Portrait of the scientist as a young woman

I constantly read space books and have occasionally reviewed them here in my science column at Forbes. I’ve decided to launch a series of reviews that will build a space reading list for summer 2022 comprised of works by friends of mine in the space community.

A Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman, Lindy Elkins-Tanton (William Morrow, 2022. Audible Edition, Harper Audio, read by Lisa Flanagan)

Favorite quote from this book: There is great beauty in the depth of knowledge that humans have accumulated. I wish with all my heart that each person can, in at least one discipline, pursue and know through a long path traveled all that has been discovered, to the limits of human understanding. Learning the landscape of knowledge to its outer limits gives perspective on what it means to be civilized, to know something in its entirety, to viscerally appreciate what it is to be an expert. This universe of knowledge is as complex, large and multi-dimensional as our real universe is, but the knowledge is less visible, is, in fact, largely invisible, until you look hard.

Before going into the book, I must reveal that I have the honor of working with Dr. Lindy Elkins-Tanton, one of the most talented and engaging university researchers in the field of space science. As Vice President of Arizona State University, Lindy leads the Interplanetary Initiative (II). It exemplifies the entrepreneurial spirit and out-of-the-box thinking that has earned ASU the title of America’s Most Innovative University year after year. However, as I discovered in my recent review of Jim Bell’s semi-biographical work, interstellar age, it’s surprising how little we know about the people around us. I would never have asked Lindy the deeply personal questions she confronted in this book.

Portrait of the scientist as a young woman, is an engaging and insightful autobiography of a leading planetary scientist and educator. Elkins-Tanton’s book is “spacious” enough for me to review here, but it’s also so much more than that. Given his excellent popular science publications, it also goes without saying that Portrait is well written. I listened to the audio version of this book and found it to be narrated perfectly by Lisa Flanagan. On the surface, it’s the story of a life path that winds from lecturer to business consultant, to sheep farmer and dog trainer to doctoral researcher and professor. This trip culminates in the author’s role as the principal investigator of the NASA mission to visit the metallic asteroid 16-Pysche. Elkins-Tanton’s narrative isn’t exactly linear, though it does cross time with intent. Some of the most personal events in the author’s life are carefully revealed in a series of reflective vignettes. I won’t attempt here to summarize Dr. Elkin-Tanton’s incredible life journey, or spoil any of her surprises, but suffice it to say that she shares a life well lived with us. Most readers will find both commonality and inspiration in the challenges facing our scientific protagonist.

What I would like to share with my readers is the joy that the delivery of the story brings and the inspiration it offers to all of us who yearn for great things. Portrait of the scientist as a young woman could serve as a field guide for the generation of young women who are enthusiastically embracing STEM careers. Elkins-Tanton documents the obvious challenges of climbing the ranks of the most male-dominated part of the notoriously conservative university hierarchy. While confronting gender inequality may be a current cause celebre, Elkins-Tanton’s approach to the subject is far from predictable. It is perfectly grounded, reliably rigorous and refreshingly constructed.

Convincing the reader that the author “levels up with them”, being both self-aware and honest, is the essential element of any autobiography. Too many books like this are either boring or boring and erased. The author of a self-story must overcome the paradox of presuming, “I’m super interesting” and therefore worth your time to read, and yet also convincingly convey that, “I’m a lot like you” and therefore relatable. Elkins-Tanton succeeded. Here we find a brilliant woman who grew up with the will to accomplish anything, but not always with the support she needed to get there. From childhood, it is a series of upheavals with which we can all identify, especially with his parents.

Elkins-Tanton notes that her mother had, to a large extent, “acquitted” of life and was therefore able to simply “not see” young Lindy’s struggles. Revealing the dichotomous posture that his mother had adopted in the face of the societal norms of the 1960s. The author writes:

When I was a young girl, my mother criticized me for having a “down to earth” sense of humor; I was supposed to be courteous. She told me that a girl should never dominate a boy. At the same time, she said, she hated being neglected by her own father in favor of her brothers.

The author’s father generally seems more supportive of his ambitions, but reveals his own innate biases in more subtle ways. Elkins-Tanton shares an anecdote where his curiosity about the formation of Scandinavia’s fjords led him to interview a male geologist rather than his own daughter, an MIT geology professor.

With my dad and the fjords, I realized he never saw me as an expert. I started to observe how people who were considered experts spoke and how they were listened to, and I started to compare these kinds of expert behaviors with those of women who weren’t already experts. I especially started to analyze how women spoke and were included or excluded from meetings.

What strikes me here is that instead of internalizing this very personal levity and simply stirring up resentment at the unfairness of the situation, Elkins-Tanton seizes the opportunity to gain a broader view of the unpleasant social realities and she learns from them. Whether she’s searching for evidence that ancient Russian volcanoes induced cataclysmic climate change, dealing with unusual characters in remotest Siberia, or tracing her way through a college boardroom, Elkins- Tanton is still the scientist; constantly observe, analyze, test hypotheses and act on the basis of the best available information. She shares with us the important insight that many of her most interesting and successful colleagues have also overcome significant personal challenges along the way.

Asking questions, in fact, had become difficult. If I asked too many questions, I would be considered weak. Asking questions implied ignorance, unacceptable at MIT. It was expected that you had already learned it or understood it on the fly. Asking a question could reveal to others that you had missed something obvious, and that was a big risk to take.

Elkin-Tanton’s work on planning a deep-space mission, building a coalition, and winning the contest to lead a NASA Discovery Program mission forms the grand finale of Portrait of the scientist as a young woman. Becoming the principal investigator of a NASA planetary mission is the achievement of a lifetime, a feat that thousands of planetary scientists of a generation aspire to and only a handful of them will achieve. The author provides an insightful roadmap for those bold enough to follow in his footsteps and it applies to many other technical career paths.

The journey to 16-Psyche is particularly compelling because it is not just of interest to an abstract scientist. The massive asteroid is likely made up of priceless metals essential to building a new human economy in deep space. Commercial space entrepreneurs and even investors are keeping a close eye on the progress of the mission. After the book’s publication, the Psyche mission missed its initial summer launch window due to issues with its software validation systems. The effort to get the program back on track for an alternate flight plan has got to be a hugely interesting story, one that I’m sure will merit another book and a management case study or two.

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