Evolution and Feminism in Nineteenth Century America

Kimberly A. Hamlin’s book From Eve to Evolution: Darwin, Science, and Women’s Rights in Gilded Age America is a triumphant argument for the ways in which evolutionary theory and feminism interacted with and supported each other in the nineteenth century. Her investigations of the push for birth control and reproductive choice is startlingly relevant to America today.

Hamlin’s From Eve to Evolution is startlingly relevant to the tumultuous politics of reproductive rights and female autonomy in America today. If you’ve kept up with the news at all over the past few weeks, you could hardly have missed the fact Alabama just instituted an abortion ban, and more than handful of states are implementing restrictions of their own. Women’s reproductive choices and bodily autonomy are, apparently, up for debate once again. I’ve had Hamlin’s book sitting on my shelf for a while now, and it suddenly seemed like an extremely appropriate time to read and review it. And I cannot recommend it enough.

Hamlin begins with Eve’s curse. Christian or not, most people in America know the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in Genesis — or at least the part about Eve eating the forbidden fruit. The original sin, in which Eve convinced Adam to partake in the forbidden fruit and they are subsequently cast out of the paradise God created for them, has long had negative ramifications for women, specifically the pain of childbirth. Eve was also subsequently created from Adam’s rib, meant to be a “helpmeet” for him, therefore earning women their secondary position to men. Then, along comes Darwin with his theory of evolution, casting significant doubt on the idea that the human race descended from the pair cast out of the Garden of Eden. In fact, his theory cast a lot of doubt on the idea humans were specially created at all.

But we know Darwin was no feminist. How then, could his theory have bolstered the feminist movement in the nineteenth century? “Even though Darwin and most other nineteenth-century scientists believed that evolution, like Genesis, demanded women’s subservience to men and total devotion to maternity, his theory of evolution contained the seeds of radical interpretations as well as conventional ones,” writes Hamlin. “Many feminists and other reformers were keen to these revolutionary insights and embraced evolutionary science as an ally.”

In the late 1800’s, the United States was captivated by the implications of Darwin’s book The Descent of Man, and perhaps none more so than those involved in the budding feminist movement. “For those readers who were already inclined to challenge the existing order, Darwin provided the scientific justification to question whether or not patriarchy, monogamy, and female domesticity were in fact natural…Sexual selection theory also introduced the provocative and potentially radical concept of female choice of sexual partners, providing attentive readers with a new way to think about sexual relations and power systems.” Hamlin explores these radical concepts in depth throughout the rest of the book, relying on the writings of a handful of prominent feminist thinkers whose messages grew from Darwin’s revolutionary theories. Leading into this research, she writes, “perhaps the most notable aspect of the American reception of The Descent of Man is that so many women enlisted it for feminist purposes.”

It’s important to remember that science, at this time, was still an ambiguous and all-encompassing term for the research happening in many fields at the time — it was also becoming more masculine and exclusive with each passing decade. “Even though women were, for the most part, excluded from the institutionalization of science, they, too, were inspired by Darwin, especially his materialistic explanation of organic life,” writes Hamlin. This materialistic explanation came at exactly the right time for some feminist thinkers, who saw the belief of creation, Eve’s transgression, and patriarchal Christianity as repressive for women, because “Evolutionary science…allowed women to contemplate a world free from gendered biblical restrictions.”

In the first chapter, Hamlin references feminist Helen Hamilton Gardener’s 1885 essay “Men, Women, and Gods”. The quote she drew made me sit bolt upright: “It is always a surprise to me that women will sit, year after year, and be told that, because of a story as silly and childish as it is unjust, she is responsible for all the ills of life.” “That because, forsooth, some thousands of years ago a woman was so horribly wicked as to eat an apple, she must and should occupy a humble and penitent position, and remain forever subject to the dictates of ecclesiastical pretenders.” Then, Gardener writes with finality, “The morals of the nineteenth century have outgrown the Bible….we, who are fortunate enough to live in the same age with Charles Darwin, know [the Bible] to be the expression of a low social condition untempered by the light of science.”

I cannot tell you what it was like to read those words and know that two centuries ago, a feminist was writing that the morals of her century have outgrown the Bible — as I sit here (a feminist, a woman in science, and an ex-Christian), writing about how America needs to shed the repressive Christian doctrine that holds back women as well as science. It’s difficult to express the depth of how reading that part of Hamlin’s book impacted me, but tears rolled down my cheeks. Have we made no progress? Surely if Gardener could see what women have achieved today, she would be glad and say we have. And yet, at the same time, we are still struggling to protect the right to birth control, abortion, equal pay, and fight everyday sexism around us — which continues to be reinforced by the pseudo-morals of conservative Christianity.

In the nineteenth century, Darwin’s theory of evolution was especially powerful for “presenting an alternative creation story,” thereby offering “to revolutionize popular thinking about gender and sex difference.” But the women (and men) writing about this were not immune to a serious flaw of the time: chasing the rights of white women at the expense of people of color. “As the historian Louise Michele Newman and others have persuasively argued, white racial superiority was a core element of women’s rights rhetoric, and women often invoked evolutionary discourse regarding the racial hierarchy of civilization to support suffrage arguments based on whiteness,” Hamlin writes. Unfortunately, white women placed themselves at the top of the hierarchy with white men as they advocated for the vote, ignoring the needs of others who could have benefited from the suffrage movement. As the 100-year anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment was this month, it’s important to note that it only granted the vote to white women. Hamlin does a great job recognizing and addressing the inherent whiteness of the women’s suffrage movement without discrediting the work some of the women did do for people of color.

One of the ways Darwin’s theory worked inclusively in favor for all women was opening up opposition to the authority of the Christian church, whose doctrine preached the subordination of women and encouraged it as a form of godliness and an example of faith. The more obedient and compliant with her place a woman was, the greater her reward in heaven. Gender equality threatened the patriarchy of this doctrine. “Recognizing women’s equality would ‘compel an entire change in church canons, discipline, and authority, and many doctrines of the Christian faith,’ [writes Elizabeth Cady Stanton], ‘as a matter of self-preservation, the Church has no interest in the emancipation of woman, as its very existence depends on her blind faith.'” Stanton also wrote, “The Bible rests simply on the authority of man, and its teachings are unfit for this stage of evolution in which the sexes occupy an equal place in the world of thought.”

In order to fight Christian doctrine that preached women were inferior, nineteenth-century feminists needed science. Darwin’s theory of evolution provided the perfect platform on which to build a compelling argument against Eve’s transgression as well as women’s natural (or God-ordained) inferiority. This led to the “Science of Feminine Humanity”, or the objective and scientific study of woman. In 1886, Smith College built the Lilly Hall of Science, “dedicated to women’s scientific studies and experimentation.” It was named after its donor, Alfred T. Lilly, who “was a supporter of women’s education, as well as a critic of Christian orthodoxy,” and who believed science and truth was equally valuable to women as it is for men. And as science made tremendous progress establishing itself as a formal field and distinguishing itself from non-science, the scientific investigation of sex and gender began to really take root. Spying an opportunity, women began to take aim at male scientists who claimed to use science and studies to assert male superiority.

As scientific debates about brain size and physiology raged, “In 1887, [Gardener] turned her attention to convincing the public, especially women themselves, that women’s brains were in no way inferior to men’s and that female physiology did not limit women’s mental powers.” In contrast, the popular thought of the nineteenth century was that “women were intuitive not abstract, imitative not original, and emotional not reasonable. Darwin himself said as much,” but it was a doctor an neurologist named William A. Hammond who first connected the idea of “female inferiority to the structure of the female brain.” The brain debate became public in Popular Science Monthly, and Hamlin delightfully describes the intense debate between Gardener and another female-inferiority convinced brain scientist in a series of letters to the publication. It’s worth noting that the scientists who argued in favor of women’s biological inferiority were greatly influenced by Christian orthodoxy: “The problem then was not science but science improperly practiced owing to the lingering influence of the Genesis creation story and its insistence on inherent female inferiority.”

Hamlin does an astonishing job exploring this debate. Although she is a historian, not a scientist, and her tone can be very academic, her book is a fascinating and riveting read for anyone interested in the subjects she explores. Because the book is only a handful of chapters, it makes for a brief, but intense, read. I can’t help but highly recommend it given the important discussions going on around women’s reproductive rights, and even the science around male and female biological differences and what that means in terms of “superiority” and “inferiority”. If you enjoyed Angela Saini’s book Inferior and want more like it, this is a good book to follow-up with.

One of the final, and most interesting, subjects Hamlin investigates is the role of birth control and its links to science: “In some ways, then, the ultimate success of the birth control movement might tell us just as much about the growing cultural authority of science as it does about the campaign for women’s rights. One might further argue that the particular trajectory of the American birth control movement owed much to the gendered (and racialized) development of scientific establishment (men on the inside as scientists, women on the outside as agitators) and to women’s enthusiasm for science, even though such enthusiasm was often unrequited,” writes Hamlin. “Drawing on science, especially evolutionary theory, allowed feminists, socialists, and sex reformers to claim that their proposals were natural and to attach themselves to the cultural prestige of science, which connoted modernity, research, and truth in contrast to the tradition, moralizing, and dogma associated with religion.”

Finally, Hamlin persuasively argues “Darwinian theory overturned Eve’s curse; inspired women to trust science as an ally; initiated the scientific study of sex; and gave women a credible, scientific concept to draw on in arguing for reproductive autonomy.” She breaks this down further into several succinct points. First, that the biblical conviction men are superior and women are destined to suffer during pregnancy was wrong. Second, that they needed to enlist science as an ally and third, think critically about motherhood and domesticity. Finally, arguments for reproductive autonomy were bolstered by the idea of sexual selection and evolutionary theory in a broad sense.

Hamlin concludes,

“Those interest in countering the claims of biological determinists would do well to recall their turn-of-the-century predecessors who saw in Darwinian evolutionary theory…the potential to revolutionize traditional ideas about gender and sex in order to allow for greater female reproductive autonomy.”

The Histories Within Our Bones

Paleontologist Brian Switek’s new book Skeleton Keys explores the bones beneath our skin and the evolutionary story they reveal; Switek also investigates the bones’ role in uncovering history, as well as the illegal trading of bones today.

Note: This review has been updated to reflect the author’s preferred pronouns (they/them). Though the review refers to the author as Switek, their name upon publication, the author now identifies as Riley Black. You can read about their story on Nature’s Career Column, “Queer voices in paleontology.”

The first thing you’ll notice about author Brian Switek’s most recent book is that it’s a light read. It’s a small, comfortable-to-hold hardback that promises a brief but enthralling read. But a whole book, you may be wondering, about bones? Is there really that much to say on the matter? There is, and you’re left with the feeling that Switek knows significantly more than they let on.

Skeleton Keys is one of those beautiful popular science books you can devour over a weekend or during a long flight. Because it reads like a conversation between you and the author, it’s hard to put down and break away from. While you read, you get the feeling Switek is a friendly person who genuinely cares about making sure you understand and are excited by the stories they have to share. Their warmth and humor emanate from the page.

But enough about Switek. It’s really the content of the book that matters, isn’t it? Skeleton Keys does not disappoint. We get to explore museums alongside Switek, even visiting the legendary Lucy:


“The first time I saw one of the restorations of what she looked like in life, a the American Museum of Natural History’s Anne and Bernard Spitzer Hall of Human Origins, I was shocked by how a human with such a massive reputation could be so tiny. In that display, eyes scanning the horizon and holding hands with another of her kind, Lucy stands only a meager three feet, seven inches tall. Prior to that point all the images and restorations I had seen had shot Luct straight from the front or angled up, making her seem larger than life. The bones told the same story. If I lifted off the glass and carefully plucked up each piece – which I was not crazy enough to try to do – I could have easily cradled what remained of Lucy’s skull in one hand.”

Brian Switek, Skeleton Keys, 2019

The care with which Switek treats their subject is like an invitation to the reader to view bones with the same sense of wonder and appreciation. As they describe various skeletons and their features in depth, you may, as I did, find yourself marveling at your own elbow or hand. You might, as I did, reach up and touch your cheekbones, gently reminding yourself of the skull beneath your skin. Your bones are an intimate part of who you are, and yet we’re so out of touch with them, we don’t think about them unless we accidentally break one, or if they cause us pain.

Switek wants to wake their readers to wake from their state of unconsciousness and inspire a fascination, like the curiosity of children. With their enthusiasm for dinosaurs, this comes naturally. As readers, I think there is something deeply and inherently valuable about embracing this childlike curiosity and enthusiasm, with no inhibitions. We are learning about our world, and ourselves.

“If only a skeleton from our species had been laid out next to Lucy’s in that dark exhibit hall. Then the family resemblance would have struck home even harder,” writes Switek. “Not to mention that it might have given visitors a better appreciation for what’s inside of us. I know I didn’t appreciate our own skeletal form until around the time I visited Lucy, when I was taking a human osteology course at Rutgers University.”

Inspiring a newfound appreciation for bones and the skeleton within us is the ultimate goal of Skeleton Keys. You’ll be armed with enough surprising facts to impress any guest at the next cocktail party you attend, but more importantly, this book will inspire you to think more about the bones that make your body possible.

While I read this book, I live-tweeted some of my thoughts about it. You can read those tweets below:

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

How to Read a Scientific Paper, for Non-Scientists

So you have to read a scientific paper. Don’t panic! These great sources are here to help guide you through every step of the process.

Photo by Sebastian Herrmann on Unsplash

As part of my efforts to include more science literacy-focused blog posts here on Read More Science, I’d like to share some guides to reading scientific papers. Being able to work your way through these difficult articles, which are essential to research and understanding cutting-edge developments in the scientific fields, are a big part of becoming science literate.

Reading scientific papers is a skill anyone with a some time on their hands and a little curiosity can develop. Start by reading this great article called The Non-Scientist’s Guide to Reading and Understanding a Scientific Paper.

In it, the author suggests “Reading [scientific] articles will help you make more informed decisions in the areas of life that concern you, and better understand and participate in the public debate about important scientific issues. Here are the basic steps: focus on the big picture the scientists are addressing; read the Abstract, Introduction, and Discussion, in that order; think critically about the conclusions the scientists make; conduct follow-up research.”

Another great source on how to read a scientific paper can be found on The Open Notebook, How to Read a Scientific Paper. This handy guide explains each part of a paper and how to understand it, as well as how to approach reading the entire piece without drowning in terms you don’t understand.

The author writes, “These tips and tricks will work whether you’re covering developmental biology or deep-space exploration. The key is to familiarize yourself with the framework in which scientists describe their discoveries, and to not let yourself get bogged down in detail as you’re trying to understand the overarching point of it all.”

If you’re just doing some research for a class or a short piece you’re writing, and you just want a simple, easy-to-grasp guide , the Northcentral University Library has a nice one called Reading a Scientific Article. Geared toward students or the layperson, it’s formatted to get you through the article and ask critical-thinking questions to ensure you understand the material.

What I like about the Northcentral University Library is that their guide has additional resources, such as a video on How to Read Scientific Literature. For those who enjoy listening and watching a tutorial, this is a great resource.

Are you ready to read some scientific papers now? I hope the next time you’re skimming the news and see an interesting headline about a development in science, you consider seeking out the original source and reading the paper yourself. It’s a great way to test your science literacy skills!

Personal Branding for Scientists and Science Communicators

Scientists and science communicators use the internet to connect with audiences and share our work, so developing a personal brand online is more important than ever. I talked with author and marketing expert Cynthia Johnson about her new book Platform: The Art and Science of Personal Branding (Feb 2019) to learn more about how science communicators can benefit from developing their personal brand. In addition, Cynthia and her wonderful publisher have provided a copy of Platform for a giveaway! With this book, you can learn how to develop and maintain a personal brand that benefits your style of science communication, whether you’re an undergraduate or running your own lab.

Here’s my interview with Cynthia Johnson about personal branding. If you’re interested in purchasing a copy of her book, check with your local bookstore or find it online.

“Personal branding…has nothing to do with what you do for people or what you say about yourself. It has everything to do with how you make people feel, how you engage with them, and what they say about you to your face and to others.

Cynthia Johnson

Sarah Olson: What is a personal brand and why is it essential for today’s social media-focused world?

Cynthia Johnson: Your personal brand is made up of four pillars; personal proof, social proof, recognition, and association. The personal proof is your opinion of yourself and your relationship with your own abilities, accomplishments, and goals. Social proof refers to the things that you have done to prove to others that you are capable of new opportunities. Recognition is the reinforcement for both social proof and personal proof. Lastly, association is focused on how you relate to, are compared to, and categorized based on the people, organizations, and communities that you associate yourself with. When you add all of these items together and add the perception of an outsider looking in, you have your personal brand. The collection of moments and choices in our lives presented to another person (or people) for the purpose of growth and new opportunities.

SO: Why is building your personal brand important?

CJ: A personal brand is self-awareness, self-promotion, and self-preservation. It is the first impression that we can control and the vehicle that can be a tool for growth if it is managed properly and even minimally, but if it is not managed can harm growth opportunities. I look at personal branding as the evolution of cover letters, applications, CV’s, and resumes. If we want upward mobility and opportunity in our lives, we have to start accepting that people are looking us up online before they ever agree to meet with us. We have to put our best foot forward just as we would dress for an interview. Being prepared and aware is what changes our careers and allows for opportunity to find us.

SO: What advice would you give to a young entrepreneur in science trying to build their following on social media?

CJ: Don’t focus on building a following, focus on providing value to a specific group of people. Don’t try to be everywhere, pick one place and become effective there before you branch out. People who try to be everywhere burn out and end up doing nothing at all. Start with one goal and on one platform. Once you have become successful at that first step, then look at growth strategies.

SO: What if a reader is not an “influencer”? Is this book still relevant to them?

CJ: I see this book being useful for people who have limited time, a desire for change, and a need to be heard in a specific topic or industry that they are experts at. I see this book as the how-to, and why-to book for people who have very specific goals in mind or a very specific message and not a lot of time. This is not the book for people who want to be famous, but it will be very beneficial for those who want to be impactful.

SO: One of the dangers in online science communication is sharing misleading, false, or unsubstantiated information (whether on purpose or by accident). How can we protect our personal brand from public mistakes?

CJ: Slowing down is the most important solution to this problem. Most people do not want to steer people in the wrong direction or spread gossip. These well-intended people do this unintentionally because of lack of time, not reading the content thoroughly before sharing it, and associating themselves with companies, people, media, etc. that don’t reflect their personal values or beliefs. Don’t rush this process. You can be just as effective doing less and moving more slowly.


Are you interested in learning the skills and tools you need to make your personal brand stand out and shine? You can get entered to win a free copy of Platform and one of the new Read More Science bookmarks simply by signing up for the Read More Science Book Club, my monthly newsletter for science enthusiasts who love to read. Why should you sign up? Because by reading more books about science, you’ll also learn more about science communication! Seems like a pretty good deal.

Follow my Twitter at @ReadMoreScience and Cynthia Johnson at @cynthialive.


Here’s my review of Platform: The Art and Science of Personal Branding and details on how you can win a copy:

I genuinely think this is a book that could benefit the SciComm community. Cynthia Johnson puts entrepreneurship and marketing skills into a brief and relevant book that anyone interested in building their personal brand could use. As scientists and science writers who use social media to build our name and communicate science, we can benefit from using these helpful strategies. That’s why I’m hosting a giveaway of this book!

Through personal anecdote and interesting research, Cynthia develops her case for why personal branding is an essential skill in the twenty-first century. Her ideas transcend the world of business and entrepreneurship – they’re applicable to anyone interested in updating their LinkedIn or growing a following on social media. In a world where employers pay attention to interviewee’s online presence, it’s more important than ever that we learn to manage and maintain our online personas. Cynthia equips readers with the tools they need to do just that – and to shine at it as well.

I enjoyed how brief a read this book is. As a reader, you coast through it without being bogged down by an information overload. My only note is that Cynthia does seem to digress now and then into stories that are almost irrelevant, though she does seem to eventually come full circle.

This is a book that is useful for anyone venturing into personal branding. If you’re interested in winning a copy, sign up for the Read More Science monthly newsletter between Monday, March 18th and Friday, March 22 for your chance to win. I will be randomly selecting one of the new subscribers to the email list and will announce the winner Monday, March 25th.

Remembering The Black Woman Whose Cells Changed Science

I hosted a giveaway of a paperback copy and a handmade cell bookmark on Twitter.

Henrietta Lacks was all but lost to history when science writer Rebecca Skloot became fascinated with her untold story. Determined to share the history behind the woman whose cells greatly impacted science and medicine, Skloot set out to make contact with the Lacks family. At the time, she had no idea the adventure she would be in for.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was the Read More Science Book Club pick for February, which is Black History Month. Henrietta Lacks is the woman whose cancerous cervical cells, HeLa, have been growing and growing since her body died long ago. In her book, Skloot explores how Henrietta died and why the doctors ended up with her cells, why they are so extraordinary, and how they have changed cell research. She also investigates how the wide use of HeLa has impacted the Lacks family, who live in poverty and have not seen any of the money that HeLa cells made.

Although the book was published nearly a decade ago in 2010, its exploration of race and socioeconomic issues, as well as ethical concerns, are deeply relevant to our world today. The book resonates powerfully with readers who care about making sure women, especially women of color, are not lost to history. By bringing Henrietta Lacks to life, Skloot has ensured that Henrietta Lacks will no longer be reduced to her cells.

Skloot’s book is simultaneously an exciting narrative-driven expedition to uncover the story of Henrietta Lacks and help her family discover the truth behind everything that happened to her, as well as a biography of a young black woman. It’s a well-written, perfectly paced, and profound piece of journalism. Whatever good things you may have heard about this book, it’s even better than that when you read it.

There were chills crawling down my spine when I read the introduction and Skloot explains why, ever since she heard Henrietta Lacks’ name in a college lecture, she’s been fascinated with her story:


How else do you explain why your science teacher knew her real name when everyone else called her Helen Lane?” Deborah [Henrietta’s daughter] would say. “She was trying to get your attention.” This thinking would apply to everything in my life: when I married while writing the book, it was because Henrietta wanted someone to take care of me while I worked. When I divorced, it was because she’d decided he was getting in the way of the book. When an editor who insisted I take the Lacks family out of the book was injured in a mysterious accident, Deborah said that’s what happens when you piss Henrietta off.

At the end of the introduction, Skloot emphasized that, in many ways, her book transcended simply the story of Henrietta herself.


The Lackses challenged everything I knew about faith, science, journalism, and race. Ultimately, this book is the result. It’s not only the story of HeLa cells and Henrietta Lacks, but of Henrietta’s family – particularly Deborah – and their lifelong struggle to make peace with the existence of those cells, and the science that made them possible.

Ultimately, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a profound and intimate examination of the treatment of black people by scientists in the twentieth century, the ethics of research and medicine, and the celebration of an extraordinary woman whose immortal cells changed history. It’s a book that every science enthusiast should have a copy of on their shelf.

Questioning the Future and Fairness of the Nobel Prize

In cosmologist Brian Keating’s memoir about his quest for the Nobel Prize, he uncovers the darker side of science’s highest honor, calling into question many ethical dilemmas surrounding the award and its rigorous qualifications. Losing the Nobel Prize is Keating’s illuminating journey in his quest for truth about the notorious prize, as well as his own research.

Losing the Nobel Prize: A Story of Cosmology, Ambition, and the Perils of Science’s Highest Prize. By Brian Keating. W.W. Norton, Sept 2018. @ReadMoreScience

I chose Losing the Nobel Prize as January’s Read More Science Book Club pick. It was perfect to start off a year of reading more science. Keating’s book is part science memoir, part exploration into the history of the Nobel Prize.

Keating documents he and his team’s development of BICEP, a gravitational wave background telescope, their falling out, and his subsequent exclusion from BICEP2. In accessible, emotionally-vivid writing, he recounts feelings of excitement and disappointment upon hearing of BICEP2’s success — and his exclusion from even being credited for inventing the instrument in the first place. It’s a surprisingly gripping story of rivalry.

I read a not-so-great review of Keating’s book when it came out, and it initially turned me off towards the book. He was critiqued by other reviewers for coming across as resentful, or even vengeful — that by not receiving credit for his accomplishments, or because of the intense rivalry between scientific teams, he’s somehow blaming the Nobel Prize for his own failures. Then I found out Keating was critiquing the prize for reasons I wholeheartedly agree with, and I realized I absolutely had to read his book.

I did not interpret Keating’s book as some act of revenge or bitterness. In fact, by the end of it, I doubt very many readers will be mistaken that Keating’s intention was not to call-out other scientists he was frustrated with, or even to vent about not winning the prize. Perhaps a cosmologist or physicist would interpret it differently, but this is the way I read it. Instead, he calls into question several issues not just with the Nobel Prize, but with the field of physics.

Alfred Nobel, the wealthy inventor of dynamite, created the Nobel Prizes in his will and left an enormous sum of money for the awards. You can read a little bite more about the history of the prize and its creation here, but Keating summarizes it well in his book. Specifically, he focuses on Alfred Nobel’s original intentions for the prize — and how the award has strayed from them.

Though Keating’s book is structured around the narrative arch of his own experiences working on BICEP and recounting BICEP2’s story, he includes three chapters titled “Broken Lens” in which he explores a significant issue with the Nobel Prize. These were my favorite parts of the book, not only because they are well-written and thought out, but because they directly challenge an extremely powerful institution.

In the first Broken Lens, Keating mourns the death of Vera Rubin, who “was credited with the serendipitous discovery of dark matter.” Though she was considered “a shoo-in” for the 2016 prize, her death before the announcements ensured that she would not receive it: the Nobel cannot be awarded posthumously. This is just one of Keating’s frustrations with the prize.

The gender inequity in the Nobel Prize for physics is extremely apparent. In 2018, Donna Strickland became the third woman to ever win the prize. The last female recipient was Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963, and the first was Marie Curie in 1903. The Nobel Prize in physics has been awarded 112 times.

Keating explores this issue at some depth — yes, there is a lack of women in the field of physics, but it’s not as if there are no women in physics. There needs to be more recruiting, more mentorship, more encouragement of the young woman pursuing career in the competitive world of physics. There needs to be more acknowledgement of the work female professionals in physics due – you may have head that Donna Strickland wasn’t considered important enough for a Wikipedia page.

But I won’t spoil the other two Broken Lens chapters. I think Keating makes persuasive enough arguments without me having to vouch for them here.

This is a great book for those interested in the rigors of physics and cosmology research. This is an excellent memoir for readers curious about the life and work of an accomplished scientist. I would recommend this book even for those simply curious about the Nobel Prize itself, its history, its alleged failures (and successes). And ultimately, I think Keating makes important, interesting arguments worth readers’ consideration.

Find a copy of Losing the Nobel Prize at your local bookstore, and enjoy your journey into the cosmos!

Exploring the Wilderness Inside Your Home

In biologist Rob Dunn’s new book Never Home Alone, he introduces readers to the visible and microscopic organisms composing an indoor ecosystem, discussing what we know (and don’t know) about the creatures that share our homes.

Never Home Alone: From Microbes to Millipedes, Camel Crickets, and Honeybees, the Natural History of Where We Live. Rob Dunn (Nov 2018) Source

If you enjoyed I Contain Multitudes, this book should be next on your reading list. Just like Ed Yong shows readers the fascinating microorganisms all around us, Dunn opens our eyes to the minute creatures that live within the confinement of our own homes. Drawing largely from his own research as a biologist, and backing up his claims with other relevant research, Dunn discusses what lives in the ecosystem of the home. From the bacteria lurking on shower heads, to drain flies, crickets, and spiders, Dunn investigates everything he can find — whether it’s benign, beneficial, or potentially malicious.

While this wilderness in miniature is fascinating, I was most surprised to learn that some of these organisms — many, in fact — are actually waiting to be “discovered”, if someone would take the time to look more closely at them:

“The discovery that almost a billion thumb-sized Japanese camel crickets were living in houses without anyone really knowing they were present left me a bit dumbfounded,” Dunn writes. “If you aren’t a scientist and you see a camel cricket in your house, you assume scientists know what it is. If you are a scientist, but not an entomologist, and you see a camel cricket in your house, you assume that entomologists know what it is. If you are an entomologist and you see a camel cricket in your house you assume the specialists in camel crickets know what that is.”

But this mindset — assuming someone else already knows about a certain organism — can be problematic.

“Meanwhile, just two people on Earth specialize in the study of camel crickets and neither of them happens to live in a house where the Japanese species is present,” Dunn adds, almost humorously. “I started to wonder whether this phenomenon — of assuming someone else knows — is likely to be more common in homes than other habitats, more common because homes are the place we are most likely to assume that someone else knows, most likely to assume that everything is under control.”

If Dunn’s idea is true, and we can indeed find new species right in our own homes and backyards, it could have important ramifications for science.

Dunn continues: “If I was right, it meant that not only was the home a place where it was still possible to make new discoveries but also it might be an ideal place to make discoveries, discoveries that, because they implicitly affect many people, would be important.”

But why is this discovery of new species inside our homes important? What makes the critters that crawl in our basement and on our walls so alluring to Dunn and his team? As it turns out, many of these species hold clues inside them — clues that can teach us how to create new technologies, medicines, and even prevent allergies. But unless we study these organisms purposefully, Dunn argues, we won’t unlock their secrets.

One of the more interesting species that Dunn discusses is a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii, which is notorious for sneaking into the guts of cats by manipulating the behavior of mice. More interesting is the implication of whether these parasites, after infiltrating humans by way of us cleaning the cat litter box, affect human behavior. I was hoping that Dunn may have some insightful theory or perhaps new information about the species explored in Kathleen McAuliffe’s book This Is Your Brain on Parasites, but he had little to offer in way of enlightening information or opinion. It seems the mystery of this parasite is yet to be solved.

Other than that, I have no complains about Dunn’s book. It was well-paced, fascinating, and made for wonderful holiday-break reading. I particularly enjoyed that Dunn shared a lot about his own research as well as his students – it’s always nice when a scientist talks about the important work his student assistants do and their contribution to their studies.

Overall, Dunn’s most recent book is makes for a fascinating and entertaining read. I encourage you to look for a copy at your local bookstore!