L'Engle's Fiction Inspired Real Science

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Madeleine L'Engle, author of the classic 1962 novel A Wrinkle in Time, died Friday. L'Engle's work inspired budding scientists and mathematicians including astronaut Janice Voss. Voss talks with Jacki Lyden about L'Engle's influence on her own career.

JACKI LYDEN, host:

In this week's Science Out of the Box, we pay tribute to a writer who inspired scientists and mathematicians.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: Madeleine L'Engle died yesterday at the age of 88. She wrote over 60 novels. Her best known - "A Wrinkle in Time."

It's the story of a brainy, awkward girl named Meg Murray who ventures across time and space to save her father. "A Wrinkle in Time" won the Newberry Prize the year it was published - 1962 - but its impact spread far beyond the world of children's literature. We called Janice Voss, an astronaut who had flown five shuttle missions, to ask about her special relationship to the book.

Dr. Voss, tell me about the story when you first came across "A Wrinkle in Time."

Dr. JANICE VOSS (American Mission Specialist Astronaut): I learned to read very young, and it was always one of my favorite hobbies. So whenever I would go on vacation with my family in the summers, I would go to the local public library and just check out a stack of books. I happened to pick up the year before my sixth grade, which is in 1966, a copy of Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time." I was just fascinated. So it was the most interesting thing I had ever read. I went back and checked out the entire science fiction section when I got back and had been reading science fiction ever since. And that's what got me an interest in space and my path to be an astronaut.

LYDEN: Of course, she came out with that whole concept of tesseracting. Maybe you could explain what that is.

Dr. VOSS: Well, it's kind of interesting. You always get the question at the last interview before the flight - what got you interested in being an astronaut? And I talk about the book and tesseracting includes travel through space and time, and one of my co-crew members was aware of that. And after the interview was over, he leans over and says, you know, Janice, that book is about time travel. And he said, if you were looking for time travel in the U.S. space program, you're not going to find it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: Did you think when you were 10 after reading "A Wrinkle in Time" that you wanted to grow up and become an astronaut?

Dr. VOSS: I don't remember being that focused but my parents told me that, after I read that book, that's all I ever talk about being.

LYDEN: In the book, though, spaces are pretty formidable place where there's lots and lots of evil, Meg and her brothers are in grave danger, but you seemed to have been undaunted. Why?

Dr. VOSS: What appealed to me was the sense that you just figure out what you need to do to solve the problem and you use all the resources and you pull all these interesting technologies together, whatever you can find, to solve the problem with the help of your family and friends. And it was that combination of really focused on problem solving and a supporting team, and that's exactly what's in our space program today, as far as I can tell.

LYDEN: I remember that not only is Meg a math and science whiz but her mother in the book is also a Nobel-Prize-winning biologist.

Dr. VOSS: That's right. It's quite possible that I absorbed a lot of cues like that - well, yeah, I read this book when I was a child. And they wrote women, and that there were smart and capable. And I absorbed that background, which is, why to me, it just never occurred that it made a difference. They were always in my life. It just never occurred to me that that was an issue.

LYDEN: Do you have a favorite part about the book?

Dr. VOSS: The favorite points, for me, are the scenes. It was about Megan going for her father when her family was trouble, and she was going to save him. You can tell that really meant something to me.

LYDEN: Well, the idea that a little girl could save her father turns things on its head. She's not being rescued by her father, but she is turning that equation around.

Dr. VOSS: It's - everybody gives whatever they can. Even though, she was a little kid, you know, she gave what she could because it was her family.

LYDEN: Were you ever able to meet Madeleine L'Engle?

Dr. VOSS: I found a recent publisher of one of her books. He said write me a letter, which I did. I wrote them a letter and I forwarded it to her contact. And I never talked to Madeleine directly; I did get e-mailed back, or probably a letter at that time, saying that she was ill and wasn't able to meet with me, but she would love to fly a book on my flight. And so she mailed me one of her books, a copy of "Wrinkle in Time," and I flew it on my fourth flight at TS94(ph) in 1997, and then mailed the book back to her. And she sent me several books that I still have of later editions of other books that she had written.

LYDEN: Did you actually get to read it on the flight?

Dr. VOSS: I did. The flights are pretty busy. I did read it, however, I didn't have time to read a lot of it. But I did, indeed, read it on orbit.

LYDEN: I remember being a little girl, getting that book out of the library just as you did. You know how thrilling to think of how many people she inspired.

Dr. VOSS: Right.

LYDEN: Janice Voss is an astronaut and science director at the NASA Ames Research Center in northern California.

Thanks very much for talking to us, Dr. Voss.

Dr. VOSS: Thank you, Jacki.

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