Updates: School, Social Media, and Upcoming Reviews

First off, I am grateful for the outpouring of support from those of you who regularly interact with me on social media and have reached out to check in during my absence. It’s heartwarming to know that so many people care about my well-being and took the time to read my previous blog post. Taking a break from social media has given me a lot more time to stay on top of my emails, and I’m thrilled to be receiving so many about books to review on the blog. In the past week, I’ve received more emails about new and forthcoming books to review than I have in the past several months! This is exciting and I’m immensely looking forward to getting plenty of new content on the blog. Keep an eye out for those reviews – I’m working on one now for Falling Felines and Fundamental Physics.

One of the reasons that Read More Science has been relatively stagnant for the past six months is because starting university has consumed a substantial amount of my time. When I was just working at an independent bookstore, I had a lot more time on my hands to read and review books. Now, as a working student, it’s much more difficult to fit that into my schedule, but I am prioritizing it thanks to some changes in my schedule.

A surprising positive to quarantine during this coronavirus pandemic is the flexibility of working from home. My position at the marine microbiology lab has changed from washing flasks and beakers to working remotely on a lesson plan about ocean science for K-12 students, because we are no longer allowed to go into the lab on campus. This is a great science communication project and a way for me to learn about science education. In addition to that, I’m taking a workshop in Linux/Unix and command-line in order to learn a bit about data analysis and bioinformatics, which will help with my venture into microbiome research.

Aside from work, the classes I am taking this term are already captivating and exciting. One of my upper level classes is environmental writing, which is part of the Science, Technical, and Professional Communication Certificate here at Oregon State. Another is a history of science course, which focuses on the twentieth century and is taught by a professor in the History and Philosophy of Science graduate program here at Oregon State (which I am immensely interested in). Lastly, I am still working through precalculus, which is the last piece of math I need before venturing into chemistry and biology and calculus this coming academic year.

If you’re familiar with my academic background from my previous writing, you may know that I come from a very poor math and science education and was afraid to take those STEM classes when I first started college. But when I changed my major from English to Microbiology and transferred into Oregon State this past fall, my intention was to immerse myself in general sciences and work my way up into the microbiology coursework I am so interested in. The wrench in my plan was the discovery I am much farther behind in math than my adviser and I first realized. I essentially started with high-school level mathematics in the fall term and have been working my way through the prerequisites for those general chemistry and biology and calculus courses I need to take next.

During my absence from social media, I am immersing myself in my studies and preparing to have what I hope will be a productive and pleasurable spring term, despite the strangeness of doing school and work remotely. I am actually surprised by how much I am enjoying working from home. I think there may be positive sides to this quarantine situation that I was not expecting.

One of the downsides of mandatory self isolation is that my fiancé and I have had to postpone our wedding, which was set for the end of May. I had announced on social media that I plan to change my name and will be writing as Sarah Olson Michel after our marriage is official, but now we are unsure when the wedding will actually take place. Therefore I am delaying the launch of my new personal website, which I’ve spent the past few months working on, until we’re actually married and that name change is official. I also wrote about feminism, changing one’s name, and my own path to making that decision if you’re interested in reading about it.

Lastly, I’ve gotten some questions about whether I intend to return to Twitter after my social media absence. The answer is absolutely. I am trying to break the habit of depending on my phone and spending too much time on social media, and also focusing on school and work. But I very much miss those lovely interactions with people I regularly chatted with via Twitter, and it does feel strange to be left out of the loop of what’s going on. I check the news every day, but limit it so as not to be overwhelmed.

The past five days off social media have lightened my heart. I am already starting to feel refreshed and invigorated, reminded of my goals and intentions, and hopeful for the future. Times are strange. We must all work together to have hope, be positive, and push for change. And remember, if you’re starting to feel anxious or overwhelmed, books can be a source of solace.

Onward and upward!

I’m Taking a Break From Social Media

Photo by Kari Shea on Unsplash

I’ve decided to temporarily deactivate my social media accounts. If you’re reading this blog post because you couldn’t find me on Twitter, I am sorry about that.

I made this decision because the spring term for my university starts Monday and I am having a hard time tearing my eyes away from the constant cycle of news appearing on my phone via social media. It’s hard to want to try to go back to school and work when I am overwhelmed with worry for my partner, who doesn’t have health insurance, and how we will get through this difficult time financially. It’s also frustrating to feel helpless. But my anxiety about the coronavirus is only exasperated by the underlying conditions I’ve been dealing with for the past six months.

I’ve struggled with anxiety disorders my entire life, most of it stemming from a dysfunctional childhood and some traumatic experiences. If you’ve followed me on Twitter for a while, you know how hard it has been putting myself through university and trying to succeed when it feels as though the entire higher education system is built to keep students like me from getting through it. I’ve received an enormous amount of support, encouragement, and kindness from strangers via the internet in my pursuit of a degree. I don’t feel as though I deserve it, but it does make me work harder.

This first year at university, since I transferred, has been miserable. There have been moments of joy — working in a laboratory, connecting with new people, writing articles — but school itself has turned into an awful and never-ending experience for me. There were days during the fall term I honestly could not leave my bedroom. I still have two years left, and I am hoping that things change and get better during the spring term. But it’s hard to imagine that things will improve in the near future when the United States has just surpassed every other country in its number of COVID-19 cases. Being stuck at home during a pandemic is one thing; being stuck at home while struggling to get through every day, with or without there being a pandemic going on, is quite another.

I have a support system set up at my school — a counselor and a doctor, anxiety medications, financial support. I have the resources to get through this and I’m grateful for that. But it also requires action on my part, action I haven’t been willing to take yet: stepping back from social media in order to focus better at school, and to work through my own feelings. Especially now that I am confined to an apartment with two rooms, social media has been a form of escape, as well as a way to grow my career as a science writer and make new friends. But at times it has come at the expense of my academics, when I use it to distract myself. It’s hard to feel like college is worthwhile when my greatest opportunities and connections have come through Twitter.

And yet, it was hard not to recognize how intangible, and perhaps even arbitrary, a following on social media is when my entire presence on the internet can evaporate with a few clicks. It sparked a strong desire to do something more with myself, to make a mark at my school, to really buckle down and work on the writing projects I’ve been neglecting. To produce and create and leave something lasting.

I plan to be back in a week or so, once I’ve figured out a way to stay focused on school and continue managing my anxiety. My websites are also temporarily set to private while I revamp them — I’ve been working on updating and changing them, and will roll them back out when I’m ready. I plan to write some short and lighthearted science articles for The Particle even if I am on hiatus. I know we can all use a break from COVID-19 news now and then.

There are other things going on, things I don’t need to air out to the internet, but I hope this brief explanation suffices. I am going to try to spend my last couple days of spring break focused on relaxing, reading, and spending time with my partner. I am also reading the two books pictured below; you’re welcome to read along with me. I talked about doing a book club on Twitter but wasn’t able to figure out the best video chatting format for everyone to meet. For now, just enjoy reading them while I work on reviews and getting Read More Science updated — when I’m back we can all convene for a social distancing science book club chat.

Stay healthy, and stay inside!

How “Race Realists” Use Bad Science to Explain Inequality

Science journalist Angela Saini’s latest book is a powerful and thorough investigation of the flawed science behind race.

“It takes some mental acrobatics to be an intellectual racist in light of the scientific information we have today, but those who want to do it, will,” writes Saini in Superior: The Return of Race Science (2019). “Racists will find validation wherever they can, even if it means working a little harder than usual.”

Superior begins with an exploration of the origins of the biological basis for race. In the eighteenth century, race science became a fashionable way for European white, male scientists to organize and classify groups of humans based on color and a few other physical characteristics. Naturally, these men placed themselves further along the evolutionary ladder than, say, Aboriginal Australians or West Africans.

“Race has always been an intrinsically political area of research, the idea itself born out of a certain world order,” Saini explains. Her tone is measured and academic even as she is describing hateful ideologies and horrific genocides of intelligent civilizations. But there is a touch of emotion to her writing resonating through, poignant and sharp, when she tells us that she cried after a interview with a woman whose indigenous relatives were murdered. Along with them, a cultural and genetic history – obliterated.

You’d be inhuman not to feel disgusted and upset along with her. The callous disregard for the value of human life incites a desperate desire to learn more in the reader. We want to know more about why this happened and, importantly, what we can do to prevent it from happening again. But first, we need to understand the problem: the racism behind the claim there is a biological basis to race.

According to anthropologist Jonathan Marks, two fallacies exist. The first is the idea that humans can be divided into unique races with their own traits. The second is that these innate differences between human races explain the existence of political and economic inequality, rather than historical injustice.

“What these guys are trying to do is manipulate science to construct imaginary boundaries to social progress,” he tells Saini. “A common theme among today’s race realists is their belief that, because racial differences exist diversity and equal opportunity programs – designed to make society fairer – are doomed to fail. ” The idea is “we should accept inequality as a biological fact.”

This is exactly the issue with race pseudoscience today. It suggests a reason to not make an effort to remedy inequality or address discrimination. And the very same people advocating for this are the ones who would benefit most from ending commitments to diversity and inclusion.

“For those with a political ideology to sell, the science (such as it is) becomes a prop. The data itself doesn’t matter so much as how it can be spun,” explains Saini. “Marks warns me that those to really watch out for at the ones who claim to be uniquely free of bias, who tell you they have a special, impartial claim on the truth.” In Mark’s words, “Whenever anybody tells you ‘I am objective, I am apolitical,’ that is the time to watch your wallet, because you’re about to have your pocket picked.”

Scientists studying race have biases and prejudices, like all scientists. But unfortunately, these biases – whatever they may be – will affect this kind of research much more. Studies on race were funded by institutions and individuals with something to prove. Race science can become a weapon in the wrong hands. And even when shoddy science is debunked, racists will cling to the dubious conclusions, claiming that they just hasn’t been proven yet.

You can read this instead as they just haven’t been proven right yet. “There’s no incentive for them to admit intellectual defeat,” Saini writes in the book’s conclusion. “Those committed to the biological reality of race won’t back down if the data prove them wrong…If skin color doesn’t explain racial inequality, then maybe the structure of our brains and bodies will. If not anatomy, then maybe our genes.”

And when that fails, they will keep reaching and reaching for more elaborate, more pseudoscientific theories. All this, she writes, to prove what the prejudice they have been pushing all along: that they are superior. Saini suggests that we instead look to history for answers; that we push to end discrimination and inequality in all its forms, to stop it from being perpetuated by systems necessary for society – education, healthcare, government. After all, these things are far more productive and beneficial to society than arguments over whether certain groups of people are worth more or less than other.

Ultimately, an enlightening and powerful book that thoroughly explores the flaws of the biological basis for race. If you enjoyed her book Inferior, you absolutely must read this one next. A necessary read, especially for those who have not experienced discrimination because of their skin color. We would be wise to heed the conclusions Saini draws in Superior.

You can follow author Angela Saini on Twitter @AngelaDSaini. She is currently on tour: find out more about her upcoming events.

How Archaeologists Peer From Space Into Our Past

Today’s guest review features Dr. Sarah Parcak’s book Archaeology From Space (July 2019), about the emerging field that uses satellite technology to remotely discover ancient remains. I am thrilled that Erin Becker, who has archaeology experience herself, is our reviewer for Dr. Parcak’s book.

Photo by Erin Becker

About the reviewer: Erin Becker is the Visitor Services & Volunteer Coordinator at the Long Island Maritime Museum in West Sayville, NY. Her research focuses on the convergence of women, labor, and the environment through a global extractive maritime economy. Erin earned her BA in Anthropology and History in 2017 and her MA in History in 2018. Her archaeological field experiences during her undergraduate studies took her to the forests of Southeastern Connecticut, the wilds of California and Nevada’s Western Great Basin, and the suburbs of Long Island. Follow her on Twitter @ErinE_Becker.

Photo courtesy of Erin Becker

Author Sarah Parcak is an award-winning space archaeologist. She studies satellite imagery sets to find and map potential archaeological sites and features which would have otherwise been hidden. It’s fitting, therefore, that her book’s cover displays an image of Earth taken from space. A dashed line connects a satellite to an image of an artifact in the hand of an archaeologist at a field site, introducing readers to the link Parcak spends 230 pages tracing out.

When I flipped the book open to the introduction and read the first line – “My entire life is in ruins. Quite literally. No, this is not a cry-for-help book, nor a journey of self-discovery. I am an archaeologist” – I knew I had made a good choice. I settled in with a cup of decaf coffee, a pen and paper, and got ready to learn from the modern-day Indiana Jones.

Parcak walks her readers through important concepts in archaeology with frankness. On the topic of context, she states, “finding burned pots next to a flat area that has a stone oven and is covered in plant debris and seeds might indicate an ancient kitchen. If we miss things, or worse, if the site is looted and the pot surfaces for sale, all we can say about it is that it is a ‘blackened pot’.” Without context, archaeologists lose the opportunity to make informed interpretations of artifacts and their place in everyday life. 

When I worked as an archaeology educator teaching archaeology to third, fourth, and fifth grade students, I often explained the importance of context through puzzles. As we stood around open excavation units, I’d tell my students that every excavation unit was a puzzle and every artifact (or ecofact, soil characteristic, tree root, etc) was a puzzle piece. I asked them if they had ever tried to put together a puzzle without all of the pieces. The picture will not be complete. When artifacts are removed without proper documentation, they lose their context – and then we’ve all lost a piece to our archaeology puzzle or ‘history mystery’. Even when discussing serious topics – like a potential catastrophic loss of contextual data due to a wayward animal – Parcak demystifies the daily work of archaeologists on the ground with humor.

For example: “When our team worked in Sinai in 2004, I came back to the site after breakfast one day to find that our site drawings had become the midmorning snack of a goat from a nearby town,” writes Parcak. “He ran away, and I tackled him, saving about 70 percent of the plans. It took us hours to redraw everything. At the season’s end, we had a feast, courtesy of our lovely Bedouin workforce, and the pièce de résistance was roasted goat. No points for guessing which one. I chewed with great relish.”

One of her most compelling discussions centers around looting. She notes that “where the ground is strewn with human remains, mummy wrappings, and recently broken pottery from looters, I know we have lost part of history forever”. Looting removes artifacts from their context.  She argues that we must understand the mechanism of looting if we are to counter it. Much like in the illegal wildlife trade and the drug trade, looting is a large-scale operation with multiple levels.

“It is a desperate crime,” writes Parcak. “Locals may sell to criminal elements, but they loot out of need to support their families.” She also traces out potential solutions: engagement with youth and partnering with key stakeholders from communities near archaeological sites. 

Parcak concludes her book with a discussion about crowdsourcing science. After being nominated for a $1 million TED prize, Parcak and her team created Global Xplorer (GX), “an online, citizen science, crowdsourcing, satellite- imagery platform that allows anyone in the world, whether 5 or 105 years old, to help in the process of locating and protecting ancient ruins.” Users from around the world identified over 19,000 previously unrecorded real archaeological sites in Peru with a 90% success rate. 

It quickly became clear to me that Parcak’s book is an incredible resource for both archaeology students and the general public. Not only does she trace out the development and utility of space archaeology, but she also discusses the importance of context, the process of becoming an archaeologist, the pitfalls of academia, the power of stories, possibilities for the future, issues of representation and diversity, privilege in training, looting and stolen heritage, and the significance of crowdsourcing. It’s an incredible amount of topics to cover in such a short and easy-to-read book. She also ruminates on the lack of diversity in archaeology, and the field’s data accessibility problem.

Parcak takes her readers to Skagafjörður Church in North Iceland to show how medieval sagas, coring techniques, and satellite data can be used in conversation with each other to identify Viking outbuildings. She brings her readers to Point Rosee in Newfoundland to demonstrate satellites could be an important new tool for archaeologists working there. She explores Tanis, a Nile Delta of Egypt, with satellites and discusses the importance of studying past civilizations in regards to navigating our own.

And she brings life to Meryt, one of 74 individuals excavated from the cemetery at Tell Ibrahim Awad in lower Egypt. Employing a combination of remote sensing, ancient Egyptian literature, and excavation to tell the story of a young girl who lived during the fall of the Old Kingdom, Parcak speculates on the archaeology of the future: will future archaeologists use hyperspectral imagery, thermal imaging, and machine learning to detect previously unknown sites?

Reading Archaeology from Space was like going on an adventure with a quirky, passionate, and well-versed guide. I loved every second of it. 

If you enjoyed this review, leave a comment thanking Erin or share this post on Twitter. If you are interested in writing a guest review for Read More Science, get in touch with Sarah through the Contact page.

I Crowdfunded My Science Degree – Here Are My Next Steps

In just four days, the internet helped me raise $10,000 through a GoFundMe to cover a portion of my tuition so I can stay enrolled and finish my degree. To thank those who donated, I promised to be transparent with my academic progress and continue producing science content during the remaining years of my undergraduate studies.

My Story and some context

As a homeschool student, I was taught Christian curriculum that denied evidence for evolution and claimed the earth is only six thousand years old. Many people in the conservative Christian community still believe these things. Recent surveys estimate that nearly 40 percent of white Evangelicals in America today don’t accept the evidence for evolution. Today, that community is tied to the anti-vaccine movement and continues to push for religious bills that protect students’ right to deny evolution. As a science communicator interested in science denial and the distrust of medicine, my firsthand experiences give me insight into how we can combat the Christian Right’s war against science, medicine, and equality.

One of the downsides of my background is that I had a very poor K-12 education in math and sciences, and I spent the first two years of community college as an English major afraid to dive in to those classes in case my parents refused to support me. When I finally decided to accept the consequences and major in biology, it was the final straw in an already-strained and dysfunctional situation. I realized I could only continue to pursue school if I moved away and worked for it myself.

Where I Am Now

Two year later, I am currently wrapping up my first term at Oregon State University. Although most of my general credits are done, I have some catching up to do in math, and I need to take the chemistry and biology sequences. Fortunately, through OSU’s degree partnership program with the local community college, I can take those classes at a more affordable price while taking my core classes at OSU, before going back to OSU full-time. Unfortunately, financial constraints are forcing me to seek a position outside of the work-study portion of my financial aid.

The GoFundMe amount intends to cover the portion of my tuition that would have been covered by my work-study. Thanks to the fundraiser, I am now free to work and put the entire paycheck toward more essential living expenses, rather than to tuition or take out larger loans. We have a very old car we may need to replace soon and are currently moving apartments, and because we are barely scraping by on my partner’s income, it’s essential I pick up a job to help cover these additional expenses. Thanks to the fundraiser, I can do that – I accepted a job at a local law firm and will be doing legal assistant work while in school. The job pays much better than a work-study, doesn’t come with the same restrictions, and also offers health insurance. Most importantly, because of the fundraiser, I won’t need to take a couple years off to work full-time and save up for school.

I’ve been meeting with an academic adviser and my school’s financial aid about my circumstances, and we think that this best thing for me to do given the fact I’m focused on improving my math skills this year. The job will also allow me to save additional living expenses so that in the fall term, when I am full-time and overwhelmed with science classes and labs, we won’t be nearly as worried about paying the bills. I will also continue to take out the subsidized federal loans offered through my financial aid.

Because of the fundraiser, I’ll be done with school sooner and at a much lower expense. Consequently, I will also be able to pursue graduate school or a science writing career much sooner too.

A Thank-You To Those Who Donated

How can I express my gratitude for an amount of money that is changing my life, helping me pursue my education, and making my career possible? In just four days, with the help of 239 people, we managed to raise $10,000. Thanks to you, I am that much closer to my science degree. The support, encouragement, and generosity has been overwhelming. Next week is Thanksgiving, and I have a lot to be thankful for.

I hope to find more ways to express my appreciation, but for now, my commitment is to continue science writing, tweeting, and maintaining the Read More Science blog while I am in school. A lot of people have reached out to share how my content has impacted their lives or resonated with them in some way. I intent to continue producing this content, advocating for science literacy, empowering women in STEM, and helping make science more inclusive. After all, I firmly believe science is for everyone, and therefore everyone should be for science!

“Inktober” Science Art Becomes Beautiful Biographical Collection

Inktober is an event during which artists create work every day throughout the month of October based on prompts. I love science artwork (SciArt) and last year I rounded up my favorite SciArt every week of Inktober here on Read More Science. I had no idea that last year’s work by physicist and artist Valentina Ferro would result in a beautiful biographical collection of scientists. Working with science communicator Valerie Bentivegna, who wrote stories about the scientists based off Ferro’s art, the two created a gorgeous little paperback book through which readers can lose themselves in artistically rendered mini-biographies of famous scientists.

The result of their efforts culminated in this lovely paperback, Inking Science.

Inking Science is a coffee-table, conversation-starting collection. It’s a breezy read to flip through on a rainy day when you’re looking for artistic or scientific inspiration. Each art piece of a scientist is joined by a brief story about them and their work. The tone of Bentivegna’s writing is conversational, casual enough to draw you in for an entertaining guide to the geniuses who’ve transformed STEM, both men and women.

Between these one-page biographies of scientists and inventors are full page layouts containing illustrations and quotes by the scientists themselves. I particularly loved some of these spreads for their creativity and the selected quotes. They’re inspirational and positive – readers leave the page feeling better about themselves and our world. Any book that has that effect is a good book, in my opinion.

One of my favorite pages in this book features Samantha Cristoforetti, an Italian astronaut with the European Space Agency. Before you begin reading her page, you are encouraged to mindfully brew a cup of coffee, paying careful attention to each step of the process and the resulting aromas. Then you will learn that Cristoforetti was the first person to brew and drink coffee in space. She helped design an “experimental space espresso maker”. In Samantha’s words, “To boldly brew…”

I’m a coffee lover. I needed coffee just to write this review. How could I not adore this little fact?

I appreciate most SciArt because I’m artistically inept myself, but Ferro has such a creative approach to rendering her selected scientists that you can’t help but admire her work. The image above is a perfect example. Ferro weaves in whatever the scientist studies into his or her portrait, creating a complex image literally tying in each scientist’s interests alongside them. The result is a gorgeous gallery illustrating the connections between scientists and their science.

The two-page spreads with quotes and drawings also embody the spirit of each scientist and their motivation. Flipping through, you’ll encounter an equal mix of entertaining and educational stories alongside inspiring quotes. I love little books I can easily flip through and learn something new or feel motivated after reading, and Inking Science hits the mark. There’s really nothing about it I would want changed – I only wish the book were longer!

I am looking forward to seeing whether Ferro and Bentivegna collaborate on more projects in the future. And if you haven’t participated in Inktober before, I hope you consider buying a copy of Inking Science and using it to fuel your own inspiration for SciArt this October! If you aren’t an artist, this book makes a great gift for one or anyone else interested in learning more about the scientists who have changed our world.

If you are interested in winning a free copy of Inking Science, visit my Instagram @ReadMoreScience! Ferro and Bentivegna have graciously provided a copy of their book for one lucky winner. The giveaway ends 9/20/19.

Ruth Kassinger Takes Readers on an Algae Adventure

Today’s guest review is by Alison Gilchrist, who previously reviewed Carl Zimmer’s She Has Her Mother’s Laugh for Read More Science. Alison Gilchrist is a PhD candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder, where she studies how dengue virus infects humans and nonhuman primates with Dr. Sara Sawyer. She is currently Editor in Chief at the Science Buffs STEM Blog, a graduate student-run blog at CU, and has written for Massive, Scientific American, and the Colorado Arts and Sciences Magazine. Follow her on Twitter at @AlisonAbridged

Photo by Alison Gilchrist

When I made a note to read Ruth Kassinger’s book Slime: How Algae Created Us, Plague Us, and Just Might Save Us, I didn’t know much about it. I knew the book was about algae, I knew that it was highly recommended on Science Friday’s summer books list, and I knew that I was probably going to learn something about biofuels—my only real working knowledge of what algae was good for. So when I finally picked it up from the bookstore, I was surprised to find illustrations of seaweed on the cover. Seaweeds are algae?

Sure enough, I learned that seaweeds are considered a type of algae called “macroalgae”—big algae. The hard, dry lichens stuck to boulders and trees all over the mountains where I live are also partly composed of algae—again, very different from the slimy pond scum I was picturing. Even cooler, algae are some of the organisms that make up corals in coral reefs all over the world. Are you, like me, having to edit your internal picture of what algae are? Suddenly I wasn’t thinking about slime at all.

My confusion is excusable (I argue, into the void of the internet) because of the fact that “algae” is a term without much biological meaning. Unlike “cat” (Felis catus, a species), or “Carnivora” (an order), or “Mammalia” (a class), the term “algae” doesn’t describe a single branching-off point on the tree of the life. Instead it includes different species from a bunch of different branches on the tree of life. Phylogenists (people who study the relationship between species) call this a “polyphyletic group.” It means that the things we call algae have been grouped together under one name, but they don’t share a single common ancestor—at least, not to the exclusion of things that don’t get to be called “algae.” 

All this to say that Slime is a far-reaching book that isn’t quite as filled with, well, slime, as I expected. Instead I read about seaweeds, lichens, corals, and more. And Kassinger infuses the book with her personality from beginning to end as she writes about her own personal quest to understand algae. To research Slime, she went all over the world in search of people growing, manipulating, and using many different types of this diverse group of organisms. For example, she travels to Wales and Korea to learn about the seaweeds that humans eat, and how those macroalgae are farmed—yes, farmed! 

The cultivation of seaweeds is tricky because they like to grow in the ocean, not in man-made pools. But the ocean is a treacherous, unpredictable, and sometimes polluted place to grow food. Kassinger talks to the people who are farming or collecting seaweed and learns how they do it, why they do it, and what they think the future of edible seaweeds is. The answer to that last question is this: we, as a species, will probably be eating more algae in the near future. As farming practices improve and more companies discover this rich source of nutrients, it’s likely to become a product with more reach.

The good news: many seaweeds are high in fiber and protein, and they taste pretty good! Most of us have likely eaten nori, the seaweed that shows up in a lot of sushi. But there are plenty of other species of macroalgae to experiment with. Kassinger even includes seaweed-featuring recipes in her book so you can try them for yourself. 

The reviewer took Slime on a camping trip. Photo by Alison Gilchrist.

Kassinger also traveled to San Diego, Fort Myers, and other cities around the world to learn about the companies making biofuel and plastics from algae-derived products—did you know that there are already shoes made with algal plastic? Some kinds of algae are masters of production: genetically manipulate the right biochemical pathways and put them in the right nutrient environment, and they will frantically churn out useful chemicals in response.

Kassinger writes about the scientists and entrepreneurs who are working out how to make special kinds of algae grow quickly and produce the right kind of oils. For some, this means biofuels. For others, it means edible or pharmaceutical compounds. Regardless of the final product they’re looking for, these people are all want rapidly-growing and hyper-productive algae. 

But hyperactive algae are not always useful or helpful. Kassinger also travels to places where algae have multiplied like crazy due to warming water and increased nutrient runoffs from agriculture. The effect is scary: large “dead-zones” where algae have used up all the available oxygen, and accumulations of algal toxins in the food chain. As the subtitle of Kassinger’s book suggests, even as people are manipulating algae to save us, they continue to plague us. 

These passages about algae “plagues” are made more surreal by the names given to the pestilent species. “Watermelon snow” is the cute name given to a pink alga found in high latitudes. Unfortunately, it has a large impact on climate change by settling on icefields and spurring snowmelt. “Rock snot” is a much less pleasant name given to an alga that is overrunning tributaries in countries all over the world. These names mean that Kassinger gets to create sentences that strike a careful balance between humor and pessimistic observation. Describing how one species of algae extends its territory, she writes: “A grotesque invasion of rock snot ensues.” 

Watermelon snow in the Pacific Northwest mountains. Source

Slime is a book full of emotional ups and downs—Kassinger doesn’t shy away from talking about the connection between global warming and algal blooms, or the problematic dependence on plastic that’s motivating us to find new ways to make it, or the fact that algae-derived biofuels simply aren’t economically competitive right now, and probably won’t be in the next decade. But she also delights in the hunt for unusual lichens, munches on tasty seaweeds, and is hopeful about the work being done to make algae useful producers of interesting compounds. It’s a pleasure to join her for the ride. 

If you enjoyed Alison’s review, leave a comment thanking her! And if you’re interested in writing a guest review for Read More Science, reach out to Sarah at sciencebookreviews (at) gmail (dot) com to let her know what book you’re interested in reviewing.