes rather than politicians, entrepreneurs or scientists. But also that celebrity is not limited to the big city lights of LA or New York. Even in deepest Dakota or flattest Kansas, the footlights of fame will find you. Whether that's good or bad? The pageviews don't judge...
Average waiting time for hitchhikers in Ireland: Less than 30 minutes. In southern Spain: More than 90 minutes.
- A popular means of transportation from the 1920s to the 1980s, hitchhiking has since fallen in disrepute.
- However, as this map shows, thumbing a ride still occupies a thriving niche – if at great geographic variance.
- In some countries and areas, you'll be off the street in no time. In other places, it's much harder to thumb your way from A to B.
Technology may soon grant us immortality, in a sense. Here's how.
- Through the Connectome Project we may soon be able to map the pathways of the entire human brain, including memories, and create computer programs that evoke the person the digitization is stemmed from.
- We age because errors build up in our cells — mitochondria to be exact.
- With CRISPR technology we may soon be able to edit out errors that build up as we age, and extend the human lifespan.
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