Endings and new beginnings: Books, science, and life

I haven’t posted anything to my blog in quite some time. I forgive myself for this on many levels. Over the past many months:

  • I was busy teaching science in a Covid-19 world, full of stressful online and socially distantly adapted strategies for faculty and students alike
  • I was supporting myself and others who were dealing with own own Covid-adjusted worlds
  • I rarely left the house or did anything “normal,” to help minimize the risk of catching and spreading the SARS-CoV-2 virus
  • I shifted much of my communication about science to social media, discussing mostly what I’ve learned about Covid-19
  • I lost track of time for a while, as I, like others, have been engulfed in a 24-hour news cycle and mired in concern over civil rights issues, political unrest, and more
  • I wasn’t concerned that I’ve disappointed a loyal blog readership, since this is low-profile space for communicating with others
SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19. Image credit: AustroHungarian1867, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

But I didn’t forget that I have a blog about science. Over the past few months a common theme has emerged in what I’ve been reading about and watching transpire around me: endings and new beginnings. Pretty much everyone I’ve talked to sees the start of this new calendar year as a chance for new beginnings: a chance to move on from Covid-19, a general wariness and/or gratitude accompanying a dramatic shift in political winds in the United States, the hope for a brighter future for people in marginalized groups around the world, or even just that spring is around the corner. Really, the list could go on and on.

In my downtime over the past few months, I had the chance to read a few more books about science. (Thanks to my local public library for keeping me well stocked with reading material at home!) Perhaps it was because I was engulfed in the mindset of the shutdowns of Covid-19, but each book seemed to fit the theme of endings and new beginnings in some way. If you like big questions in science, I recommend the following reads—somewhat (but not entirely) coincidentally all by women authors.

  • The Story of More, by Hope Jahren
    • Jahren is a scientist and a professor in the field of biogeochemistry. She’s interested in issues about climate change and how it impacts living things. Her first book, Lab Girl, was a memoir that took a thoughtful look at both botany and women in science (I discussed this in an earlier blog post). Jahren’s newest book takes a broad look at how climate change became the problem that it is, based on past human actions in multiple facets of society. Climate change is a depressing topic. But Jahren’s book left me with a reminder that we can channel our human energy into creative problem solving for a sustainable future. That would be a welcome new beginning to an old problem. And if we do nothing, we’re faced with endings that are not pleasant to think about.
  • The End of Everything, by Katie Mack
    • Mack is an astrophysicist who studies the universe, including its beginnings and endings. Her book is a broad attempt to draw scientifically curious readers into the world of cosmology and take us from the Big Bang to……wherever the universe winds up. No one knows for sure. But Mack leads us through various hypotheses that scientists are testing. Will the universe expand forever into nothingness? Or will it collapse in on itself? Other options are also intriguing. This is the ultimate take in endings and new beginnings, and reading it certainly put a temporary human pandemic in perspective! While the ending of the universe might sound depressing, I didn’t really think it felt that way. I returned to some of the options more than once while pondering our small place in the universe when walking my dog and gazing at the stars. (Or at planets! Catching the “Great Conjunction” of Jupiter and Saturn last month was a fun distraction from all the other things and really seemed to bring people together to stare at the sky for a few days.) Some of the models for “the end of all things” may actually incorporate a new beginning instead. Since I probably won’t be around to see how it turns out, I’m grateful to imagine the possibilities in my brief moment in time.
  • The Sirens of Mars, by Sarah Stewart Johnson
    • Johnson is a planetary scientist with expertise working on various Mars missions. She’s well equipped to give us a brief history of our evolving understanding of Mars, from the earliest days of telescopes to our modern exploration with rovers and tools. Many of our early discoveries about Mars were marked by endings. For example: No, we didn’t find intelligent alien beings on Mars. Johnson tells us about how disappointed citizens of Earth through history truly were at some of what we learned about our Martian neighbor along the way. But each new discovery then unlocked new questions to ask and opened windows into our understanding of Mars, and of our own place in the universe. It’s a good reminder to keep seeking knowledge and use our human ingenuity to pursue the truth about the world(s) around us. New beginnings are a welcome next step after a perceived failure.
  • Why Fish Don’t Exist, by Lulu Miller
    • Miller is a radio journalist and science podcaster, among other career highlights. Her perspective on science as a non-scientist is revealed in her book about a historical figure in science, David Starr Jordan. Jordan was once famous for his wide-ranging naturalist collections, especially fish. Jordan spent some of his career in Indiana, at institutions where I’ve worked or attended school, so his history is well known to me. But Jordan’s story has reached an abrupt end in certain academic contexts. For example, the biology building that bore his name at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN (the home of my graduate research lab) is being renamed. Jordan, like many other biologists of his time, promoted eugenicist perspectives that were scientifically inaccurate and are now more widely recognized to be particularly harmful to the goals of an equitable society. And so the book chronicles this tale of fishes and men and the places of honor we bestow on each in history. Observing the downfall of a scientific icon is certainly an ending, and a dramatic one at that. But each time it happens, we face a new beginning that demands that we reassess our assumptions and biases as humans in science on an ongoing basis. What is science good for? Whom does it serve, and who is involved in the process? When is science harmful, and what should do we do to limit that harm?
  • The Great Indoors, by Emily Anthes
    • Anthes is a science journalist and writer who tackles various topics for newspapers and magazines. Her book takes a journalistic approach to a series of topics examining our relationship as modern people with the habitat where we now spend the most time: inside buildings. Spanning topics from universal design principles to the microbiome of a typical home basement, Anthes shares the work of scientists, architects, and others who are working to understand our needs and make our spaces a little bit better in the future. Certain ways we’ve thought about our indoor spaces may actually be all wrong! If we decide we have reached an ending to a particular way of life, it can give us a fresh start to reimagine a better future. The book is also a reminder of how scientific findings are just a starting point to apply to problem solving beyond the lab or the field. New knowledge propels us forward with excitement to what’s next, and an imagining of a future that’s better for everyone.

Each of these books looks at a different kind of science, and from a different angle. Science today is multidisciplinary, collaborative, and fast-paced. Nowhere is this more apparent than in rapid deciphering of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and development of the first successful vaccines to prevent severe Covid-19. After years of insight and innovation, scientists have now brought us mRNA vaccines in the race to tamp down a novel pathogen. How we face new challenges such as this around the world, working separately and together, will change our future. A new beginning indeed.

Determining how new science reaches all of us is the puzzle of a larger community of scientists, educators, journalists, writers, and podcasters, among others. Many different people work behind the scenes to share new science, and to highlight any problems when they arise and hold scientists accountable for their mistakes along the way. Every year, more new faces are participating in both science and science communication. But more work is needed to bring everyone who wants to participate the same opportunities to be part of the story and the storytelling. All of the books I highlighted above are authored by white women, for example. Promoting more representation by people of different backgrounds and in different scientific fields gained new energy and support in 2020 in social media campaigns, academic settings, and beyond. 2021 brings even more opportunities and a new beginning for welcoming broader participation in the scientific world.

And finally: My own participation in science also had an ending of sorts as 2020 came to a close. After many years in the classroom—teaching college students about genetics, cell biology, science and society, and more—a fresh opportunity appeared for me to return to active science. I’m starting work in global health research with teams of scientists, health professionals, and students in the United States and in Africa. Our goal is to better understand the science of malaria and to help in ongoing efforts against this disease around the world. By stepping into a new role after many years, I’m excited to learn new skills, broaden my perspectives, and bring new energy to my own scientific journey. I’ll still follow along with all kinds of interesting science wherever it leads me, but I have a new team to work with on a daily basis and new adventures to come.

And so, as 2021 rolls along into the future, I am ready for other endings and beginnings. I am eager to say “so long” to Covid-19. Continued vigilance and expansion of the vaccine distribution will get us there, eventually. And as I write this on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday in the United States, I am hopeful that the growing energy of people promoting equality, compassion, and justice for all people in our country will become an ongoing refrain for a new year, not just in the scientific community, but everywhere. 2021 gives us a chance for many new beginnings. As I embark on new scientific activities in my community and around the world, I’m excited to see where the year takes us.

Here’s to (happy) endings and new beginnings! (Image credit: Pixabay, free use)

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