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June 27, 2010

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Astronaut practices big picture thinking

DR Mae C. Jemison is famous for being the world's first black woman astronaut. But for this woman from Chicago, who had always dreamed of science and space, it did not represent the crowning achievement of her career.

Instead it became the platform for the less glamorous, but more pressing, issue of how "social sciences interact with technology."

Just one year after flying her first and only space mission with NASA in 1992, she resigned to advocate that moral choices, not technology, will save the world.

Growing up as a young black girl in the 1960s, Jemison overcame many obstacles to become a medical doctor, serving with the Peace Corps in Liberia and Sierra Leone in the 1980s. She is now founder of the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence which runs science research and education programs and is a biotech entrepreneur.

Dr Jemison was in Shanghai recently to talk about science and sustainability at the World Expo.

Q: How did you overcome society's challenges to achieve your dream? What motivated you?

A: I grew up in the 1960s where there were great changes in society -- such as the women's liberation and anti-war movements. I wanted to be a part of the possibilities, and the world moving forward. But the world was not set up to help me develop my potential. Where did I get the audacity to do what I did? My parents taught me that I had the right and the responsibility to live up to my potential and creativity, and never to limit myself because of someone else's limited imagination.

Q: Did the space mission change your philosophy?

A: It reaffirmed that we are all in this world together. When I saw the moon in space and the earth with its thin layer of shimmering atmosphere I was struck by its beauty and the permanence of the planets. I realized we are not saving the world -- it will always be here. We need to save the atmosphere that sustains our life form.

Q: Why did you leave NASA?

A: I had worked hard to earn a place at the table of influential people, and maybe we are all working toward that goal. But I realized it made no difference if I didn't use that place at the table to make changes in the world. What meaning would it have if I just sat at the table and minded my manners? People think that social sciences are not connected to technology, but the future does not just happen -- it is created. We all have a choice in what technology gets developed and how it is used. We have been so successful at developing technologically but morals and ethics now lag pitifully behind.

Q: Why does moral development lag behind our technological development?

A: Science is understanding which technology has developed, but technology is just a tool. Understanding morals is hard, and we always want to avoid hard tasks so we cede to technology issues that are really about behavior and choices. We tolerate this lag between morals and technology but we need to tackle it. Perhaps it is the greatest challenge of our generation, but we are also in the best possible time to do it as we are the wealthiest we have ever been.

Q: What's your message for Shanghai with the World Expo in full swing?

A: The theme of "Better city, Better life" is interesting because there's a big question there -- what constitutes a "better life?" As a species we haven't decided what we want. Measures for better life so far are purely economic -- but GDP numbers doesn't necessarily mean better quality of life with clean air and water ... Our big issue is to rethink what is better and who is it better for.

Q: In the developing world most people still live in poverty so there's emphasis on increasing material wealth. Does it make sense for us to redefine what makes for a "better life?"

A: The trouble with metrics like the GDP is that it doesn't include sustainability, nor does it include things like mortality rates. It drives perverse behavior. We can change the metrics. It's a challenge for us to come out of the mentality that economics is a hard science.


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