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Niamh Shaw: theatre makes science more accessible to people


What do you do with impossible dreams? Engineer and performer Niamh Shaw is confronting hers, and preparing for her journey to space. “Timeline-wise, I can’t tell you, but I have a lot of work to do before I go,” she told CyberNews.

Irish engineer, scientist, writer, and performer Niamh Shaw is on a mission to travel to space. She believes that it’s easier to get people interested in science and space through a personal story. Therefore, Niamh willingly shares her experiences of being a vulnerable human while on various space simulations.

Communicating science and space through theatre and performances also help fight misconceptions that a person can only be good at either science or arts.

“Don’t box me in. I’m neither a box of logic nor a box of creativity. I’m both, and we are all everything at the same time, but we let our thinking in our formative years tell us who we are, and we take ownership of that,” Niamh told CyberNews.

Niamh’s mission, her devotion to the (im)possible dream, her thoughts about the world around us offer a new perspective, a new vision of technology, innovation, big data, artificial intelligence, and more.

“I love technology, but where is human in that? Where is our right to plan that? Just because it’s economically successful, doesn’t necessarily mean that’s good for society,” she told us.

Niamh puts a lot of effort into finding a non-intimidating way for people to learn about science.

“We are beginning to see billionaires who are making choices for the whole planet. (...) I want a future where people feel comfortable to have an informed opinion, and I feel like it’s my responsibility as somebody with a passion for communicating space to help people figure out the thing that they are interested in,” she told CyberNews.

How close are you to making it to space? I am not asking if, but when will it happen?

Very hard to say. It’s based on the work that I do. I am someone who shares stories about space, which are essentially stories about science. I’m doing that because I feel that it’s important for people to understand the current climate of space activities. Not just human space activities but all space activities. There are a lot of satellites going up and orbiting our planet, and there are a lot of things happening. I worry that if we don’t create a society that is informed, a lot of things would have happened, and we wouldn’t hear about them until after the fact.

A big driving force of everything I do is about sharing what I know about what’s going on in space. 

I do that through my personal quest to get to space as a communicator, not as an astronaut. On the fundamental level, it’s about me challenging the ‘why of not wanting enough’ when I was younger. I didn’t see a female astronaut at a very important phase of my life, around 15-16, so I couldn’t even imagine that could be a part of my future.

It’s also about being an older woman and challenging the perception of what women at my phase of life are supposed to do with their lives and why can’t we achieve the impossible. And then thirdly, artistically, because that’s where this discovery came from, it’s about what happens when you walk forward into something that seems impossible and is it actually possible.

So all of that is based on the work that I do. Every time I’m in front of the public, everything I write, all of my experiences, and particularly this one experience that I’m working on, which is this massive global walking mission, all of that is to earn the right to be on the list when the day comes, and someone says that we have to put a communicator in space, who could that be? I want to be on that list.

Timeline-wise, I can’t tell you, but I have a lot of work to do, and I have to stay busy. It’s not about going up. It’s about making sure when I go up, I've done the work. And work is about communicating with as many people as I can on Earth so that when I’m up there, it isn’t a solo mission, it isn’t about Niamh Shaw, it isn’t about Ireland. It’s about the connection that I have had with hundreds of thousands of people. Now, they see this person that they feel a genuine connection with. I want to return and finish the conversations that I had with those people.

It can happen through philanthropic donation. But even if I was given the money now, I couldn’t go until I do that work first, because it would be a waste of energy. So many people have gone up before me, but only people who were interested in space have ever heard about it.

So you didn’t see a female astronaut role model in your teenage years. But still, have you ever dreamt of going to space?

Of course. I grew up in a house where we were praised a lot for our academic achievements, so love came from that type of success. We talked about science fiction, and everything about space was wrapped up in that for me. The Earthrise picture, which I came across as a child, had a big impact on me. And to me, the space sector was something that just seemed to be the coolest thing ever, and it seemed to me that the best of us become astronauts, and so it was this aspiration that I always had.

It was only when I left full-time academia and pursued my career in acting, and then it became writing, and then bringing science and art together in writing, that I looked back on my diaries to reflect on. Is it just my imagination, or was space always a part of me? And in my diaries, it was there. Whenever I had a crisis of identity, it was always what I wanted to be (to be an astronaut, to be a part of space, voluntary work, do something of value to the planet). It was always there. It comes from a very personal place.

Niamh Shaw
Niamh Shaw. Photo: https://niamhshaw.ie

Could you think of at least several biggest misconceptions about space and space travel? When I was just a kid, my teacher asked us to write an essay about what three things we would bring to space. I remember putting down a TV, a bed, and snacks as my top 3 things. Only later I came to realize that TV wouldn’t even work on the moon, nor would my smartphone.

That it’s glamorous. I think that they don’t understand how difficult it is on our bodies. It’s not at all pleasant. Astronauts are incredible people because they protect us from worrying about them. But that’s where I want to go. I want people to genuinely worry about me. If we see the frailties of what it is to be a human, we probably would appreciate better the sacrifices that people have made for us to have the advancements that we already have. 

For the experience of the absence of gravity, I did a zero-gravity flight in Moscow in 2017. It’s a parabolic flight that is going up at 45 degrees and then down at 45 degrees. As the plane turns, you have about 40 seconds of weightlessness. To have those 30-40 seconds of weightlessness, you have twice the force of gravity on your way up and on your way down, and it’s so disgusting and so uncomfortable on your body that it makes you feel very nauseous.

The biggest misconception about space is that it’s glamourous. It is not. It’s about the daily discipline, and it mirrors a lot of what the life of a scientist is in a lab. It’s about passion, commitment, and a team of people working together to make something happen.

I was covered in bruises after the flight. And that’s just ten sets of 30 seconds to acclimate my body to a sensation as if I’m in freefall. The launch is harder on our bodies, and the return is extremely hard on your body. The whole time you are in space, going to the toilet is difficult, sleeping, eating is difficult. Your body isn’t designed to have the absence of gravity put upon it, so your fluids are all off, you get headaches, you get sinus headaches, your inner ear doesn’t know which way is up, you feel seasick all the time, you can’t stand still. You are constantly overloaded with new sensations.

On top of that, you have a grueling working day. You are living in something that feels like a garage. I know what it’s like because I was on a simulated Mars mission. If you take away the comforts of living with nice and smooth walls and heating, everything gets really hard really quickly. Survival instinct kicks in very fast. Even having rationing water, rationing food - everything shifts, and your day becomes a struggle.

There’s an International Space Station that is 20 years old. That is quite a basic ship, but it keeps everyone alive. That is years and years of people’s effort and engineering, and science, and innovation to keep people alive, and they still have this ugly garage feeling. 

The biggest misconception about space is that it’s glamourous. It is not. It’s about the daily discipline, and it mirrors a lot of what the life of a scientist is in a lab. It’s about passion, commitment, and a team of people working together to make something happen.

Niamh Shaw. Photo: https://niamhshaw.ie

Once you are up there, what do you want to do in space? What do you want to communicate, what narrative do you want to share?

I want to connect to as many people around the world as I can before I go up. It is my current mission and planning: the notion of connecting with people around the world and getting some sort of exchange. For instance, I come and visit you, some schools where you live, and I talk to people and all sorts of communities. And they go 'she’s never going to do that'. But imagine two or three years later you are having dinner at home with your family, and you see me on the International Space Station. You are going to say 'we met her, we talked to her - she did it, she did it!' These people are going to be interested in me because of this personal connection. So when I look down on Earth and when I share that overview effect, which is what astronauts all talk about, I hope that it connects to them in a more personal way. 

Astronauts are telling again and again about this overview effect. It feels like people aren’t hearing it. Only people who are interested in space are hearing it. So what if a flawed person who is vomiting, scared, crying can share this view?

It’s only half of the journey. The really important part is to come back. So I go back, and I meet you again, and I meet the same people at school, and I say 'I did it!’. And they know because they saw it. And it’s because of you, people, that I did it. I needed the power of all of you to get me up, so now, let’s talk about you.

I do a lot of talking now. I have videos from my simulated Mars mission and my zero-gravity flight. I like telling people about the times when I am scared, the times I am not comfortable, the things that go wrong. And that way people are not listening to science talk, even though they are. They are listening to a human talking about an experience that they haven’t yet had, and they start asking me questions, and very soon we are into science, and we are into asking the bigger questions about rockets and should we be on the Moon.

I know I have a unique skill in being able to connect with people, but also being confident to tell the vulnerable stories of being this human completely out of your comfort zone. I also can tell it with the scientific facts behind it because I am a scientist and an engineer, and I do understand all that.

And then it’s about connecting the technologies that we have on the International Space station and remembering that they are there, and that we can apply them to live here on Earth if we can change what we believe to be a normal house.

Why can’t a typical house be 100% recyclable? If we can shine a light on my mission, and I come back to countries, more than likely, there will be some attention around that. Let’s use that attention for something good, to have conversations about what we can do better, what we can learn from living in such confined spaces that we can apply to Earth if we value water, food, emissions differently. How can we create a house that is naturally more sustainable?

Niamh Shaw. Photo: https://niamhshaw.ie

So how does theater and your performances help to establish this personal connection with people?

I think it does. When you are a full-time engineer, scientist, or working in academia, you use a lot of your intellect, and the work environment doesn’t necessarily expect you to have an emotional reaction to something that you are doing in your engineering life. That kind of behavior isn’t normalized.

When I left that and went into theatre, suddenly I was asked, what do you think, what is your response? I had no clue. I just knew I felt something, but I found it difficult to articulate. I always felt that there has to be a solid answer to things, like in the engineering and scientific mindset. But the great thing about when you explore artistic aspects of science and engineering, you are looking for more of a philosophical attitude or a more of human response.

Because I’m working in theatre and changing my perceptions around failure and success, I am more comfortable now sharing those vulnerable parts while also backing it up with science. It means that when I go on these different space activities and experiences, I am very happy to share what it feels like at the moment. Also, I'm able to write. I’m confident that I know how to explain what something feels like. And so you have emotional and philosophical responses, but then you also have the scientific response.

So there’s something in there for everyone. And it makes science more accessible to people who feel like science isn’t a part of their lives. Of course, it is because science is rooted in curiosity. Everybody is curious. Some people may have felt that math or science isn’t for them because of some disconnect that possibly had happened in their original education, or they were never exposed to it. But everybody is curious.

Niamh Shaw. Photo: https://niamhshaw.ie

It’s interesting how instead of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), you use the term STEAM (a stands for arts). I always felt, at least in high school, that you have to choose between arts and science, and you can’t be good at both. I guess that’s just another big misconception.

A massive part of everything keeps going back to me about perception and perspectives. So space has this opportunity for us to look at ourselves differently. I sometimes feel that we are like little ants, and our world is like grass. The grass is all we see. But then you take that ant, and you bring it above the grass, and it starts seeing the landscape, and it sees the bigger picture, and, of course, it wants more once it sees it. As a species, we tend to just base our reality on what is immediately in front of us, and it’s really important in our formative years. We base our reality on who’s in our direct line of sight in those first 11 or 12 years of our life. That’s why I didn’t even think I could be a part of space.

But we are on the planet, we occupy a little piece of that planet, and sometimes we think it’s the center of our universe. But if you leave your country, you start seeing your country differently. If you leave your continent, you start seeing your continent differently, and if you leave the planet, you see the overall planet, and then you realize we are a part of the Solar system, which is part of a galaxy. It changed my perception of what I was allowed to be as a person.

As a society, we like to categorize and to put people in boxes. Don’t box me in. I tried it your way, and it doesn’t work. I will not be categorized. I’m neither a box of logic nor a box of creativity. I’m both, and we are all everything at the same time, but we let our thinking in our formative years tell us who we are, and we take ownership of that.

What if you don’t do that? What if we had an education system where you can pick and choose things that you want? What if you didn’t tell children what they were and what could they possibly become?

Space naturally helps us to think that way. We always looked up to the skies. We all know what the Moon is. Every child is obsessed with space. We look up, and we philosophize, and we think of the bigger picture, and yet, when we come back to Earth, we go 'you are this, you are this, you are this.' Why can’t we be a little bit of this and a little bit of that?

Niamh Shaw. Photo: https://niamhshaw.ie

What’s your vision of the future? There’s so much innovation around us, with artificial intelligence gaining ground, and 5G just around the corner. Where are we going to be 5 years from now?

I worry. I think that information is power. My primary intention is to share knowledge in a way that is not intimidating for people. We are beginning to see billionaires who are making choices for the whole planet, and nobody asked me if that is ok. I don’t mind, and I like progress, but I would like to have an opinion, and I would like my opinion to be heard.

At least, I know what is going on. There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people who don’t know. I want a future where people feel comfortable to have an informed opinion. I feel like it’s my responsibility as somebody with a passion for communicating space to help people figure out the thing that they are interested in, and start them on the path that isn’t intimidating, get them to start finding out the thing that they want to know.

I want an informed society. All of those decisions around AI and big data, and asteroid mining, and whether we want a fleet of satellites all around our planet, do we want all that? There has to be more governance around these massive sweeping changes.

I love technology but where is the human in that? Where is our right to plan that? Just because it's economically successful doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for society. In the ‘70s, plastic was economically successful, but we are still dealing with it. We are dealing with the consequences of just letting that happen. I would say the same thing about AI, big data, and all the things that are happening. I don’t mind all of it, and I think it has huge potency and lots of positive benefits. But I think we have to make these big organizations accountable, and we are in love too much with profit and the economy more so than human well being and the well being of our planet.

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