February 26, 2021, by Brigitte Nerlich
Percy and Ginny: Science and politics in space
For about a decade, I have, off and on, been writing blog posts about space, space probes and space travel as part of the Making Science Public blog. Since 2012, I have been following the Mars rover Curiosity on Twitter, or rather its digital alter ego the Sarcastic Rover. I have a cast iron model of Curiosity on the book shelf above my computer and have given it an R2D2 to play with (see featured image).
Over the years the Sarcastic Rover has not only scienced away, but it has also voiced quite a few political opinions, especially on climate change. This is not surprising for a robot (or its digital alter ego) that’s sitting on a planet that might once have harboured life, looking out on a planet that still has a chance to do so in the future! It was therefore also not surprising to read the following tweet on 21 February: “STOP TREATING MARS LIKE A BACK-UP BOYFRIEND JUST FIX YOUR CURRENT RELATIONSHIP WITH EARTH BECAUSE YOU CAN’T LIVE HERE.”
Curiosity has now been joined by yet another rover, called Perseverance. Its Twitter bio says: “NASA Mars rover. Launch: July 30, 2020. Landing: Feb. 18, 2021. Hobbies: Photography, collecting rocks, off-roading. Team HQ @NASAJPL”.
Initially, I didn’t want to write anything about the Perseverance mission, as I felt too depressed to do so. But my son emailed me about Ginny and Percy and I became curious. I found that the Nasa Perseverance rover, which landed in the Jezero crater on Mars on 18 February, and its sidekick, the helicopter Ingenuity, also have parody accounts: Percy and Ginny. Now things became more interesting!
For those who want to know more about the real space mission, please have a look here (did you know the parachute was made in Devon!? And spells out a message in 10 bit code!), but I’ll focus here on the parody accounts.
Ginny and Percy say hello
I looked at the Percy and Ginny’s Twitter accounts and saw quite a change in language and politics compared to Curiosity’s account – reflecting many changes in science and politics that have taken place here on earth over the last decade, in terms of discussing gender, sexism, racism, diversity, immigration and much more. Science and politics are quite intermeshed in these accounts, which is great and stands in the tradition of Curiosity/Sarcastic Rover.
How do Percy and Ginny describe themselves? Let’s have a look at their Twitter bios. Percy’s bio reads like this: “Percy the Mars Rover @PercyRover Proud immigrant, sciencing on Mars with @GinnyHelicopter & serving up piping hot cafecito. Not the real #Mars2020 @NASAPersevere. Tweets & art by @RichardFerro.” (Sarcastic Rover spoke about ‘doing a science’ and here we have ‘sciencing’, nicely focusing again on science as a process not a product!)
Ginny’s bio reads like this: “Ginny the Mars Helicopter. Hitchhiking across the Solar System with @PercyRover. Not *technically* the actual NASA Ingenuity Helicopter. Tweets by @h_mooreorless. Art by @RichardFerro.”
What about their pinned tweets which should also give us some insights into their personalities and preferences – scientific and political? Ginny and Percy were ‘born’ around the time that Perseverance was launched in the summer of 2020. So Ginny says on 10 August, 2020: “‘Hello, World!’ Er, I mean, ‘Goodbye, World!’ I’m the Mars Helicopter Ingenuity, but my friends call me Ginny! I’ve got some ?????? opinions, high speed internet access, and 7 months of spare time on my…rotors.”
Percy says on 26 September 2020: “Hello Twitter Fam! Allow me to introduce myself. Call me Percy, the #Mars2020 rover. I’m Latino and use they/them pronouns. My likes include cafecito, microbes, and dismantling institutional racism. Dislikes include phosphine and nuking Mars. Also #BlackLivesMatter.”
So, already in the bios and pinned tweets we have hints at strong opinions about immigration, gender and racism, issues that should be of interest to us all, whether here on earth or on Mars.
Percy and Ginny discuss science and politics (with rocks)
When following Curiosity, I noticed, like many others of course, that people from the robot/rover ‘handlers’ up/downwards anthropomorphised Mars rovers (see Perseverance’s ‘hobbies’). When writing about Philae, a robotic European Space Agency lander that accompanied the Rosetta spacecraft, I noticed the same – and, of course, this is reinforced by space agencies themselves.
All this is happening now for Perseverance/Percy and Ingenuity/Ginny, but with added topicality. Their antennae are picking up different and more hopeful signals regarding our discussions here on earth about us humans and how we treat each other and the planet.
In terms of anthropomorphising, I found this tweet quite sweet. After Percy had made friends with a rock and named it ‘Oscar’, Percy asked: “WHERE ARE THE MICROBES WHERE ARE THEY OSCAR”? We anthropomorphising all the way down, so to speak…
Ginny in turn got into a debate with another ‘rock’, namely ‘the moon’. This time the issue was not science but politics, as you can see from this tweet regarding the use of pronouns and getting away from calling space probes (space ships, ships) ‘her’: ….“ is a they/them. I have rotors, not a gender”.
But there are many more tweets to explore in terms of science and politics! Look at this interesting thread for example, on spending money on space missions and the issue of diversity, including this advice: “We need to make sure the sequel to ‘Whitey on the Moon,’ isn’t ‘Whitey on Mars,’ but ‘EVERYONE on Mars.’” Good advice!
For those who want to have look, here is Percy landing on Mars on Monday, 22 February! Now we just have to wait for Ginny’s first flight.
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