I have been giving some thought to what makes a person famous. This is Black History Month and as an elementary science teacher I struggle with finding ways to contribute to the discussion. I want every child to know famous Black scientists. Every child should know George Washington Carver (and to know more than the 100 things from peanuts part of his remarkable story.) I want every child to know Mae Jamison and Neil deGrasse Tyson. But I want students to have a long list of Black scientists. And, even though the path has never been easy for scientists of color, they certainly exist.
I recently learned of the work of a black scientist as I was reading the obituaries. George Carruthers died recently, January 2021. Dr. Carruthers’ major claim to fame was building the electronographic telescope/camera that went to the moon with the Apollo 16 mission. I won’t go into all the details, but this shy boy who started with space comics and a telescope kit became a scientist who- with the powerful instrument he developed- captured information on the origins of galaxies.
Dr. Carruthers was famous enough to win awards from NASA, the Obama White House, and more, but have you ever heard of him? Would you ever, if you weren’t reading this?
I shared his story with my third graders and they think Dr. Carruthers should be famous.
How? I asked my students. Knowing that his telescope was left on the moon and is still there, one boy thinks we should find the plans, make another, and create a parade with the gleaming gold instrument carried front and center! Others offered to text somebody, or tell their grandparents, talk with their family and friends. One offered to put him in a poem. Someone should write a picture book about him, they said. I agree with all their ideas (though the parade may have to wait.) I told them to write his name down in their science journal and spell it correctly, so they would remember. I urged them to tell their family and friends. We practiced the telling- the name, the important accomplishments.
The bigger issue of course is- who gets to decide fame? What group has historically determined who was worthy of admiration, whose work was significant enough to be remembered? This answer is obvious. Everyone’s work contributes, in increments, to our growth in science and in society. But to be famous is to have your name attached to your work.
During this February, Black History month, and on throughout the year, think on the many names that have been lost, their work never attributed to them. So many names are being overlooked now. We can learn some of those whose work has gone un-named. We can help lift up their names and make their contributions known. My third graders and I are starting with Dr. George Carruthers.