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


Lindy Elkins-Tanton is the principal investigator of a NASA probe intended to fly to the asteroid belt to study a rare, metal-rich asteroid called Psyche. This 138-mile-wide body is believed to be the former core of a failed planet, which did not fully form in this vast region between Mars and Jupiter. As the core of the Earth is inaccessible, Psyche could serve as a means to unlock the secrets of the mysterious center of our own planet.

Given the title of her memoir – “A Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman” – a reader might expect to be immersed solely in a scientific story: how a geologist progressed over the years from hammering earth rocks as a student conducting deep research. -space mission. But this fascinating, beautifully written book is so much more. With courageous candor, Elkins-Tanton examines all aspects of her experiences – personal and professional, good and bad – to probe the very meaning of her life. She also offers new approaches to education, tactics for dealing with cases of sexual harassment in academia, and new methods of team building in scientific research that go beyond the “hero model.” “No one person can build human knowledge on their own anymore,” she notes. “We need the breadth of ideas that comes from a diversity of voices.”

Elkins-Tanton’s childhood initially seems quite idyllic. Growing up in Ithaca, NY, she dabbled in poetry and music, won awards for her horsemanship, and explored her city with great freedom. But there was also a dark side: her mother was detached, her father often angry, and she had to wear an uncomfortable back brace to treat her scoliosis. More than that, she was repeatedly sexually abused as a small child in the woods in her neighborhood, a fact her mother never wanted to acknowledge. A terror remained within Elkins-Tanton for years because of this trauma, until a therapist recognized it as a type of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Prior to this analysis, however, she found solace in her chosen major at MIT. “The more I thought about geology,” she writes, “the more calm and comforted I felt. … This geologic timeline flowing into the past and then into the future felt like a big cold drink on a hot day. In her second year, she was conducting high-temperature, high-pressure experiments that mimicked the Earth’s interior. She delightfully recounts every step of her procedures like a chef lovingly describing his favorite recipe. Upon graduation, she obtained not only a bachelor’s degree, but also a master’s degree.

Here, his life takes an unexpected turn. Not feeling ready to continue her studies (“for reasons that are still obscure to me,” she admits), she surprisingly went into business by becoming an analyst for a management consulting firm. Over the next few years, she married into a prominent family, gave birth to a son and, while later running her own consulting firm, raised sheep and trained dogs. But after the dissolution of her marriage and two years of teaching mathematics at a small university in Maryland (where she met her current husband), she finally returned to MIT, first for a doctorate, then a professorship. .

At this point, the book offers valuable lessons about successful scientific strategies. Early on, Elkins-Tanton recognized that to answer the big questions of her science, she had to “cross disciplinary boundaries to synthesize from entirely different fields.” It became his modus operandi. For example, she became fascinated with the Siberian basalts, the largest mass of lava to ever erupt on a continent, enough to cover the lower 48 states. It seeped out at the time of the Late Permian extinction, around 252 million years ago, when 70% of terrestrial species and more than 90% of oceanic species disappeared. Was it a coincidence, or was the eruption the cause? To find an answer, she organized a vast collaboration of geologists, geophysicists, geochemists and atmospheric scientists.

The expressive descriptions of his field trips to Siberia are the book’s most engaging sections, providing pride of place for the discomforts and thrills of a geological expedition. “The layers of rock rose from the river like an endless shelf of books, sagging at an angle,” she wrote. “Layer upon layer, going back in time. We floated through the entire Tunguska Sequence and then encountered the basalts themselves. After years of data collection by this global network of researchers, they have indeed proven that the climate-altering gases released by the Flood (“appallingly similar to what humanity is producing today,” he points out her) caused the mass extinction.

His questions then reached beyond 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 long and laborious, but culminated in a day-long team final presentation to a jury, an agonizing assessment that feels 10 times more intense than a thesis defense. Psyche’s proposal was a dark horse, because Elkins-Tanton had never led a NASA mission and his industrial partner had previously built spacecraft only for Earth orbit, not deep space. This is where Elkins-Tanton’s first detour into business and the lessons she learned there paid off; NASA noticed that day how well its team performed under pressure.

Once launched, the spacecraft will travel three years to get to Psyche. With the start of this journey, writes Elkins-Tanton, “we will have gained, once again, something truly worth earning: the chance to work harder, longer, on something that will amaze and will push human knowledge further.” She found the meaning of her life.

Marcia Bartusiak is Emeritus Professor of 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.”

Portrait of the scientist as a young woman

William Morrow. 272pp. $29.99.

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