“So I’m here in LA for three months working on the Mars rover Curiosity,” said my planetary scientist friend Mike Wong who called me on an unexpected Friday afternoon, before Curiosity landed on Mars. Mike also happens to be my first boyfriend. We dated back during our college days at Berkeley where he was already a student of Astrophysics.
“Wow, that’s amazing!” I exclaimed and caught up with a dear friend over a few French dishes in Los Feliz. Mike is one of the 406 scientists on the 2.5 billion dollars Mars mission. As a science team member working at JPL (NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory) in Altadena, he has two tasks. The first is to analyze and interpret the data of gas composition from the Mars Science Laboratory. His second task involves creating instructions for the day-to-day operation of the rover, which is essentially a robot.
“So what excites you about Curiosity?” I asked sipping on my glass of Lillet.
“It’s the potential to answer the question if life existed on Mars,” said Mike sipping his Manhattan, “But I’m more a Jupiter guy. Below is a photo of Jupiter’s atmosphere that Mike took now available on Wikipedia.
Indeed he is a Jupiter guy. He has been focusing his research on the atmosphere of Jupiter for the last few years.
“How did you get into planetary sciences?” I asked as we were picking at the salmon tartare.
“When I was 12, I saw Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series and I fell in love. I have an intense curiosity. I want to ask why. I want to understand how atmosphere works. Just like you always ask why all the time…”
“If you can visit any planet, which planet would you pick?”
“Earth,” he said and gave me some of his gnocchi with truffles and mushrooms. “Earth has a huge diversity of environments where you don’t have to wear a space suit. If you are on any other planets, you’ll be wearing so much crap and have to be constantly inside a suit.”
“When do you think interplanetary travel will be possible?”
“Mars will be the first planet that we’ll get on, and most likely within our lifetime,” said Mike, trying some of my endives salad with rocquefort cheese.
“How do you feel about being Asian in the planetary sciences field? Are there a lot of Asian Americans?”
“Asian Americans are probably the best represented group,” said Mike, “Maybe it’s the model minority stereotype. You need to be highly educated to get into the field. You need a PhD. However, you don’t need a PhD to be in engineering.”
“How about women scientists? Are they well represented?”
“Very much so. There are a lot of women scientists in top offices.”
I nodded thoughtfully and stirred the melting ice in my glass.
“Before getting on the mission, they ran a very detailed background check on the science team members. I told them that my husband was from Hong Kong, and they asked about every one of his relatives and made sure that they didn’t work for the Chinese government.”
I guess the U.S. government is afraid of Chinese spying. When the check came he snatched it away from me.
“Let me take you out!” I cried. “You’re the guest.”
“But I have per diem. You can buy me Chinese food when it’s cheaper.”
“Well, I am a starving filmmaker after all,” I muttered, trying not to be Chinese i.e. fighting over the bill.