Space the Nation: Elaine DiMasi isn't afraid to fail

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Apr 17, 2018

You may have heard that the upcoming midterm elections have attracted an unprecedented number of female candidates. You may not have heard that many of them are scientists, doctors, and engineers, exactly the sort of clear-thinking heroines — or Strong Female Characters — we focus on here at SYFY FANGRRLS. So we decided to talk to them about who they look up to, and how science informs their candidacies. Read our interview with Pennsylvania congressional candidate Chrissy Houlahan.

Elaine DiMasi was a physicist and project manager at Brookhaven National Laboratory for two decades, and is now running for Congress to represent District 1 in Long Island, New York.

Who’s inspired you? Do you have any early female heroes?
I'm stretching my mind a little bit only because you said female.

Oh yeah, that's hard, isn't it? 
That's the harder part. It really is part of the story. Well, I think as a scientist, you find yourself modeling on men and the women that you learn about, it's like they're doled out as treats. Like, you know who Marie Curie is, and then 20 years later you know who Barbara McClintock is…

Actually, who is that, Barbara McClintock?
Barbara McClintock was a biologist, absolutely brilliant groundbreaking biologist. She died in her late 80s about 20 years ago, if I remember that correctly. Towards the end, she was talking about all of the discoveries that were right around the corner. And she was saying, “They're going to be able to do this and that and the other, I can't wait till I see it, I just can't wait.” She died of her age just a couple of years after saying that. But I remember thinking, I want to be that person, who's creeping along at 90 and saying, 20 years from now, they're going to do such-and-such, I can't wait to see it.

And who are male heroes that you might have had?
Well, the heroes are all heroes, I guess. They're fearless. So it wasn't so much that the hero themselves did a special thing — they're all kind of stepping outside the village compound and exploring and coming back with the ends of the tribulations that they face. But I do remember Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed — it just opened up my mind to the way we take for granted how society is structure. I wasn't reading history or politics to think about that, but I was reading sci-fi, trying to read a story about a physicist who was going to make the next invention that would allow something to be solved, and what the author was really showing us also was their social structure. And she was asking whether learning could flourish when you're not allowed to own your pride or any material things that are special.

That sounds relevant to today.
It comes up in any work environment. I've seen it in companies, in the labs where I've worked, where managers had a choice between saying, “Propose something and then drive it,” versus “Propose something, write it down for me, and we'll say thank you and we'll never call you back.” We got your idea. And it sounds obvious when I say it like that, but “What amount of ownership do we need for innovation and problem solving?” is a question that we struggle with in the modern economy. Because patent law is very powerful. There are a lot of product changes that are driven by patent law, because the patent on something is going to expire, and pretty soon everybody is going to be able to make a generic version of what you have. So you change your product ahead of that time so that people get used to your new way of doing things, and then the generic ones, the freeware -- it won't be able to do the same thing as your new one, because the patent is in force. We have patent and intellectual property laws here that may not suit our online future very well, or our hyper-capitalism thoughts very well.

I love how your story about The Dispossessed synthesizes your interest in science, obviously, and the fact that you're running for Congress, where you’ll be in a position to do something about patent laws. It sounds like you were always thinking about politics when you were reading this science fiction. Or did you not realize you're thinking about politics?
I would say I didn't realize I was thinking about politics. I realized I was exploring different worlds, but if you had asked me if I knew anything about politics, I would have said, no, no, no, I didn't pay attention in Social Studies. I don't know the capital of something-or-other. I would have said, no, I'm not very interested. I didn't take college classes in politics or social science. I took humanities in other areas. So I would have said no. But clearly thinking back and where my head is right now, those were the books that apparently made a lasting imprint. 

People writing science fiction are taking things to the extreme conclusion and trying to figure out what problems lay further down the line. Is that something that's been helpful to you as a scientist?
That's a really interesting question. Let me mull that over for a moment.

You're already not a good politician, because you're thinking before you speak. 
Oh, I know, right? It's just — that snappy answer should be there. But this is a new one. I think when you're a practicing research scientist, it's like your dream that a question would bottom out in any way whatsoever. You do some experiments and you raised five questions, and even though you answered one or two of them, you have five times as many experiments to do. After five or six years of this, you tell your thesis advisor that you're done and you want to write it up and they're like, "But, but, but... You didn't answer these things, and you're really productive right now." And you say, no, I'm done. As a scientist you almost never get to feel that something is finished. 

And how does that frame of mind inform your ability to serve in Congress?
It's a problem-solving approach. And especially if someone is trying to learn something new, if I'm trying to take on something new, I'm not thinking about my history, my reputation, what I owe anybody. I really have a sort of a clean slate to think of, OK, how is that problem solved? What are all the inputs and outputs that everybody is struggling with there? The premise of all the scientists running for Congress or for other offices this year is that they’re tenacious to try and solve the problem by getting as much information as possible that will allow the next step to be discovered or revealed or the next question to be answered. 

So one of the reasons why scientists might make a good addition to the mix of people we have making our laws is that they know problems aren't necessarily "solved" — they just raise new questions. They are less afraid to fail. To be a scientist, you have to fail all the time, right?
You fail all the time, but you're not modeling and inspired by the failures that you're seeing, you're modeling and inspired by the successes that you've seen. 

Sometimes I think politicians don’t think enough like science fiction writers, because they don’t realize that when tinkering with these little things, you wind up changing everything. 
Yeah, and if they don't think ahead to that, or if they don't listen to the futurists who are, they're going to not know what to do when suddenly the cars are driving themselves. What we're all afraid of, I think, if we love a future in which things changed, is that politicians will become so risk-averse and government will be so risk-averse that the reaction to anything new will be to shut it down in whatever way. Like, OK, you're not allowed to have this kind of research. You're not allowed to have self-driving cars. And so then we just keep on burning fossil fuels and we're in really bad trouble. 

Do you think that science fiction could be helpful to other politicians? Like, “Everybody, you should read x, y, z?"
How interesting that would be. To be able to get people to read a message. You know, I think science fiction does give us an alternative world to look at, to stop saying that things could be impossible. But I think sometimes we should point to real science to accomplish that goal too. I sometimes say when I'm giving my speeches, look, I promise not to do anything that's impossible, even if I want to do things that are really, really hard, like save the planet with clean energy and protect the environment. Scientists do things that seem impossible all the time. But they weren't impossible, they just required tenacity. 

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