Review of The Picture of the Scientist as a Young Woman by Lindy Elkins Tanton


Lindy Elkins Tanton is the principal investigator for NASA’s asteroid belt traveler to study a rare, mineral-rich asteroid called Psyche. This object, 138 miles wide, is suspected to be the ancient core of a failed planet, which did not fully form in that vast region between Mars and Jupiter. Since the core of the Earth is inaccessible, Psyche may serve as a way to unravel the secrets of the mysterious center of our planet.

Looking at the title of her diary—”Picture of the world as a young woman— the reader might expect to just immerse themselves in a science story: how a geologist has progressed over the years from hammering earthly rocks as a student to leading a mission in deep space. But this wonderful book, beautifully written, is so much more than that. A brave candid, Elkins-Tanton examines all aspects of her experiences — personal and professional, good and bad — to illustrate the meaning of her life. It also offers new approaches to education, tactics for dealing with issues of sexual harassment in academia, and new ways to build team in scholarly research that goes beyond the “hero model.” “No one can single-handedly build human knowledge anymore,” she notes. “We need breadth of ideas that come from a variety of voices.”

Elkins Tanton’s childhood at first seems quite idyllic. Growing up in Ithaca, New York, she dabbled in poetry and music, won awards for riding her horses, and explored her hometown very freely. But there was also a dark side: her mother was estranged, her father was often angry, and she had to wear an uncomfortable back brace to treat scoliosis. More so, she was sexually abused over and over again as a young child in her jungle neighborhood, a fact her mother didn’t want to admit. The terror within Elkins Tanton remained for years due to that trauma, until a therapist recognized it as a form of PTSD.

Prior to this analysis, she found solace in her chosen major at MIT. She wrote, “The more I thought about geology, the more calm and relaxed I felt. … This geologic timeline flowing in and out into the past and then into the future seemed like a long cold drink on a hot day.” By her second year of study, she was conducting high-temperature and high-pressure experiments simulating Earth’s interior. She happily recounts each step of her procedure like a chef lovingly describing her favorite recipe. Upon her graduation, she received not only a bachelor’s degree, but a master’s degree as well.

Here her life takes an unexpected turn. Not feeling ready to continue her studies (“for reasons that are still unclear to me,” she admits), she suddenly got into business, becoming an analyst at a management consulting firm. Over the following years, she married into a prominent family, gave birth to a son, and while later running her own consulting business, she raised sheep and trained dogs. But after her marriage dissolved and two years of teaching mathematics at a small college in Maryland (where she met her current husband), she finally returned to MIT, first for her Ph.D. and later for a professorship.

At this point, the book offers valuable lessons about successful scientific strategies. Early on, Elkins Tanton realized that to answer the big questions in her science, she needed to “transcend the disciplinary boundaries of synthesis from entirely different fields”. This became her modus operandi. For example, I became fascinated with Siberian flood basalt, the largest mass of lava ever erupted on a continent, enough to cover the lower 48 states. It emerged around the time of the end-Permian extinction, about 252 million years ago, when 70 percent of terrestrial species and more than 90 percent of ocean species disappeared. Was this a coincidence or was the rush the cause? To find an answer, I organized a wide collaboration of geologists, geophysicists, geochemists, and atmospheric scientists.

Expressive descriptions of her field trips to Siberia are the book’s most engaging section, providing a ringside seat to the teasing and excitement of geological expeditions. She writes, “The layers of rock rose up from the river like an endless shelf of books, crumbling at an angle.” “Layer after layer, rising through time. We would float through the entire Tunguska sequence, then meet the flood basalt ourselves.” After years of data collection by that global network of researchers, they have already established that the climate-changing gases released by the flood (frighteningly emphasizing what humanity is producing today) caused the mass extinction.

Then her questions reached beyond the earth. In 2014, Elkins Tanton became director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, where the Psyche mission proposal was completed. The review process was long and painstaking, but it came to a final one-day panel presentation to a panel of judges, a nerve-wracking assessment that seemed ten times more intense than the thesis defense. Psyche’s proposal was a dark horse, as Elkins-Tanton had never headed a NASA mission and her industrial partner had previously built spacecraft only for Earth orbit, not deep space. This is where Elkins Tanton’s early turn in business and the lessons I learned there come in; That day, NASA noticed how well its team worked under pressure.

Once launched, the spacecraft will travel three years to reach Saiki. Beginning that journey, Elkins Tanton wrote, “We have won, once again, something truly worth winning: the opportunity to work harder, for longer, on something that will amaze us and drive human knowledge even further.” She found the meaning of her life.

Marcia Bartosiak is Professor of Practice Emeritus at MIT and author of seven books on the limits and history of astrophysics, including “The day we found the universe” And the “Black hole. “

A picture of the world as a young woman

William Morrow. 272pp. $29.99.