How Materials Shaped Our Society

Science communicator Ainissa Ramirez inspires readers with profound stories from history about the materials that shaped ourselves and our world.

Did you know that activist Frederick Douglass was the most photographed man of the nineteenth century? He believed in the democratic power of the new technology to create lasting images of ordinary people. He also “let his portraits combat the stereotypical images of African Americans in the 1800s,” writes author Ainissa Ramirez in her recent book, The Alchemy of Us.

But Douglass discovered a problem with photography at the time. The chemicals used in film “were developed around perfecting the portrayal of white skin,” writes Ramirez, and “black faces became underexposed.” Their eyes and teeth were exaggerated by the film’s failure, transforming portraits into the very same damaging caricature Douglass and his colleagues were trying so hard to fight.

At the start of the Civil Right’s era, Kodak was the primary producer of color film. They didn’t listen to the complaints of black mothers who couldn’t photograph their children, but they did listen to the corporations that said they couldn’t adequately capture certain dark colored objects for their customers, Ramirez notes ironically. And so Kodak formulated new film that would better capture dark colors, creating the technology that would allow people of darker complexions to appear more clearly.

But the bias of film technology and did not end there. Ramirez points to how American photography was used for “darker enterprises abroad”. She describes how in the 1970’s , two black employees of Polaroid discovered their employer was illicitly based in apartheid South Africa. It turned out that despite the United Nations’ warnings to corporations not to collaborate with the oppressive government there, Polaroid was secretly supplying the film technology to create “passbooks” that restricted and segregated black lives.

These two employees, Caroline Hunter and Ken Williams, created the “Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement” and worked with the Black Panthers to stop Polaroid from working with the government of South Africa. Seven years later, writes Ramirez, Polaroid finally withdrew: “Polaroid’s departure started the process of dismantling apartheid, like a flicked domino, and Nelson Mandela would come to the United States to thank the PRWM for preventing the further capture of black South Africans.”

This example is from one of my favorite chapters in Ramirez’s thrilling new book. She weaves history and science together to tell stories of developments in materials science that transformed society, but how people transformed these materials as well. Her writing is immersive, often reading like a novel with intimate dialogue between historical figures – many of which readers may not have heard of previously, or may be surprised to learn a new fact about.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the comparisons and conclusions Ramirez draws in each chapter as she presents her thoroughly-researched stories are nothing short of brilliant. Although steeped in history, each chapter feels startlingly relevant to the issues our society faces in the present day. Culturally aware and constantly rooting for the marginalized, Ramirez’s book is the history lesson we desperately need – and an important voice in science communication today.

The seamless weaving Ramirez accomplishes as she introduces a technological feat and historical story is nothing short of inspiring. The example I gave above is just one of many stories of science shaping society (and people shaping science) that Ramirez explores. Her analyses of them are astute and intelligent. This is an impressive collection, and she presents it convincingly, like a well-composed argument. It demands respect.

The Alchemy of Us is a book that belongs in high school classrooms and college curriculum beside copies of Angela Saini’s books Superior and Inferior. If you have enjoyed historical explorations of science, such as Deborah Blum’s The Poison Squad or Daniel Stone’s The Food Explorer, this book will make an excellent addition to your shelf. Its focus on people of color is a welcome presence in the overwhelmingly white genres of science and technology.

A thoroughly enjoyable read you’ll be reluctant to put down and eager to share with friends.

A Statement on Committing to Anti-Racism

Photo by Jay Mullings on Unsplash

From Sarah, editor and creator of Read More Science:

At the moment, there are Black Lives Matter protests happening in every single one of America’s fifty states. They were sparked by the recent and unjust murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. But they are also a response to the unceasing incidents of police brutality and racism in this country.

As a white person and a science communicator, it is my responsibility to use my platform to participate in amplifying the Black Lives Matter movement and actively work on becoming anti-racist. This week on Twitter, I am uplifting Black Birders Week, an event put together by Black birders and naturalists to highlight diversity and bring attention to inequality in the outdoors. In addition, I am using my science writing coursework to write a feature article on Black Birders Week. I have also compiled a list of anti-racism resources for fellow white women.

When I started Read More Science two years ago, it was always my goal to uplift underrepresented authors of pop science books through reviews and social media posts featuring their work. To date, I have reviewed books such as Angela Saini’s Superior, showcased books about Black women in space science, discussed the ramifications of Henrietta Lacks, and am currently working on a review of The Alchemy of Us by Ainissa Ramirez.

But this isn’t nearly enough. Moving forward, I intend amplify the work of Black authors and scientists. I invite – and will reach out to – Black scientists who are interested in writing reviews of pop science books for Read More Science, to help uplift their platforms. I also encourage aspiring Black authors and science writers to reach out to me directly at for free editing services and feedback on their work, support and advice, as well as assistance on the path to publication.

If you are white, I urge you to take action now. There is much work to be done if we are to truly change the system. We must be willing to do our part and make reparations however we can.


Sarah Olson Michel

The Internet of Genes

A new book by Italian molecular biologist Sergio Pistoi explores at-home DNA testing and what it really means for big data and genealogy.

If you’ve ever taken an at-home DNA test, Serio Pistoi would label you a “spitter” – someone who swabbed their saliva and sent it off to a company like 23andMe to be analyzed for a fee. Even if you haven’t had your own DNA tested, you likely know someone who has. DNA testing surged in popularity when it became available (and affordable) to the masses. In his book, Pistoi investigates what this means for us and for future generations.

“If you could zoom in on one of your cells and make your way among the maze of microscopic wires, membranes and organelles that fill its interiors, you would see a bubble distinct from the rest: this is the nucleus, the cell’s genetic control room,” writes Pistoi, a science journalist who holds a PhD in molecular biology. “Zoom further in on the nucleus and you’ll see a microscopic noodle: this is the DNA (short for Deoxyribonucleic Acid), the compound that contains the genetic information for almost every organism on Earth.”

In the first chapter, Pistoi introduces readers to DNA, as well as chromosomes which make up genes, which compose proteins; the building blocks of cells. “While genes live quietly in the nucleus, the proteins they code do all the jobs required for life,” writes Pistoi. “The funny thing is that genes account for only 2-3 percent of our DNA. The bulk of our genetic material does not code for any protein, which has puzzles researchers for decades.”

This excess, dubbed “junk DNA”, actually turns out to be “the diffused brain of the genome, an elusive mastermind that can summon into action thousands of genes at once, directing their work as if they were extras in an action movie.”

Pistoi’s writing is lively and easy to follow along with as he guides readers through his own experience becoming a “spitter” and navigating the world of DNA testing. He describes the positive aspects of it, such as predicting risk for certain diseases: in one chapter, he tells the story of a woman named Monica, who survived ventricular fibrillation thanks to a defibrillator installed after a DNA test revealed she carried a rare hereditary heart disease. Her life was saved thanks to the preventative measure the DNA test allowed her to take.

Unfortunately, what DNA testing can tell consumers is still limited. Pistoi writes that “when it comes to predicting our health, things are rarely so straightforward, and knowledge can even turn against you.” He discusses the supermarket of DNA testing and why the FDA cracked down on consumer genomics companies for the risk of bad interpretations of results. He also considers the risks of knowing the inevitable – what would happen if the people around you knew you were susceptible to schizophrenia or dementia? He asks, what if those people were your banker or your employer?

DNA privacy is a real and serious concern. And yet companies are building social networking sites based on connecting people with similar DNA. Pistoi indulges readers in his personal experiences with these sites, which was generally a positive experience for him, as well as the more serious drawbacks of DNA testing.

“With the growth of DNA-tailored treatments also comes the risk of choosing therapies based on flawed tests,” Pistoi writes. “But the media reported stories of patients for whom this method has failed miserably, like John R. Brown…who switched his depression medication after taking a GeneSight test and wound up suicidal in a psychiatric hospital.” Even though researchers are optimistic, the limits of current technology and the potential catastrophic ramifications of mistakes are clear. For now, the future is difficult to determine.

The biggest concern readers may have is whether they can be a spitter safely. Pistoi says privacy is like a volume knob, not and on/off button: “Everyone has a level of privacy that suits their needs: the goal is to balance the utility of sharing with the risk of exposing information unnecessarily.” Pistoi also says reputable consumer genomics services will keep your identity separate from your DNA files, and that he used a pseudonym and prepaid credit card and different address when he bought his kit. You an even check the results by logging in through anonymous browser and hiding your IP address from the company.

His hints and tips are actually pretty beneficial. The only downside of the book is it appears to be self-published, and there are occasional obvious printing errors and editing mistakes. But aside from that, it is a great read and very professionally done.

At the end of the book, he includes a list of practical essentials to know before buying an at-home DNA testing kit, as well as a Q&A section with other useful information. Overall, DNA Nation is an informative and well-written book about DNA testing today for those who want to test, or may never do it themselves and are just curious to know more. This brief and entertaining guide to the internet of genes is perfect for anyone interested in the science of ourselves.

How Physics Found Out Why Cats Always Land On Their Feet

A few of my favorite things – history, science, and cats – come together in this lively and entertaining adventure into a question that has plagued physicists for hundreds of years.

Apparently physicists’ fascination with felines didn’t begin with Erwin Schrödinger’s dilemma with a cat. Long before Schrödinger designed his thought problem about a cat both alive and dead to illustrate a problematic paradox with quantum mechanics, cats were already frustrating physicists with a different question: why do they always seem to land on their feet? This is the question explored in Falling Felines and Fundamental Physics (Yale Press 2019).

In this brief, yet brilliant romp through history, physics professor and blogger Gregory J. Gbuir (@drskyskull), guides readers through the long journey to answer that question. At first, I was somewhat skeptical an entire book could be devoted to a single question, much less maintain my interest until the end. But little did I know just how complicated, exciting, and surprising the history of this particular question would prove to be. 

Before photography was invented, paintings were the only way the movement of animals could be frozen in time. It wasn’t until the mid-1800’s that technology would first begin to allow curious individuals to attempt to capture how, exactly, animals move. Gbuir, who is clearly quite apt at both historical research as well as writing, does a marvelous job guiding the reader through the origin and development of photography and how it was eventually applied to the problem of cats.

If you’ve ever been curious how cameras came about, you’ll get to learn all about it in the first two chapters – and it turns out to be quite engaging. Gbuir includes the earliest surviving heliograph from around 1826. Made of “Bitumen of Judea, or Syrian asphalt,” it “was chemically modified by light exposure into a form that was resistant to being dissolved in petroleum. A film of this bitumen could be put on glass and exposed to light, becoming hard in spots where the light was brightest and remaining soft in the dark regions.”

When photography, as it came to be called, developed further and became faster, a scientist finally applied it to capturing animal movement. Eadweard Muybridge, who produced the famous “Horse in Motion” gallery in 1878, inspired the work of Étienne-Jules Marey, who would produce a short film called “Falling Cat” in 1894. When Marey presented his findings to the French Academy of Sciences that year, outrage ensued. What he presented, according to a report from the time, was “a scientific paradox in direct contradiction with the most elementary mechanical principles.”

Falling cat, Wikimedia Commons

Now things were really heating up. Physicists turned their attention toward answering the question of exactly how cats managed to turn themselves right-side-up seemingly without momentum. How did the cats even ensure they were turning the right way? It puzzled physicists, and Gbuir carefully keeps his readers puzzled as well, leading us through each clue chronologically.

Along with the history, Gbuir also introduces readers to general concepts in physics to ensure we understand why the cat falling question was so confounding. Even though I have not taken physics yet, I was able to understand his discussions reasonably well. I didn’t feel overwhelmed at any point.

The history was slightly more engaging for me because I’m currently taking a course on the history of science in the twentieth century and we just discussed physics at the turn of the century. Many of the figures in my class were also discussed in Gbuir’s book, helping me contextualize the book further. But even without a history class, readers will be able to follow along quite well. Gbuir’s writing is excellent and the storytelling is easy to absorb.

Gbuir takes readers from the past into the modern day by the end of the book. In 2016, a researcher named Alexis Noel presented her surprising findings about the cat tongue to the American Physical Society Division of Fluid Dynamics Meeting. She showed how hooks on the cat’s tongue, which help untangle the fur as they groom, are also “hollow and pull liquid into them via capillary action” to help the cleaning process.

Insights like this are helping inspire new ways to engineer robots. Biorobotics eventually led to the creation of a robot that twists like a cat when it falls to right itself. This is a fascinating application of the physics of how cats always land on their feet. And Gbuir includes plenty of interesting anecdotes and stories about cats and physics, my favorite being that of F.D.C. Willard. This is the pen name of a Siamese cat of physicist Jack Hetherington, who was told he could not publish as a single author in the Physics Review Letters journal in 1975 and so included his cat as a co-author.

Hetherington could not hide the identity of his colleague for long, and some people were “delighted” with the revelation, according to Gbuir. F.D.C. Willard even signed a copy of the paper with his paw. Gbuir includes a photo of both the famous cat and the autograph in his book, which I loved. There are lots of other great images included throughout the book, helping illustrate the stories Gbuir discusses and bring his subjects to life.

This is the perfect book for readers who enjoy a little history with their science and can appreciate a tender fascination with felines. And as for the answer to how cats always land on their feet, you’ll just have you to read it and find out.

Updates: School, Social Media, and Upcoming Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Onward and upward!

I’m Taking a Break From Social Media

Photo by Kari Shea on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay healthy, and stay inside!

How “Race Realists” Use Bad Science to Explain Inequality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Archaeologists Peer From Space Into Our Past

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

Photo by Erin Becker

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

Photo courtesy of Erin Becker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Crowdfunded My Science Degree – Here Are My Next Steps

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

My Story and some context

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

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

Where I Am Now

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

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

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

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

A Thank-You To Those Who Donated

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

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