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.

10 Books About Spaceflight Written by Women

Because we need to stop forgetting about the women who made space flight possible in the first place.

Photo by History in HD on Unsplash

This weekend was the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and what better way to celebrate than by reading about historic spaceflight? Some of the preexisting lists of books on other science websites were a little lacking in women writers — this list intends to remedy that oversight.

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Hidden Figures: The Untold True Story of Four African-American Women Who Helped Launch Our Nation into Space by Margot Lee Shetterly

Shetterly’s book, originally published in 2016 and now an award-winning film, is a biography of four black women who fought discrimination at NASA to make significant contributions to the Space Race. The book features three “Human Computers”, mathematicians who worked to solve problems for engineers, and the fourth woman researching supersonic flight. Despite being seen as inferior to their male colleagues, all of these women took a stand and helped make spaceflight possible. There is now a young reader’s edition of Hidden Figures as well, for kids who want to learn about Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Christine Darden.

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Wally Funk’s Race For Space: The Extraordinary Story of a Female Aviation Pioneer by Sue Nelson

Wally Funk excelled in Mercury 13, NASA’s 1961 Women in Space program for American pilots, beating even John Glenn’s scores for physical and mental tests. But even after preparing these qualified women for spaceflight, politics and gender-based prejudice caused the program to be cancelled. But Funk nevertheless went on to be come the first female aviation instructor and make great accomplishments, which Nelson documents in this exciting biography. This book shows exactly how women have been discriminated against and kept out of spaceflight. Nelson’s book was published in September of 2018.

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The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight by Martha Ackmann

Ackmann’s 2004 book was the first time the story of the Mercury 13 women was told. Despite the crushing disappointment of the program’s cancellation, each of the women went on to achieve great things: “Jerrie Cobb, who began flying when she was so small she had to sit on pillows to see out of the cockpit, dedicated her life to flying solo missions to the Amazon rain forest; Wally Funk, who talked her way into the Lovelace trials, went on to become one of the first female FAA investigators; Janey Hart, mother of eight and, at age forty, the oldest astronaut candidate, had the political savvy to steer the women through congressional hearings and later helped found the National Organization for Women.”

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The Space Race: The Journey to the Moon and Beyond by Sarah Cruddas

Space expert and astrophysicist Sarah Cruddas guides readers through the thrilling history of space exploration, from moon-landings to plans to what our future in space may look like. Geared toward young readers, this book will introduce children to the history of space travel and inspire them with questions about what the future – their future – in space could be. Cruddas’ book was published earlier this year.

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Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, From Missiles to the Moon to Mars by Nathalia Holt

Also published in 2016, like Hidden Figures, Holt’s book goes deeper into the elite young women of NASA’s new Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Human Computers that made satellites and space exploration possible in the first place. Holt’s book contains extensive interview with the women and takes readers through what it would have been like to be an accomplished, intelligent woman in science at the time and the discrimination they face every day in the workplace.

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Breaking the Chains of Gravity: The Story of Spaceflight Before Nasa by Amy Shira Teitel

In this 2015 book, Vintage Space‘s Amy Shira Teitel investigates the steps Germany took toward space flight just as America was learning to launch its own rocket-like aircraft. Exploring the rivalries between the countries that led to the Space Race, Teitel gives a thrilling account of everything that led up to Neil Armstrong’s historic walk on the moon.

Galaxy Girls: 50 Amazing Stories of Women in Space by Libby Jackson

Published in 2018, filled with gorgeous and colorful illustrations, Jackson’s book could not be better described than it is on Harper Collins website: “a groundbreaking compendium honoring the amazing true stories of fifty inspirational women who helped fuel some of the greatest achievements in space exploration from the nineteenth century to today—including Hidden Figure’s Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson as well as former NASA Chief Astronaut Peggy Whitson, the record-holding American biochemistry researcher who has spent the most cumulative time in space…Galaxy Girls celebrates more than four dozen extraordinary women from around the globe whose contributions have been fundamental to the story of humankind’s quest to reach the stars.”

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Women in Space: 23 Stories of First Flights, Scientific Missions, and Gravity-Breaking Adventures by Karen Bush Gibson

Profiling 23 women and their pioneering experiences, Gibson’s books underscores the scientific and technological accomplishments women have made despite the discrimination they experienced: “By breaking the stratospheric ceiling, these women forged a path for many female astronauts, cosmonauts, and mission specialists to follow.” Published in 2014.

The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars by Dava Sobel

In this thrilling and award-winning account, explore the extraordinary discoveries and accomplishments of the women mathematicians working at the Harvard College Observatory. Sobel documents how “at the outset this group included the wives, sisters, and daughters of the resident astronomers, but soon the female corps included graduates of the new women’s colleges—Vassar, Wellesley, and Smith. As photography transformed the practice of astronomy, the ladies turned from computation to studying the stars captured nightly on glass photographic plates.” Published in 2016.

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Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space by Lynn Sherr

As a kid, when my dad worked for NASA and we lived near JPL in Southern California, he used to tell the story of how he met the first American woman in space. I was always mesmerized when he talked about her, imagining what it would have been like to be Sally Ride. In this biography, Sherr tells the story of how Ride made history “when NASA chose her for the seventh shuttle mission, cracking the celestial ceiling and inspiring several generations of women.” Sherr’s book was published in 2014.

For more biographies of women in space flight, including Find Where the Wind Goes by the first African-American woman in space Dr. Mae Jemison herself, check out this Bustle list!

This list was inspired by SPACE.com’s Best Space Flight and History Books, published earlier this year, and this list from Science News, which some readers felt was rather lacking in books by and about women. Taking the time to increase the visibility of women and women of color is, this writer believes, well worth the effort.

The Glowing Girls of America’s Radium Industry

This summer, I’m reading eight historical biographies themed around women and science. This first review features The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore. Radium Girls was also one of Science Friday’s 2019 summer reading picks!

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Girl using radium to paint clock face, Jan 1932.

Lip, dip, paint. The girls were told that this was the best way to get the glowing paint perfectly onto the numbers of the watch faces. Using their lips to point the brush, the girls delicately painted each number so it could be more easily seen in the dark. Yet with each stroke, they unknowingly delivered a dangerously radioactive substance into their bodies.

So begins the story of America’s shining women.

It was America’s roaring twenties, and the girls had a well-paying and enjoyable position with Radium Dial. They reveled in the attention they received for their ghostly glowing clothes and skin after working with the paint. Sometimes they’d decorate their faces and dresses with the radium paint before they went dancing or partying. At the time, the dangers of radium were virtually unknown. The United States Radium Corporation (USRC) boasted a myriad of health benefits from their product. After all, how could such a beautiful, luminous substance do any harm? It wasn’t until the girls began to fall ill and die, each of them only in their early twenties – one after the other – that they and their families and medical experts began to realize the substance the girls worked with was deadly. Getting anyone to believe them, however, was another matter entirely. All the while, their time was running out — the glowing girls were “doomed to die.”

Radium Girls is a thrilling account of the lives of the girls who worked for the USRC in the early twentieth century. Moore includes details about the girls that bring them to life so that the book doesn’t feel like a historical account, but a riveting novel. Careful not to let her readers slip into the sense that the book is not a true story, Moore provides subtle reminders that these girls were very real, and the lives lost to radium poisoning were casualties of a greedy corporation unwilling to admit their product was at fault. Compelling and immersive, Moore’s book invites readers to step back into the twenties, just before and at the start of the Great Depression, and experience factory work along side the radium girls. As girl after girl fell ill, the company did its best to keep the rest of the workers from knowing whether they, too, might be in danger.

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Moore’ cast of characters – the real girls and their families, the doctors and dentists and lawyers, and the members of the USRC – is extensive. It can be difficult to keep up with at times, especially because the groups of girls and split into two different cities. But Moore does a wonderful job of emotionally attaching her reader to the characters and making sure their individual personalities shine enough that you are able to remember who’s who as Moore takes you through their stories.

I enjoyed the scenes in court the most. After losing friends and family to radium poisoning, and working with scientists and doctors to prove radium was truly harmful, the girls managed to take the Radium Company to court. The scenes there are exciting and frightening because the laws were not in the girls’ favor, but clearly an injustice was indeed happening. The girls were mocked, scorned, and many did not believe them. And yet their bodies, their bones, were evidence: as the girls grew more sick, their jaws fell apart. Their teeth fell out. They grew sarcomas and lost movement in their legs or arms. Reading about the effects on their body was often sickening.

Yet the bravery of the girls, and those acting on on behalf of them, is memorable:

“Human lives,” [the lawyer] continued, bringing his introduction round to the woman at the center of the case, “were saved among our country’s army of defense, because Catherine Donohue painted luminous dials on instruments for our forces. To make life safe, she and her coworkers [are] among the living dead. They have sacrificed their own lives. Truly an unsung heroine of our country, our state and our country owe her a debt.”

Radium Girls, by Kate Moore

I was often touched by the ways the girls’ families stepped in to help them, the ways their husbands and, in some cases, children’s lives were affected. Some of the girls were as young as I am (21, 22) when they died, their lives cut short by radium. When they worked in that factory with the luminous paint, they had no idea they had unwittingly accepted a terrible, painful death.

Reading about the girls’ pain – in one scene, a girl named Catherine holds up her jaw bone in court after it had fallen out – is enough to make you nauseated or simply cry. The outrage the girls’ pain evoked, the sheer grief experienced by their husbands, moved me to tears at some scenes. Moore quietly reminds you, as the reader, are carrying on these girls’ stories. We are keeping them alive after all these years in order to protect other innocent workers from every suffering the same fate.

Radium Girls is a tale of what happens when a corporation silences women and suppresses science. It’s a caution against heedless belief in a substance we don’t quite understand, and an outcry against unjust treatment of innocent workers. In some ways, it reminded me of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, in some ways, perhaps with a more positive note.

“The Radium Girls did not die in vain,” Moore writes. “Although the women could not save themselves from the poison that riddled their bones, in countless ways their sacrifice saved many thousands of others.”

A Computer Scientist Explores the Hazards of Digital Addiction

Computer scientist, MIT graduate, and bestselling author Cal Newport’s new book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World uses science to investigate the impact of technology on our psyches and our lives in today’s increasingly digital world.

I recently had my first experience going “viral”. Within hours of sharing my thoughts on a controversial issue in a Twitter post, my phone was blowing up with notifications. At first, it was exciting to see the number of likes and retweets skyrocket. The spiteful comments from those who disagreed with my point didn’t even bother me – other users were jumping in to counter their arguments. But as the numbers climbed into the hundreds of thousands, with my tweet garnering millions of impressions and being screenshot for shares across multiple platforms, I began to feel a strange sense of discomfort creep in. It wasn’t just the strange feeling of seeing my face and name pop up randomly while scrolling Facebook. As hate-filled messages flooded my Twitter direct messages and my Instagram (which I use to promote this blog) was targeted by angry users, I quickly tired from shooting off witty retorts and checking my mentions for chances to debate. Just a few days later, checking my social media had become emotionally exhausting.

Around the the same time as my viral misadventures, I came across Cal Newport’s article on how to declutter your digital life for the New York Times. His suggestion to return to analog activities while breaking from social media, before limiting its use, seemed useful and applicable to my circumstances. After all, he’s a computer scientist, so he must know what he’s talking about. When his book Digital Minimalism arrived on the shelf of the independent bookstore in Oregon where I work, I was immediately drawn to it.

Ironically, when I picked up Newport’s book, I quickly discovered that I had already implemented his 31 day digital decluttering experience. I’d removed social media from my phone and limited my check-ins to a browser. I only logged on to Instagram and Facebook for my job, which involves managing social media for the bookstore. In fact, everything Newport suggests in his book were things I was already implementing based off common sense. At least I was reassured I was on the right track.

One of the things I think Newport’s book is missing, despite how much I enjoyed it, is a personal connection to the impact of social media usage. While the visceral experience of going viral – including its ups and downs – was fresh in my mind, Newport has not personally used Facebook and Twitter. If he had, he would undoubtedly have dived more deeply into the emotional and psychological impacts of using social media. Without a personal connection, I felt at times that his overview of its downsides could be superficial, resigned to the facts without a deeper exploration of the personal impact. But perhaps that is where the reader is meant to insert themselves and their own experiences, ultimately drawing their own conclusions about their digital life.

I also struggled to agree with Newport in Chapter Two, where he praises the Amish and Mennonite communities extensively for their rejection of many modern technologies. Although Newport does admit, in a singular and brief sentence, that these communities disenfranchise women, he utterly neglects their backwards and repressive views that make internet-accessible phone ownership so contraband for their communities. It isn’t simply about the technology and its positive and negative aspects, as Newport claims – it’s also about keeping women away from information that might liberate them. His justifications for teenagers who choose to stay in the communities also neglects to address that many of these teenagers hardly have a choice – why would they leave their families and resources of support? I think Newport could have taken a more nuanced look, rather than made a passing comment regarding the repressive ideals of these communities.

In another regard, because Newport is not a woman, he misses out on the chance to analyze our dependence on social validation from using picture-driven social media platforms such as Instagram. This external validation regarding beauty – something I see significantly fewer men interested in, as none of my male partners have been particularly interested in posting pictures of themselves on Instagram – is seriously addicting for women. Newport, unable to relate, completely ignores this aspect of social media usage and focuses instead on optimizing our time. But for a woman, spending large amounts of time on our appearance and taking a high quality photo that garners hundreds of likes is extremely addictive. Again, had this book been written from a female perspective, readers might have had a deeper exploration of the gender issues regarding our social media usage.

In addition, Newport spends considerable time worshiping the habits of Thoreau and Nietzsche (what else would we expect?), but if you’re willing to look past the rambling bromance-like adoration he holds for them and their ilk, Newport’s argument that we waste a substantial amount of time and energy on our phones — at the cost of our happiness. His points that we should enjoy our leisure time, our solitude, our face-to-face (or phone-to-ear) interactions, and our relationships more than endless scrolling is perfectly logical. Another argument he makes is for productive use of our leisure time, which is nice in theory, but not everyone wants to create and distribute valuable commodities in their limited free time. Newport is more on the nose when he explores the potential of rebuilding face-to-face interactions.

But as a computer scientist, he also has a deeper understanding of how these devices and apps have been strategically designed to manipulate us into feeling rewarded for checking our social media accounts, and to feel entertained by endless scrolling. Apple and Microsoft and the thousands of app designers out there want us to check our phone as frequently as possible – it’s the drug they’re selling, a drug we are deeply addicted to. And like every addiction, it comes with a cost.

Ultimately, the idea of decluttering your digital life – only checking social media via a browser, or reducing your phone usage, etc – is effective, useful, and productive. But the biggest obstacle to Newport’s argument is that, without personal experience, his book lacks the profoundness of a personal connection to the book’s material. How easy it must have been for him to implement his own solution – he’s never had Twitter or Facebook in the first place! Of course, he only addresses this downside in a footnote. It seems unimportant to him that he can write a book on a subject he has very little experience with, but I digress.

My criticisms are only that Newport, had he given a more nuanced investigation to certain issues regarding social media or had more personal experience with it himself, he could have presented a more convincing argument. What saves his book is that the audience is likely readers who are already experiencing doubts about their phone usage and are looking for solutions. That’s exactly what Newport has to offer: simple, useful solutions.

Pioneering Fossil Hunter Mary Anning Gets Her Dues

Mary Anning’s fossil findings helped lay the groundwork for Darwin’s theory of evolution. Today, women in science who were once lost to history are being rediscovered and celebrated for their contributions. Is Mary Anning finally getting the credit she deserves?

March was Women’s History Month, a chance for women’s accomplishments to be acknowledged and celebrated, and the Read More Science Book Club read Shelley Emling’s book The Fossil Hunter to learn about a woman whose work changed science. This review is being posted late, but was meant to acknowledge that month. Centuries after her death, Mary Anning and her incredible contributions are finally getting the attention they deserve. A new biopic of Anning’s life, Ammonite, starring Kate Winslet, is currently in the making.

Author Shelley Emling has conducted some serious research into her subject’s life. The way she weaves fact into storytelling — and her cautious approach to retelling Anning’s story based on what Emling believe may have happened – makes for a trustworthy read. Emling is clearly passionate about making sure readers understand just how much of an impact Anning’s work has made on our understanding of dinosaurs and evolution. For a woman with no education, at a time when women were expected to be wives and mothers, Anning abandoned all that to earn money for her family and make a name for herself as a fossil hunter.

Emling does a great job of guiding readers through Anning’s life story. The book is vivid and even includes a few illustrations and photographs that bring the characters and setting to life for the reader. The book feels exactly the right length. In fact, the only strange component that may turn some readers off (it took some adjusting for me to get used to) is that Emling writes without assuming. The language she uses is “Mary may have done this” or “this may have happened,” careful to never state something happened when Emling could not be sure. Although this is technically correct – it’s not as if Emling witnessed the events she is retelling – it gives the book a strange suspension. It’s difficult to connect to the story when you feel detached from the events, unsure whether or not to believe they happened at all. I wish Emling had written her book with greater confidence or asked readers to suspend their disbelief through assertion.

I feel as though male popular science writers are more willing to tell the story the way they believed it happened, and some female writers are careful to be cautious. However, I have never read a book written in the style Emling employs in The Fossil Hunter. If you don’t enjoy the first chapter, it’s not likely to get better for you. But I think if you can get past the style, it’s worth giving the book a chance because it is an important and wonderful story and Emling delivers it well. Just be prepared for all the “Mary may have…” and “Mary likely thought or felt…” and “Mary might have then…”, because it may take some getting used to.

Overall, The Fossil Hunter is a good book to breeze through this summer if you want to learn more about the accomplishments of an incredible woman who was barred from participating in the scientific world at the time.