Who Run the World? Mother Earth

I couldn’t really comprehend my relative smallness in the universe until I went whale watching back in 2010. To be fair, I probably still don’t have a full grasp on it—but finding myself next to a living creature approximately eight times my length and well over 500 times my weight was humbling, to say the least.

Photo © Sarah Medeiros

As I stared into one such gamboling giant’s mouth just below the stern of our ship and thought about how easily I would fit inside it—were whales not mercifully disinterested in humans as food—I felt fantastically infinitesimal. Later, I distinctly remember squinting into the distance at the foamy crests of water that followed long past when they had disappeared and thinking about the impact the whales have on what’s left behind. Often, people associate smallness with something negative, but in those moments, I was filled with the purest wonder I’ve ever felt. And that includes the day I first discovered that you could get In-N-Out servers to melt cheese on your fries.
Nature, in some ways, is the greatest equalizer, in that from the largest mammals to the smallest atoms, everything has an effect on the world around it. Speaking at an MIT symposium in October 1964, Dr. Wu Chien-Shiung, a Chinese-American nuclear physicist, said: “I wonder whether the tiny atoms and nuclei, or the mathematical symbols, or the DNA molecules have any preference for either masculine or feminine treatment.” Dr. Wu’s remarks were a pointed reminder that science is not furthered in a bubble, and that gender bias has significant repercussions on even the tiniest objects.

Dr. Wu Chien-Shiung

Only a few years before that symposium, in 1957, Dr. Wu was shut out of recognition by the Nobel committee for her vital contribution in using a radioactive form of the cobalt metal, cobalt-60, to disprove the law of parity. Her co-collaborators, Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang, were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics, while Dr. Wu was excluded, despite the fact that she was the world’s undisputed scientist in beta decay and weak interaction physics at that time. Historians have more recently dubbed her “the Queen of Nuclear Research,” but she was robbed of having the same deserved honor bestowed on her as her colleagues.
The erasure of women, and especially women of color, in history books is far from news. Nowadays, we are, unfortunately, used to hearing about the women whose contributions historians and society have ignored, white-washed, or forgotten. That’s why I was surprised to learn that in 2009 the United Nations renamed the international observation of Earth Day as “Mother Earth Day.” Although Earth Day itself had been recognized in the U.S. as well as internationally since 1970, the U.N. decided to rename the environment-focused day in order “to promote harmony with nature and the Earth” as well as “the economic, social, and environmental needs of present and future generations.”
The addition of the “mother” designation fascinates me—and is something we should consider observing more widely. Much like calling Dr. Wu “the Queen of Nuclear Research,” “mother” emphasizes the fundamental nature of the role. Take “the mother of chemotherapy” as another example: Dr. Jane Cooke Wright was one of the first African-American graduates of Harvard Medical School, and her career was defined by the advancement of chemotherapy techniques still used today. Her work can ultimately be credited with the survival of millions of cancer patients around the world. She is the “mother” of chemotherapy because she was integral to its inception and because she was fundamental to fostering its growth.

Dr. Jane Cooke Wright.

Without Dr. Wright, thousands more lives would have been lost. Without Dr. Wu, our understanding of nuclear physics would be severely lacking. Without Mother Earth, we would simply not be here at all. And as far as the Earth is concerned, it’s our job to make sure it continues to be life-sustaining for millennia to come.
So, while you’re joining worldwide environmental clean-ups taking place this weekend or celebrating the fact that science research is important (or just plain cool), consider telling other people about Mother Earth Day. It won’t change the past or make up for wrongs long since committed, but it recognizes and emphasizes the impact that mothers and women have on the world around us.
Changing a name may seem like it could hardly make a difference, but you’d be surprised by how something so small can impact something so large—like a whale racing through the water and creating ripples for miles and miles along the ocean’s surface.