I have long believed that E.B. White’s abiding wisdom on children’s books — “Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down.” — is equally true of science books. The question of what makes a great book of any kind is, of course, a slippery one, but I recently endeavored to synthesize my intuitive system for assessing science books that write up to the reader in a taxonomy of explanation, elucidation, and enchantment.
Gathered here are exceptional books that accomplish at least two of the three, assembled in the spirit of my annual best-of reading lists, which I continue to consider Old Year’s resolutions in reverse — not a list of priorities for the year ahead, but a reflection on the reading most worth prioritizing in the year being left behind.
In Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space (public library), cosmologist, novelist, and unparalleled enchanter of science Janna Levin tells the story of the century-long vision, originated by Einstein, and half-century experimental quest to hear the sound of spacetime by detecting a gravitational wave. This book remains one of the most intensely interesting and beautifully written I’ve ever encountered — the kind that comes about once a generation if we’re lucky.
Everything we know about the universe so far comes from four centuries of sight — from peering into space with our eyes and their prosthetic extension, the telescope. Now commences a new mode of knowing the cosmos through sound. The detection of gravitational waves is one of the most significant discoveries in the entire history of physics, marking the dawn of a new era as we begin listening to the sound of space — the probable portal to mysteries as unimaginable to us today as galaxies and nebulae and pulsars and other cosmic wonders were to the first astronomers. Gravitational astronomy, as Levin elegantly puts it, promises a “score to accompany the silent movie humanity has compiled of the history of the universe from still images of the sky, a series of frozen snapshots captured over the past four hundred years since Galileo first pointed a crude telescope at the Sun.”
Astonishingly enough, Levin wrote the book before the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) — the monumental instrument at the center of the story, decades in the making — made the actual detection of a ripple in the fabric of spacetime caused by the collision of two black holes in the autumn of 2015, exactly a century after Einstein first envisioned the possibility of gravitational waves. So the story she tells is not that of the triumph but that of the climb, which renders it all the more enchanting — because it is ultimately a story about the human spirit and its incredible tenacity, about why human beings choose to devote their entire lives to pursuits strewn with unimaginable obstacles and bedeviled by frequent failure, uncertain rewards, and meager public recognition.
Indeed, what makes the book interesting is that it tells the story of this monumental discovery, but what makes it enchanting is that Levin comes at it from a rather unusual perspective. She is a working astrophysicist who studies black holes, but she is also an incredibly gifted novelist — an artist whose medium is language and thought itself. This is no popular science book but something many orders of magnitude higher in its artistic vision, the impeccable craftsmanship of language, and the sheer pleasure of the prose. The story is structured almost as a series of short, integrated novels, with each chapter devoted to one of the key scientists involved in LIGO. With Dostoyevskian insight and nuance, Levin paints a psychological, even philosophical portrait of each protagonist, revealing how intricately interwoven the genius and the foibles are in the fabric of personhood and what a profoundly human endeavor science ultimately is.
Scientists are like those levers or knobs or those boulders helpfully screwed into a climbing wall. Like the wall is some cemented material made by mixing knowledge, which is a purely human construct, with reality, which we can only access through the filter of our minds. There’s an important pursuit of objectivity in science and nature and mathematics, but still the only way up the wall is through the individual people, and they come in specifics… So the climb is personal, a truly human endeavor, and the real expedition pixelates into individuals, not Platonic forms.
For a taste of this uncategorizably wonderful book, see Levin on the story of the tragic hero who pioneered gravitational astronomy and how astronomer Jocelyn Bell discovered pulsars.
Time Travel: A History (public library) by science historian and writer extraordinaire James Gleick, another rare enchanter of science, is not a “science book” per se, in that although it draws heavily on the history of twentieth-century science and quantum physics in particular (as well as on millennia of philosophy), it is a decidedly literary inquiry into our temporal imagination — why we think about time, why its directionality troubles us so, and what asking these questions at all reveals about the deepest mysteries of our consciousness. I consider it a grand thought experiment, using physics and philosophy as the active agents, and literature as the catalyst.
Gleick, who examined the origin of our modern anxiety about time with remarkable prescience nearly two decades ago, traces the invention of the notion of time travel to H.G. Wells’s 1895 masterpiece The Time Machine. Although Wells — like Gleick, like any reputable physicist — knew that time travel was a scientific impossibility, he created an aesthetic of thought which never previously existed and which has since shaped the modern consciousness. Gleick argues that the art this aesthetic produced — an entire canon of time travel literature and film — not only permeated popular culture but even influenced some of the greatest scientific minds of the past century, including Stephen Hawking, who once cleverly hosted a party for time travelers and when no one showed up considered the impossibility of time travel proven, and John Archibald Wheeler, who popularized the term “black hole” and coined “wormhole,” both key tropes of time travel literature.
Gleick considers how a scientific impossibility can become such fertile ground for the artistic imagination:
Why do we need time travel, when we already travel through space so far and fast? For history. For mystery. For nostalgia. For hope. To examine our potential and explore our memories. To counter regret for the life we lived, the only life, one dimension, beginning to end.
Wells’s Time Machine revealed a turning in the road, an alteration in the human relationship with time. New technologies and ideas reinforced one another: the electric telegraph, the steam railroad, the earth science of Lyell and the life science of Darwin, the rise of archeology out of antiquarianism, and the perfection of clocks. When the nineteenth century turned to the twentieth, scientists and philosophers were primed to understand time in a new way. And so were we all. Time travel bloomed in the culture, its loops and twists and paradoxes.
I wrote about Gleick’s uncommonly pleasurable book at length here.
A very different take on time, not as cultural phenomenon but as individual psychological interiority, comes from German psychologist Marc Wittmann in Felt Time: The Psychology of How We Perceive Time (public library) — a fascinating inquiry into how our subjective experience of time’s passage shapes everything from our emotional memory to our sense of self. Bridging disciplines as wide-ranging as neuroscience and philosophy, Wittmann examines questions of consciousness, identity, happiness, boredom, money, and aging, exposing the centrality of time in each of them. What emerges is the disorienting sense that time isn’t something which happens to us — rather, we are time.
One of Wittmann’s most pause-giving points has to do with how temporality mediates the mind-body problem. He writes:
Presence means becoming aware of a physical and psychic self that is temporally extended. To be self-conscious is to recognize oneself as something that persists through time and is embodied.
In a sense, time is a construction of our consciousness. Two generations after Hannah Arendt observed in her brilliant meditation on time that “it is the insertion of man with his limited life span that transforms the continuously flowing stream of sheer change … into time as we know it,” Wittmann writes:
Self-consciousness — achieving awareness of one’s own self — emerges on the basis of temporally enduring perception of bodily states that are tied to neural activity in the brain’s insular lobe. The self and time prove to be especially present in boredom. They go missing in the hustle and bustle of everyday life, which results from the acceleration of social processes. Through mindfulness and emotional control, the tempo of life that we experience can be reduced, and we can regain time for ourselves and others.
Perception necessarily encompasses the individual who is doing the perceiving. It is I who perceives. This might seem self-evident. Perception of myself, my ego, occurs naturally when I consider myself. I “feel” and think about myself. But who is the subject if I am the object of my own attention? When I observe myself, after all, I become the object of observation. Clearly, this intangibility of the subject as a subject — and not an object — poses a philosophical problem: as soon as I observe myself, I have already become the object of my observation.
All life is lived in the shadow of its own finitude, of which we are always aware — an awareness we systematically blunt through the daily distraction of living. But when this finitude is made acutely imminent, one suddenly collides with awareness so acute that it leaves no choice but to fill the shadow with as much light as a human being can generate — the sort of inner illumination we call meaning: the meaning of life.
That tumultuous turning point is what neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi chronicles in When Breath Becomes Air (public library) — his piercing memoir of being diagnosed with terminal cancer at the peak of a career bursting with potential and a life exploding with aliveness. Partway between Montaigne and Oliver Sacks, Kalanithi weaves together philosophical reflections on his personal journey with stories of his patients to illuminate the only thing we have in common — our mortality — and how it spurs all of us, in ways both minute and monumental, to pursue a life of meaning.
What emerges is an uncommonly insightful, sincere, and sobering revelation of how much our sense of self is tied up with our sense of potential and possibility — the selves we would like to become, those we work tirelessly toward becoming. Who are we, then, and what remains of “us” when that possibility is suddenly snipped?
Paul Kalanithi in 2014 (Photograph: Norbert von der Groeben/Stanford Hospital and Clinics)
A generation after surgeon Sherwin Nuland’s foundational text on confronting the meaning of life while dying, Kalanithi sets out to answer these questions and their myriad fractal implications. He writes:
At age thirty-six, I had reached the mountaintop; I could see the Promised Land, from Gilead to Jericho to the Mediterranean Sea. I could see a nice catamaran on that sea that Lucy, our hypothetical children, and I would take out on weekends. I could see the tension in my back unwinding as my work schedule eased and life became more manageable. I could see myself finally becoming the husband I’d promised to be.
And then the unthinkable happens. He recounts one of the first incidents in which his former identity and his future fate collided with jarring violence:
My back stiffened terribly during the flight, and by the time I made it to Grand Central to catch a train to my friends’ place upstate, my body was rippling with pain. Over the past few months, I’d had back spasms of varying ferocity, from simple ignorable pain, to pain that made me forsake speech to grind my teeth, to pain so severe I curled up on the floor, screaming. This pain was toward the more severe end of the spectrum. I lay down on a hard bench in the waiting area, feeling my back muscles contort, breathing to control the pain — the ibuprofen wasn’t touching this — and naming each muscle as it spasmed to stave off tears: erector spinae, rhomboid, latissimus, piriformis…
A security guard approached. “Sir, you can’t lie down here.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, gasping out the words. “Bad … back … spasms.”
“You still can’t lie down here.”
I pulled myself up and hobbled to the platform.
Like the book itself, the anecdote speaks to something larger and far more powerful than the particular story — in this case, our cultural attitude toward what we consider the failings of our bodies: pain and, in the ultimate extreme, death. We try to dictate the terms on which these perceived failings may occur; to make them conform to wished-for realities; to subvert them by will and witless denial. All this we do because, at bottom, we deem them impermissible — in ourselves and in each other.
I wrote about the book at length here.
“Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours,” Carl Sagan urged in his excellent Baloney Detection Kit — and yet our tendency is to do just that, becoming increasingly attached to what we’ve come to believe because the belief has sprung from our own glorious, brilliant, fool-proof minds. How con artists take advantage of this human hubris is what New Yorker columnist and psychology writer Maria Konnikova explores in The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It … Every Time (public library) — a thrilling psychological detective story investigating how con artists, the supreme masterminds of malevolent reality-manipulation, prey on our hopes, our fears, and our propensity for believing what we wish were true. Through a tapestry of riveting real-life con artist profiles interwoven with decades of psychology experiments, Konnikova illuminates the inner workings of trust and deception in our everyday lives.
It’s the oldest story ever told. The story of belief — of the basic, irresistible, universal human need to believe in something that gives life meaning, something that reaffirms our view of ourselves, the world, and our place in it… For our minds are built for stories. We crave them, and, when there aren’t ready ones available, we create them. Stories about our origins. Our purpose. The reasons the world is the way it is. Human beings don’t like to exist in a state of uncertainty or ambiguity. When something doesn’t make sense, we want to supply the missing link. When we don’t understand what or why or how something happened, we want to find the explanation. A confidence artist is only too happy to comply — and the well-crafted narrative is his absolute forte.
Konnikova describes the basic elements of the con and the psychological susceptibility into which each of them plays:
The confidence game starts with basic human psychology. From the artist’s perspective, it’s a question of identifying the victim (the put-up): who is he, what does he want, and how can I play on that desire to achieve what I want? It requires the creation of empathy and rapport (the play): an emotional foundation must be laid before any scheme is proposed, any game set in motion. Only then does it move to logic and persuasion (the rope): the scheme (the tale), the evidence and the way it will work to your benefit (the convincer), the show of actual profits. And like a fly caught in a spider’s web, the more we struggle, the less able to extricate ourselves we become (the breakdown). By the time things begin to look dicey, we tend to be so invested, emotionally and often physically, that we do most of the persuasion ourselves. We may even choose to up our involvement ourselves, even as things turn south (the send), so that by the time we’re completely fleeced (the touch), we don’t quite know what hit us. The con artist may not even need to convince us to stay quiet (the blow-off and fix); we are more likely than not to do so ourselves. We are, after all, the best deceivers of our own minds. At each step of the game, con artists draw from a seemingly endless toolbox of ways to manipulate our belief. And as we become more committed, with every step we give them more psychological material to work with.
Needless to say, the book bears remarkable relevance to the recent turn of events in American politics and its ripples in the mass manipulation machine known as the media.
“This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?” young Leo Tolstoy wrote in his diary. For Tolstoy, this was a philosophical inquiry — or a metaphysical one, as it would have been called in his day. But between his time and ours, science has unraveled the inescapable physical dimensions of this elemental question, rendering the already disorienting attempt at an answer all the more complex and confounding.
In The Gene: An Intimate History (public library), physician and Pulitzer-winning author Siddhartha Mukherjee offers a rigorously researched, beautifully written detective story about the genetic components of what we experience as the self, rooted in Mukherjee’s own painful family history of mental illness and radiating a larger inquiry into how genetics illuminates the future of our species.
Three profoundly destabilizing scientific ideas ricochet through the twentieth century, trisecting it into three unequal parts: the atom, the byte, the gene. Each is foreshadowed by an earlier century, but dazzles into full prominence in the twentieth. Each begins its life as a rather abstract scientific concept, but grows to invade multiple human discourses — thereby transforming culture, society, politics, and language. But the most crucial parallel between the three ideas, by far, is conceptual: each represents the irreducible unit — the building block, the basic organizational unit — of a larger whole: the atom, of matter; the byte (or “bit”), of digitized information; the gene, of heredity and biological information.
Why does this property — being the least divisible unit of a larger form — imbue these particular ideas with such potency and force? The simple answer is that matter, information, and biology are inherently hierarchically organized: understanding that smallest part is crucial to understanding the whole.
Among the book’s most fascinating threads is Mukherjee’s nuanced, necessary discussion of intelligence and the dark side of IQ.
“In wildness is the preservation of the world,” Thoreau wrote 150 years ago in his ode to the spirit of sauntering. But in a world increasingly unwild, where we are in touch with nature only occasionally and only in fragments, how are we to nurture the preservation of our Pale Blue Dot?
That’s what London-based illustrator and Sendak Fellow Jenni Desmond explores in The Polar Bear (public library) — the follow-up to Desmond’s serenade to the science and life of Earth’s largest-hearted creature, The Blue Whale, which was among the best science books of 2015.
The story follows a little girl who, in a delightful meta-touch, pulls this very book off the bookshelf and begins learning about the strange and wonderful world of the polar bear, its life, and the science behind it — its love of solitude, the black skin that hides beneath its yellowish-white fur, the built-in sunglasses protecting its eyes from the harsh Arctic light, why it evolved to have an unusually long neck and slightly inward paws, how it maintains the same temperature as us despite living in such extreme cold, why it doesn’t hibernate.
Beyond its sheer loveliness, the book is suddenly imbued with a new layer of urgency. At a time when we can no longer count on politicians to protect the planet and educate the next generations about preserving it, the task falls on solely on parents and educators. Desmond’s wonderful project alleviates that task by offering a warm, empathic invitation to care about, which is the gateway to caring for, one of the creatures most vulnerable to our changing climate and most needful of our protection.
Look closer here.
“We are — as far as we know — the only part of the universe that’s self-conscious,” the poet Mark Strand marveled in his beautiful meditation on the artist’s task to bear witness to existence, adding: “We could even be the universe’s form of consciousness. We might have come along so that the universe could look at itself… It’s such a lucky accident, having been born, that we’re almost obliged to pay attention.” Scientists are rightfully reluctant to ascribe a purpose or meaning to the universe itself but, as physicist Lisa Randall has pointed out, “an unconcerned universe is not a bad thing — or a good one for that matter.” Where poets and scientists converge is the idea that while the universe itself isn’t inherently imbued with meaning, it is in this self-conscious human act of paying attention that meaning arises.
Physicist Sean Carroll terms this view poetic naturalism and examines its rewards in The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself (public library) — a nuanced inquiry into “how our desire to matter fits in with the nature of reality at its deepest levels,” in which Carroll offers an assuring dose of what he calls “existential therapy” reconciling the various and often seemingly contradictory dimensions of our experience.
With an eye to his life’s work of studying the nature of the universe — an expanse of space and time against the incomprehensibly enormous backdrop of which the dramas of a single human life claim no more than a photon of the spotlight — Carroll offers a counterpoint to our intuitive cowering before such magnitudes of matter and mattering:
I like to think that our lives do matter, even if the universe would trundle along without us.
I want to argue that, though we are part of a universe that runs according to impersonal underlying laws, we nevertheless matter. This isn’t a scientific question — there isn’t data we can collect by doing experiments that could possibly measure the extent to which a life matters. It’s at heart a philosophical problem, one that demands that we discard the way that we’ve been thinking about our lives and their meaning for thousands of years. By the old way of thinking, human life couldn’t possibly be meaningful if we are “just” collections of atoms moving around in accordance with the laws of physics. That’s exactly what we are, but it’s not the only way of thinking about what we are. We are collections of atoms, operating independently of any immaterial spirits or influences, and we are thinking and feeling people who bring meaning into existence by the way we live our lives.
Carroll’s captivating term poetic naturalism builds on a worldview that has been around for centuries, dating back at least to the Scottish philosopher David Hume. It fuses naturalism — the idea that the reality of the natural world is the only reality, that it operates according to consistent patterns, and that those patterns can be studied — with the poetic notion that there are multiple ways of talking about the world and of framing the questions that arise from nature’s elemental laws.
I wrote about the book at length here.
Trees dominate the world’s the oldest living organisms. Since the dawn of our species, they have been our silent companions, permeating our most enduring tales and never ceasing to inspire fantastical cosmogonies. Hermann Hesse called them “the most penetrating of preachers.” A forgotten seventeenth-century English gardener wrote of how they “speak to the mind, and tell us many things, and teach us many good lessons.”
But trees might be among our lushest metaphors and sensemaking frameworks for knowledge precisely because the richness of what they say is more than metaphorical — they speak a sophisticated silent language, communicating complex information via smell, taste, and electrical impulses. This fascinating secret world of signals is what German forester Peter Wohlleben explores in The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate (public library).
Illustration by Arthur Rackham for a rare 1917 edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales
Wohlleben chronicles what his own experience of managing a forest in the Eifel mountains in Germany has taught him about the astonishing language of trees and how trailblazing arboreal research from scientists around the world reveals “the role forests play in making our world the kind of place where we want to live.” As we’re only just beginning to understand nonhuman consciousnesses, what emerges from Wohlleben’s revelatory reframing of our oldest companions is an invitation to see anew what we have spent eons taking for granted and, in this act of seeing, to care more deeply about these remarkable beings that make life on this planet we call home not only infinitely more pleasurable, but possible at all.
Read more here.
“The act of smelling something, anything, is remarkably like the act of thinking itself,” the great science storyteller Lewis Thomas wrote in his beautiful 1985 meditation on the poetics of smell as a mode of knowledge. But, like the conditioned consciousness out of which our thoughts arise, our olfactory perception is beholden to our cognitive, cultural, and biological limitations. The 438 cubic feet of air we inhale each day are loaded with an extraordinary richness of information, but we are able to access and decipher only a fraction. And yet we know, on some deep creaturely level, just how powerful and enlivening the world of smell is, how intimately connected with our ability to savor life. “Get a life in which you notice the smell of salt water pushing itself on a breeze over the dunes,” Anna Quindlen advised in her indispensable Short Guide to a Happy Life — but the noticing eclipses the getting, for the salt water breeze is lost on any life devoid of this sensorial perception.
Dogs, who “see” the world through smell, can teach us a great deal about that springlike sensorial aliveness which E.E. Cummings termed “smelloftheworld.” So argues cognitive scientist and writer Alexandra Horowitz, director of the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College, in Being a Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell (public library) — a fascinating tour of what Horowitz calls the “surprising and sometimes alarming feats of olfactory perception” that dogs perform daily, and what they can teach us about swinging open the doors of our own perception by relearning some of our long-lost olfactory skills that grant us access to hidden layers of reality.
Art by Maira Kalman from Beloved Dog
The book is a natural extension of Horowitz’s two previous books, exploring the subjective reality of the dog and how our human perceptions shape our own subjective reality. She writes:
I am besotted with dogs, and to know a dog is to be interested in what it’s like to be a dog. And that all begins with the nose.
What the dog sees and knows comes through his nose, and the information that every dog — the tracking dog, of course, but also the dog lying next to you, snoring, on the couch — has about the world based on smell is unthinkably rich. It is rich in a way we humans once knew about, once acted on, but have since neglected.
Savor more of the wonderland of canine olfaction here.
“I have observed many tiny animals with great admiration,” Galileo marveled as he peered through his microscope — a tool that, like the telescope, he didn’t invent himself but he used with in such a visionary way as to render it revolutionary. The revelatory discoveries he made in the universe within the cell are increasingly proving to be as significant as his telescopic discoveries in the universe without — a significance humanity has been even slower and more reluctant to accept than his radical revision of the cosmos.
That multilayered significance is what English science writer and microbiology elucidator Ed Yong explores in I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life (public library) — a book so fascinating and elegantly written as to be worthy of its Whitman reference, in which Yong peels the veneer of the visible to reveal the astonishing complexity of life thriving beneath and within the crude confines of our perception.
Early-twentieth-century drawing of Radiolarians, some of the first microorganisms, by Ernst Haeckel
Artist Agnes Margin memorably observed that “the best things in life happen to you when you’re alone,” but Yong offers a biopoetic counterpoint in the fact that we are never truly alone. He writes:
Even when we are alone, we are never alone. We exist in symbiosis — a wonderful term that refers to different organisms living together. Some animals are colonised by microbes while they are still unfertilised eggs; others pick up their first partners at the moment of birth. We then proceed through our lives in their presence. When we eat, so do they. When we travel, they come along. When we die, they consume us. Every one of us is a zoo in our own right — a colony enclosed within a single body. A multi-species collective. An entire world.
All zoology is really ecology. We cannot fully understand the lives of animals without understanding our microbes and our symbioses with them. And we cannot fully appreciate our own microbiome without appreciating how those of our fellow species enrich and influence their lives. We need to zoom out to the entire animal kingdom, while zooming in to see the hidden ecosystems that exist in every creature. When we look at beetles and elephants, sea urchins and earthworms, parents and friends, we see individuals, working their way through life as a bunch of cells in a single body, driven by a single brain, and operating with a single genome. This is a pleasant fiction. In fact, we are legion, each and every one of us. Always a “we” and never a “me.”
There are ample reasons to admire and appreciate microbes, well beyond the already impressive facts that they ruled “our” Earth for the vast majority of its 4.54-billion-year history and that we ourselves evolved from them. By pioneering photosynthesis, they became the first organisms capable of making their own food. They dictate the planet’s carbon, nitrogen, sulphur, and phosphorus cycles. They can survive anywhere and populate just about corner of the Earth, from the hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean to the loftiest clouds. They are so diverse that the microbes on your left hand are different from those on your right.
But perhaps most impressively — for we are, after all, the solipsistic species — they influence innumerable aspects of our biological and even psychological lives. Young offers a cross-section of this microbial dominion:
The microbiome is infinitely more versatile than any of our familiar body parts. Your cells carry between 20,000 and 25,000 genes, but it is estimated that the microbes inside you wield around 500 times more. This genetic wealth, combined with their rapid evolution, makes them virtuosos of biochemistry, able to adapt to any possible challenge. They help to digest our food, releasing otherwise inaccessible nutrients. They produce vitamins and minerals that are missing from our diet. They break down toxins and hazardous chemicals. They protect us from disease by crowding out more dangerous microbes or killing them directly with antimicrobial chemicals. They produce substances that affect the way we smell. They are such an inevitable presence that we have outsourced surprising aspects of our lives to them. They guide the construction of our bodies, releasing molecules and signals that steer the growth of our organs. They educate our immune system, teaching it to tell friend from foe. They affect the development of the nervous system, and perhaps even influence our behaviour. They contribute to our lives in profound and wide-ranging ways; no corner of our biology is untouched. If we ignore them, we are looking at our lives through a keyhole.
In August, I wrote about one particularly fascinating aspect of Yong’s book — the relationship between mental health, free will, and your microbiome.
“No woman should say, ‘I am but a woman!’ But a woman! What more can you ask to be?” astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in American science, admonished the first class of female astronomers at Vassar in 1876. By the middle of the next century, a team of unheralded women scientists and engineers were powering space exploration at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Meanwhile, across the continent and in what was practically another country, a parallel but very different revolution was taking place: In the segregated South, a growing number of black female mathematicians, scientists, and engineers were steering early space exploration and helping American win the Cold War at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.
Long before the term “computer” came to signify the machine that dictates our lives, these remarkable women were working as human “computers” — highly skilled professional reckoners, who thought mathematically and computationally for their living and for their country. When Neil Armstrong set his foot on the moon, his “giant leap for mankind” had been powered by womankind, particularly by Katherine Johnson — the “computer” who calculated Apollo 11’s launch windows and who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama at age 97 in 2015, three years after the accolade was conferred upon John Glenn, the astronaut whose flight trajectory Johnson had made possible.
Katherine Johnson at her Langley desk with a globe, or “Celestial Training Device,” 1960 (Photographs: NASA)
In Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race (public library), Margot Lee Shetterly tells the untold story of these brilliant women, once on the frontlines of our cultural leaps and since sidelined by the selective collective memory we call history.
Just as islands — isolated places with unique, rich biodiversity — have relevance for the ecosystems everywhere, so does studying seemingly isolated or overlooked people and events from the past turn up unexpected connections and insights to modern life.
Against a sobering cultural backdrop, Shetterly captures the enormous cognitive dissonance the very notion of these black female mathematicians evokes:
Before a computer became an inanimate object, and before Mission Control landed in Houston; before Sputnik changed the course of history, and before the NACA became NASA; before the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka established that separate was in fact not equal, and before the poetry of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech rang out over the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Langley’s West Computers were helping America dominate aeronautics, space research, and computer technology, carving out a place for themselves as female mathematicians who were also black, black mathematicians who were also female.
Shetterly herself grew up in Hampton, which dubbed itself “Spacetown USA,” amid this archipelago of women who were her neighbors and teachers. Her father, who had built his first rocket in his early teens after seeing the Sputnik launch, was one of Langley’s African American scientists in an era when words we now shudder to hear were used instead of “African American.” Like him, the first five black women who joined Langley’s research staff in 1943 entered a segregated NASA — even though, as Shetterly points out, the space agency was among the most inclusive workplaces in the country, with more than fourfold the percentage of black scientists and engineers than the national average.
Over the next forty years, the number of these trailblazing black women mushroomed to more than fifty, revealing the mycelia of a significant groundswell. Shetterly’s favorite Sunday school teacher had been one of the early computers — a retired NASA mathematician named Kathleen Land. And so Shetterly, who considers herself “as much a product of NASA as the Moon landing,” grew up believing that black women simply belonged in science and space exploration as a matter of course — after all, they populated her father’s workplace and her town, a town whose church “abounded with mathematicians.”
Embodying astronomer Vera Rubin’s wisdom on how modeling expands children’s scope of possibility, Shetterly reflects on this normalizing and rousing power of example:
Building 1236, my father’s daily destination, contained a byzantine complex of government-gray cubicles, perfumed with the grown-up smells of coffee and stale cigarette smoke. His engineering colleagues with their rumpled style and distracted manner seemed like exotic birds in a sanctuary. They gave us kids stacks of discarded 11×14 continuous-form computer paper, printed on one side with cryptic arrays of numbers, the blank side a canvas for crayon masterpieces. Women occupied many of the cubicles; they answered phones and sat in front of typewriters, but they also made hieroglyphic marks on transparent slides and conferred with my father and other men in the office on the stacks of documents that littered their desks. That so many of them were African American, many of them my grandmother’s age, struck me as simply a part of the natural order of things: growing up in Hampton, the face of science was brown like mine.
The community certainly included black English professors, like my mother, as well as black doctors and dentists, black mechanics, janitors, and contractors, black cobblers, wedding planners, real estate agents, and undertakers, several black lawyers, and a handful of black Mary Kay salespeople. As a child, however, I knew so many African Americans working in science, math, and engineering that I thought that’s just what black folks did.
Katherine Johnson, age 98 (Photograph: Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair)
But despite the opportunities at NASA, almost countercultural in their contrast to the norms of the time, life for these courageous and brilliant women was no idyll — persons and polities are invariably products of their time and place. Shetterly captures the sundering paradoxes of the early computers’ experience:
I interviewed Mrs. Land about the early days of Langley’s computing pool, when part of her job responsibility was knowing which bathroom was marked for “colored” employees. And less than a week later I was sitting on the couch in Katherine Johnson’s living room, under a framed American flag that had been to the Moon, listening to a ninety-three-year-old with a memory sharper than mine recall segregated buses, years of teaching and raising a family, and working out the trajectory for John Glenn’s spaceflight. I listened to Christine Darden’s stories of long years spent as a data analyst, waiting for the chance to prove herself as an engineer. Even as a professional in an integrated world, I had been the only black woman in enough drawing rooms and boardrooms to have an inkling of the chutzpah it took for an African American woman in a segregated southern workplace to tell her bosses she was sure her calculations would put a man on the Moon.
And while the black women are the most hidden of the mathematicians who worked at the NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, and later at NASA, they were not sitting alone in the shadows: the white women who made up the majority of Langley’s computing workforce over the years have hardly been recognized for their contributions to the agency’s long-term success. Virginia Biggins worked the Langley beat for the Daily Press newspaper, covering the space program starting in 1958. “Everyone said, ‘This is a scientist, this is an engineer,’ and it was always a man,” she said in a 1990 panel on Langley’s human computers. She never got to meet any of the women. “I just assumed they were all secretaries,” she said.
These women’s often impossible dual task of preserving their own sanity and dignity while pushing culture forward is perhaps best captured in the words of African American NASA mathematician Dorothy Vaughan:
What I changed, I could; what I couldn’t, I endured.
Dive in here.
Predating NASA’s women mathematicians by a century was a devoted team of female amateur astronomers — “amateur” being a reflection not of their skill but of the dearth of academic accreditation available to women at the time — who came together at the Harvard Observatory at the end of the nineteenth century around an unprecedented quest to catalog the cosmos by classifying the stars and their spectra.
Decades before they were allowed to vote, these women, who came to be known as the “Harvard computers,” classified hundreds of thousands of stars according to a system they invented, which astronomers continue to use today. Their calculations became the basis for the discovery that the universe is expanding. Their spirit of selfless pursuit of truth and knowledge stands as a timeless testament to pioneering physicist Lise Meitner’s definition of the true scientist.
The “Harvard computers” at work, circa 1890.
Science historian Dava Sobel, author of Galileo’s Daughter, chronicles their unsung story and lasting legacy in The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars (public library).
Sobel, who takes on the role of rigorous reporter and storyteller bent on preserving the unvarnished historical integrity of the story, paints the backdrop:
A little piece of heaven. That was one way to look at the sheet of glass propped up in front of her. It measured about the same dimensions as a picture frame, eight inches by ten, and no thicker than a windowpane. It was coated on one side with a fine layer of photographic emulsion, which now held several thousand stars fixed in place, like tiny insects trapped in amber. One of the men had stood outside all night, guiding the telescope to capture this image, along with another dozen in the pile of glass plates that awaited her when she reached the observatory at 9 a.m. Warm and dry indoors in her long woolen dress, she threaded her way among the stars. She ascertained their positions on the dome of the sky, gauged their relative brightness, studied their light for changes over time, extracted clues to their chemical content, and occasionally made a discovery that got touted in the press. Seated all around her, another twenty women did the same.
The “computers” working at the Harvard Observatory, with Williamina Fleming (standing) supervising. (Harvard University Archives)
Among the “Harvard computers” were Antonia Maury, who had graduated from Maria Mitchell’s program at Vassar; Annie Jump Cannon, who catalogued more than 20,000 variable stars in a short period after joining the observatory; Henrietta Swan Levitt, a Radcliffe alumna whose discoveries later became the basis for Hubble’s Law demonstrating the expansion of the universe and whose work was so valued that she was paid 30 cents an hour, five cents over the standard salary of the computers; and Cecilia Helena Payne-Gaposchkin, who became not only the first woman but the first person of any gender to earn a Ph.D. in astronomy.
Helming the team was Williamina Fleming — a Scotswoman whom Edward Charles Pickering, the thirty-something director of the observatory, first hired as a second maid at his residency in 1879 before recognizing her mathematical talents and assigning her the role of part-time computer.
Dive into their story here.
For a lighter companion to the two books above, one aimed at younger readers, artist and author Rachel Ignotofsky offers Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World (public library) — an illustrated encyclopedia of fifty influential and inspiring women in STEM since long before we acronymized the conquest of curiosity through discovery and invention, ranging from the ancient astronomer, mathematician, and philosopher Hypatia in the fourth century to Iranian mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani, born in 1977.
True as it may be that being an outsider is an advantage in science and life, modeling furnishes young hearts with the assurance that people who are in some way like them can belong and shine in fields comprised primarily of people drastically unlike them. It is this ethos that Igontofsky embraces by being deliberate in ensuring that the scientists included come from a vast variety of ethnic backgrounds, nationalities, orientations, and cultural traditions.
There are the expected trailblazers who have stood as beacons of possibility for decades, even centuries: Ada Lovelace, who became the world’s first de facto computer programmer; Marie Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and to this day the only person awarded a Nobel in two different sciences; Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who once elicited the exclamation “Miss Bell, you have made the greatest astronomical discovery of the twentieth century!” (and was subsequently excluded from the Nobel she deserved); Maria Sybilla Merian, the 17th-century German naturalist whose studies of butterfly metamorphosis revolutionized entomology and natural history illustration; and Jane Goodall — another pioneer who turned her childhood dream into reality against tremendous odds and went on to do more for the understanding of nonhuman consciousness than any scientist before or since.
Take a closer look here.
* * *
On December 2, I joined Science Friday alongside Scientific American editor Lee Billings to discuss some of our favorite science books of 2016:
Step into the cultural time machine with selections for the best science books of 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, and 2011.