Remembering Dr. Emma Bakes
An exceptional person, Dr. Emma Bakes passed away on February 28, 2011. She accomplished a great deal and touched many people in an unfortunately short time. Her accomplishments span oceans and included the physical sciences, medicine, fashion, martial arts, and parenthood to name just a few. To honor and remember her, the SETI Institute and NASA’s Kepler Mission Team invite you to read the following essay she wrote just a few months ago. It is an essay that reflects her life and her legacy…
Donald Mendoza, NASA Ames, and the SETI Institute
The Shore of the Cosmic Ocean:
A Confluence of Humanity and Science
By Emma Bakes, PhD, MD candidate
I was fourteen years old, engrossed in nightly piano practice, when my mother came into the lounge and announced, with a great deal of excitement, that there was a TV program showing that I needed to see. I sighed heavily, in a way only teenagers can, accompanied by the obligatory eye roll, and decided it had better be good, because few things can outrank a Beethoven sonata. That TV program was Cosmos and within minutes, I found myself enthralled by Carl Sagan, his unique vision of the universe and humanity’s place within it. Prior to Carl, my view of astronomy had been of a somewhat cold, sterile field inhabited by people who worked on dry subject material outside of anyone’s interest, except other scientists interested in equally esoteric and irrelevant material. The magic that Carl Sagan offered, and I use the word magic in its most pure form, “a mysterious quality of enchantment,” was that he was able to translate the mundane and transform it into something extraordinary, making it relevant to humanity on both an individual and a global scale. I was hooked, and in actuality, I had fallen in love with his vision, because he brought that limitless cosmos to life and made it accessible to a young and inquiring mind. Exploration and discovery became passions to be indulged every day, even in my mundane, provincial school, as I linked classes I learned to the sparkle of astrophysics.
Life in my hometown of Blyth, England, was relentlessly conformist. Women sported the same bouffant hair style, the same blue eyeliner, the same white “Frankie Say Relax” clothes, and even the non-conformists were actually conformist non-conformists, dressed in their regulation black clothing with “acceptably outlandish” spiked hair and black eyeliner. There wasn’t a lot to do in this town for entertainment, bar drink, smoke and have sex and my parents certainly weren’t going to indulge any of that. Within this atmosphere, however, I had my own harmless and surreptitious vice. I read every single one of Carl’s books over a two year period. I would order them at the local library and as soon as I received a notice to say a book had arrived, I would dash out to the library in a state of immense excitement, and begin reading the book as I walked home. Those books exerted their own magical transformation on my life. While life in Blyth seemed narrow and limited, life in Carl’s books was endless, fertile and free, full of adventure and wonder. Whenever there was a clear night sky, I would step outside with my binoculars to look at the stars and try to recognize the different constellations. The universe was so vast and so very beautiful and it was all above me, waiting to be discovered. For me, the night sky was a boundless entity, full of love and beauty. It was the world’s greatest adventure. Where would we go next? What would we learn? What could we discover? And how could we grow as a species? The answers were all in the stars. Carl’s influence opened up whole worlds of possibilities for me and my perspective had switched from provincial to cosmic.
When life became grinding, tough or toxic, the magic of Carl’s ability to pull us out of our ordinary, everyday selves, to acknowledge the daily wonder that is our lives, to provoke us into new realms of thought, has propelled me from one adventure to another. He remains, in my mind, the only astronomer I have met who has been able to combine rational intellect and the heart of our humanity to make us question our place in the universe. Carl’s world was always a breathless exploration of extraordinary potential, limitless possibilities and the passionate pursuit of scientific inquiry. Little did I know that by merely watching a few minutes of his Cosmos series, I was dipping my toes into an ocean of knowledge that would pull me away from everything familiar and allow me to become a human being and scientific explorer fulfilled beyond my wildest dreams. I have worked as an astrophysicist for NASA and the SETI Institute, I am a trainee medical doctor at Stanford and I am a mother to a precocious 3-year-old boy that doctors claimed I could never conceive.
Carl’s scientific philosophy helped me believe in the infinite possibilities of a vast and swirling universe, that I could do and be absolutely anything, no matter who I was, where I came from or what the obstacles may be. I still believe in that gift, and it may be the greatest gift that one human being can ever give another. However, in the greater scheme of things, Carl inspired a whole generation of young scientists to explore their world, to question the status quo and to seek their place in it, where they could make a truly positive difference. He exemplified the best of what it is to be human and even in the face of his battle with cancer, turned it around to inspire the building of the Carl Sagan Discovery Center at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore, NYC, the Bronx’s first pediatric hospital. Not only is no child turned away due to lack of financial resources or health insurance, the hospital itself is equipped with a wealth of educational resources and facilities to inspire these children and cultivate an appreciation for the wonders of science. Carl’s cosmic ocean doesn’t only lap at the shores of the distant universe, it ferries the poor and the helpless to a place of care, with free access to medical treatment and scientific inspiration, a place he hoped would provide life changing experiences to improve their future. His legacy remains an appreciation of our humanity, our scientific curiosity concerning life on other worlds and our limitless potential to make our own world a better place.