Book Review of “A Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman” by Lindy Elkins-Tanton


Lindy Elkins-Tanton is the principal investigator for a NASA probe that is set to fly to the asteroid belt to study a rare, metal-rich asteroid named Psyche. The 138-mile-wide body is suspected to be the ancient center of a failed planet that did not fully form in the vast region between Mars and Jupiter. Since the center of the Earth is inaccessible, the psyche can serve as a means of unlocking the mysteries of the mystical center of our own planet.

Judging by the title of his memoir – “A portrait of the scientist as a young woman“- A reader might expect to be fully immersed in a scientific story: how a geologist progressed over the years from grabbing terrestrial rocks as a student to leading a deep space mission. But the beauty is This interesting book is much more than that. With a brave candor, Elkins-Tanton examines all aspects of her experiences – personal and professional, good and bad – to understand the meaning of her life. New approaches offer strategies for handling sexual assault cases in academia and new methods of team-building in scientific research that go beyond the “hero model.” “No single individual can now build human knowledge.” “We need a wide range of ideas that come from a wide variety of voices.”

Elkins-Tanton’s childhood seems idyllic at first. Growing up in Ithaca, NY, she majored in poetry and music, won awards for horseback riding, and explored her city with great freedom. But there was also a dark side: Her mother was aloof, her father was often angry, and she had to wear an uncomfortable back brace to treat her scoliosis. In addition, she was repeatedly sexually assaulted as a young child in her neighborhood woods, a fact her mother never wanted to admit. That trauma caused a panic within Elkins-Tanton for years, until a physician recognized it as a type of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Before that analysis, however, she found solace in her chosen major at MIT. “The more I thought about geology,” she writes, “the more I felt calm and relaxed. … That geologic timeline stretches out into the past and then into the future and seeks a long cold drink on a hot day.” By her sophomore year, she was conducting high-temperature and high-pressure experiments that simulated Earth’s interior. She happily recounts each step of her processes like a chef lovingly Describes her favorite recipe. Upon graduation, she received not only a bachelor’s degree but also a master’s degree.

Here comes an unexpected turn in his life. Not feeling ready to continue her studies (“the reason is still unclear to me,” she admits), she surprisingly went into business, becoming an analyst for a management consulting firm. In later years, she married into a prominent family, gave birth to a son and later ran her own consulting company, raising sheep and trained dogs. But after the dissolution of her marriage and two years after teaching math at a small Maryland college (where she met her current husband), she finally returned to MIT, first for a PhD and later for a professorship.

To this point, the book provides valuable lessons on successful scientific strategies. Initially, Elkins-Tanton recognized that to answer the big questions in his science he needed to step “across disciplinary boundaries to synthesize from completely different fields”. This became his way of working. For example, she was fascinated by the Siberian flood basalt, the largest mass of lava that has ever erupted on a continent, large enough to cover the lower 48 states. It originated around the time of the end-Permian extinction, about 252 million years ago, when 70 percent of terrestrial species and more than 90 percent of marine species disappeared. Was it a coincidence, or was it the cause of the explosion? To find an answer, he organized a vast collaboration of geologists, geophysicists, geochemists and atmospheric scientists.

The expressive details of his field trips to Siberia are the book’s most fascinating sections, providing a ringside seat to the inconveniences and adventures of a geological expedition. She writes, “The layers of the rock rose from the river like an endless shelf of books, tilted at an angle.” “Layer after layer, rising up over time. We’ll swim through the entire Tunguska sequence, and then we’ll meet the flood basalts themselves.” After years of data-gathering by that worldwide network of researchers, they have indeed proved that climate-altering gases released from floods (“as catastrophic as what mankind is producing today,” she emphasizes) caused mass extinctions.

His questions then reached beyond the earth. In 2014 Elkins-Tanton became director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, where the Psyche mission proposal was finalized. The review process was lengthy and painstaking, but it came down to the final one-day team presentation in front of a panel of judges, a nerve-racking assessment that feels 10 times more intense than a dissertation. Psyche’s proposal was a dark horse, as Elkins-Tanton had never led a NASA mission and his industrial partner had previously only built spacecraft for Earth orbit, not deep space. It was here that Elkins-Tanton made her initial turn in business and the lessons she learned there bore fruit; NASA saw that day how well his team worked under pressure.

Once launched, the spacecraft will take a three-year journey to reach Psyche. Beginning with that journey, Elkins-Tanton writes, “we will win again, something truly worth winning: a chance to work harder for longer, something that will amaze us and advance human wisdom.” He has found the meaning of his life.

Marcia Bartusiak is Professor of Emeritus Practice at MIT and author of seven books on the frontiers of astrophysics and its history, including “the day we found the universe” And “black hole,

A portrait of the scientist as a young woman

William Morrow. 272pp $29.99.

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