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On Writing “A Short History of the Twentieth Century”

“A Short History of the Twentieth Century, or, When You Wish Upon A Star,” is now live at http://tinyurl.com/pqbjfll

This is a story about the first Moon Landing in 1969, Walt Disney’s role in promoting Wernher von Braun’s vision of space exploration, women scientists in the 1950’s and since, Wernher von Braun and other former Nazis in the US space program, Disney’s Tomorrowland, and a little girl hanging out with rocket scientists and learning how to design rockets.

Perhaps the subject might best be summed up as “the scientific dreams of girls.”

In the 1950’s, the population of the US, primed by the Cold War and Sputnik, had a national dream of what it would be like to go into space. Romantic, yes, but also an act of war, both practical and symbolic. It was primed by the man who, as a Nazi, developed the deadliest rockets of WWII, Wernher von Braun. Rounded up in Operation Paperclip, his Nazi history expunged by the US government, he became the first director of NASA and popularized the idea of going to the moon and beyond in a series of prominent magazine articles and television shows produced by Disney for the US government.

Walt Disney’s television shows were watched by a huge number of kids. I saw the “Man in Space” series, watched The Wonderful World of Color on a black and white Crosley on a Navy base in the just-created 50th State of Hawaii, and grew up in the usual way thinking that I could do just about anything. I thought that I was a part of the American Dream. I became a writer. I was “good with words,” no argument with that. But I, like untold numbers of girls, also had technical, scientific, mathematical, and mechanical leanings that were not actively encouraged, and which, when I took mechanical and architectural drawing classes in high school, were treated with active hostility.

This situation has changed a lot since the 1950’s. Female physicians are no longer an oddity–half of all medical students are now women. There are some rock-star women scientists to shatter old paradigms and show both girls and boys the possibilities, but not nearly enough. There seems to be no overriding national will to make sure that girls are educated to the fullest extent of their potential, but that is also true for boys. Awareness of the need to encourage young women to engage with STEM curricula at university level is growing, which is encouraging. We just need to determine the many strategies, large and small, subtle and overt, through which girls and young women can achieve fuller participation in the culture of science and technology. Having models, and being able to imagine oneself as a scientist, is an important part of this process.

My story celebrates the women who have persevered in scientific and technical fields in a culture that often does not welcome them, and looks forward to a day when the struggle to master a scientific discipline and explore the mysteries that surround us will take place in a culture that welcomes everyone.

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