Book Review: A Portrait of the Scientist as a young Woman

Portrait of the Scientist as a young Woman

Category: Nonfiction
Reviewed by: John J. Vester
Title: A Portrait of the Scientist as a young Woman: A Memoir
Author: Lindy Elkins-Tanton
NSS Amazon link for this book
Format: Hardcover/Paperback/Kindle
Pages: 272
Publisher: William Morrow
Date: June 2022
Retail Price: $29.99/$17.99/$15.99
ISBN: 978-0063086906

This book is the memoir of a highly intelligent, accomplished woman, who’s had a full, complex and successful life. She is the Principal Investigator of the Psyche probe to a large metallic asteroid—the culmination of a steadily advancing career in geophysics.

But the reader who hopes for a blow-by-blow recounting of this ambitious mission will be disappointed. Her experience leading up to NASA acceptance of her team’s proposal is told in gripping detail, yet Psyche is almost an afterthought, covered in only the last 35 pages of the book. The book was completed during the last few months before the mission’s scheduled launch, now recently delayed another year.

The book, however, is about the woman. It is, after all, a memoir, as advertised. And what a life it records. In clear, detail-rich prose, Tanton conveys the high points of her pioneering career as a woman in science.

The narrative is quasi-chronological, weaving together sometimes recursive threads in a sort of stream of consciousness presentation. Her early years are given in two overlapping chapters—one light and innocent, the other where she drops the bomb of having been repeatedly raped at a shockingly young age.

Much of what follows deals with Tanton’s steady rise to preeminence in her field. Her storytelling, at this level, conveys, with crystal clarity, the details of her work and discoveries. She shows her excitement and tenacity as she tackles some of geology’s biggest questions. Whether it’s magma oceans or flood basalts, she takes the reader with her to her lab, and on field trips to Siberia, and the reader gets an education in the process.

On another level, everything is filtered through the lens of her impatience with, and resistance to, being belittled and dismissed by male colleagues. Such slights, and her reactions, follow her from one project or place to the next, until she eventually finds herself having to counsel others who have been bullied or sexually harassed. In her extremely introspective style, she relates having found the courage to face down administrators who do nothing to punish offenders.

This theme is woven through even the uplifting turns in her life and career. She developed inclusive and equitable approaches to creating student-defined curricula and practicing successful team building. The conclusion of her story (the Psyche mission) is a high point. A woman at the top of her game. She winds up light years away from the dark, heartbreaking period in her life, suffering PTSD from her repressed memories of childhood sexual trauma. And she was never far from unprofessional treatment by male scientists.

Why then, one may ask, does she still recount her hurts (and there were many)? The answer may have been provided by her mother shortly before passing away. Tanton asked her mother why she persisted in retelling her stories of pain and long ago slights. “What can telling more do for you?” she asked. The mother responded, “I feel less alone if I can make other people feel the pain I feel.”

Done eloquently and constructively, Tanton’s memoir can be a hopeful guide and comfort for anyone finding it hard to be a woman in science, not to mention society.

While the Psyche probe may help us some day to find the resources that might enable us better to live in space, Tanton’s book will help us to live more equitably here on Earth. Very thought-provoking and recommended.

© 2022 John J. Vester

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