Given the title of her memoir — “A Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman” — a reader might expect to delve into just one scientific story: how a female geologist progressed over the years from hammering on terrestrial rocks as a college student to leading a deep-space mission. But this captivating book, beautifully written, is much more. With a bold candor, Elkins-Tanton examines all aspects of her experiences—personal and professional, the good and the bad—to uncover the true meaning of her life. It also offers novel 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 can build up human knowledge alone anymore,” she states. “We need the breadth of ideas that comes from a diversity of voices.”
Elkins-Tanton’s childhood initially seems quite idyllic. Raised in Ithaca, NY, she dabbled in poetry and music, won awards for her horseback riding, and explored her city with great freedom. But there was also a dark side: her mother was distant, her father often angry, and she had to wear an uncomfortable back brace to treat her scoliosis. In addition, as a young child, she was repeatedly sexually abused in the woods around her neighborhood, a fact her mother was never willing to acknowledge. A terror lingered in Elkins-Tanton because of this trauma for years, 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 calmer and more comfortable I felt. … This geologic timeline, expanding ever further into the past and then back into the future, felt like a big cool drink on a hot day.” In her second year, she conducted high-temperature, high-pressure experiments that explored the interior of the imitated earth. She delightfully narrates every step of her procedures like a chef lovingly describing his favorite recipe. Upon graduation, she received not only a bachelor’s, but also a master’s degree.
Here her life takes an unexpected turn. Unwilling to continue her studies (“for reasons still unclear to me,” she admits), she unexpectedly went into business and became an analyst at a management consultancy. In the years that followed, she married into a prominent family, gave birth to a son, and later ran her own consulting firm on the side, raising sheep and training dogs. But after the dissolution of her marriage and two years as a math teacher at a small college in Maryland (where she met her now husband), she eventually returned to MIT, first for a PhD and later for a professorship.
It is here that the book offers valuable lessons about successful scientific strategies. Early on, Elkins-Tanton recognized that to answer the big questions in her science, she had to “cross disciplines to synthesize from vastly different fields.” That became their modus operandi. For example, she was fascinated by the Siberian flood basalts, the most voluminous mass of lava ever to erupt on a continent, enough to cover the lower 48 states. It oozed out around the time of the late Permian extinction period, about 252 million years ago, when 70 percent of terrestrial species and more than 90 percent of marine species disappeared. Was that coincidence or was the eruption the cause? To find an answer, she organized a large collaboration of geologists, geophysicists, geochemists, and atmospheric scientists.
The powerful descriptions of their Siberian excursions are the book’s most compelling sections, and provide a ringside place for the inconveniences and thrills of a geological expedition. “The layers of rock rose from the river like an endless bookshelf that had collapsed at an angle,” she writes. “Layer by layer, ascending over time. We floated through the entire Tunguska sequence and then encountered the flood basalts themselves.” Indeed, after years of data collection by this global network of researchers, they have proven that climate-altering gases released by the Flood (“startlingly similar to what humanity is producing today ‘ she points out) that caused mass extinctions.
Their questions then reached beyond the earth. In 2014, Elkins-Tanton became the director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, where the Psyche mission proposal was completed. The review process was long and tedious, but it culminated in a final day-long team presentation to a jury, a nerve-wracking evaluation that seems ten times more intense than a dissertation defence. Psyche’s proposal was a dark horse, since Elkins-Tanton had never led a NASA mission and their industrial partner had previously only built spacecraft for Earth orbit, not outer space. This is where Elkins-Tanton’s early forays into the business and the lessons learned paid off; NASA noted that day how well their team performed under pressure.
After launch, the spacecraft will travel three years to get to Psyche. With the beginning of this journey, writes Elkins-Tanton, “we have again won something truly worth winning: the chance to work longer and harder at something that amazes us and further advances human knowledge.” will.” She has found her purpose in life.
Marcia Bartusiak is Professor Emeritus of Practice at MIT and the author of seven books on the frontiers of astrophysics and their history, including “The day we found the universe” and “Black hole.”
A portrait of the scientist as a young woman
William morning. 272 pp. $29.99.