December 10, 2014

Women of Doubt: Natalie Angier makes science reporting accessible to us all

For much of my life to this point, I've been taught that science is hard for girls.

It was never a specific message. No one ever said, "Girls can't do science. Women just aren't good at it." Instead, it was a much more insidious idea, one that crept into the media around me.

It was a message that Dexter did science, and DeeDee messed science up. It was the oft repeated idea that boys are good at science and math, girls are good at reading and writing. It was that science kits were in blues and greens, and the things that I was meant to be interested in were in pinks. It was the slightly incredulous looks on my friends' faces when I showed them my science kit, proudly, that Santa brought, and how quickly after that I lost interest. It was an underperforming school system in a nation that puts little emphasis on true scientific understanding and education--a nation that often seems to undermine that very principle, in fact.

Even as an adult, I have a faltering grasp on scientific concepts, and until the past year, scientific topics weren't even on my top 100 reading list. All of that has rapidly changed, and I find myself voraciously reading whatever I can. 

There are so very many brilliant scientific communicators out there--Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, Mike Brown, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Stephen Jay Gould, and Carl Zimmer are but a few.

Another name that I stumbled across in compiling my reading list (which is currently massive, but I'm working on it!) was Natalie Angier, our Woman of Doubt for today.

Natalie Angier was born on February 16, 1958 in New York City. She would grow up in the Bronx, and aside from leaving for a two year stint at the University of Michigan, appears to be a lifelong New Yorker.

After her time at UoM, Angier transferred back to Baynard College. She graduated with high honors.

Angier says this about her studies and post-collegiate life:

While in college, I studied English, physics and astronomy, and I dreamed of starting a popular magazine about science for intelligent lay readers who wanted to know more about what's going on across the great divide of C.P. Snow's two cultures. Instead, at the age of 22, I was hired as a founding staff reporter and writer for Discover, the science magazine that Time Inc. launched in 1980. In the 1980s I also worked as the senior science writer for Time magazine; an editor at the women's business magazine, Savvy; and a professor of journalism at the New York University's Graduate Program in Science and Environmental Reporting.

Eventually, her writing would lead her to the New York Times by 1990, as well as to an absolute host of literary awards, including but most definitely not limited to a Pulitzer prize for a series of ten science features that she did for the Times.

Angier's books include Natural Obsessions, The Beauty of the Beastly, and Woman: An Intimate Geography (all of which are on my list! #SoMuchReadingToDo).

The book that first made it onto my personal reading list was certainly Woman, I found recommended on multiple beginning feminist reading lists.

Of Woman, Angier says:

It won a Maggie Award from the Planned Parenthood Federation; was nominated for the Samuel Johnson Award, Britain's largest nonfiction literary prize; was a finalist for the Booksense award by the Independent Bookseller's Association; and was named one of the best books of the year by the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, People magazine, National Public Radio, the Bloomsbury Literary Review, amazon.com, the Village Voice, Publisher's Weekly, Library Journal and the New York Public Library. In 2002, I edited The Best American Science and Nature Writing, described by Kirkus Reviews as a "splendid" anthology of "bright insights and buoyant prose" and by Oprah's O magazine as "impassioned...biting...supremely lucid...Science class was nothing like this."

On January 14, 2001, Angier's piece "Confessions of a Lonely Atheist" outed her as an atheist in the public sphere, which included this quote that I found particularly meaningful myself:

So, I'll out myself. I'm an Atheist. I don't believe in God, Gods, Godlets or any sort of higher power beyond the universe itself, which seems quite high and powerful enough to me. I don't believe in life after death, channeled chat rooms with the dead, reincarnation, telekinesis or any miracles but the miracle of life and consciousness, which again strike me as miracles in nearly obscene abundance. I believe that the universe abides by the laws of physics, some of which are known, others of which will surely be discovered, but even if they aren't, that will simply be a result, as my colleague George Johnson put it, of our brains having evolved for life on this one little planet and thus being inevitably limited. I'm convinced that the world as we see it was shaped by the again genuinely miraculous, let's even say transcendent, hand of evolution through natural selection.

While I haven't yet had the pleasure of reading too terribly much of Angier's work (again, #SoMuchReadingToDo), I am struck by some of the quotes that I've run across, quotes that are absolutely beautiful and inspirational. One that I particularly love:

Scientists have discovered that the small brave act of cooperating with another person, of choosing trust over cynicism, generosity over selfishness, makes the brain light up with quiet joy.

I love the descriptions here. Another:

We are made of stardust; why not take a few moments to look up at the family album?

One more for the road:

We are all yeses. We are worthy enough, we passed inspection, we survived the great fetal oocyte extinctions. In that sense, at least -- call it a mechanospiritual sense -- we are meant to be. We are good eggs, every one of us.

What a profound thought. We are all yeses, indeed.

Angier's career, of course, doesn't begin and end with Discover and the Times. Rather, it's much more prolific and spans many respected publications:

My writing has also appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, The American Scholar, Wired, Parade, Washington Monthly, Reader's Digest, Natural History, Geo, Preservation, Metropolis, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Mademoiselle, Self, Orion, Family Circle, Ms., American Health, Slate, North Dakota Quarterly, Free Inquiry, Underwire, Oxygen and other print and on-line magazines. My essays have been published in a number of anthologies, including The Bitch in the House; Sisterhood is Forever (an updated version of the classic Sisterhood is Powerful); Women's Voices, Feminist Visions; The Source of the Spring: Mothers Through the Eyes of Women Writers; When Race Becomes Real: Black and White Writers Confront Their Personal Histories; The Nature of Nature; The New Science Journalists; The St. Martin's Guide to Writing; The Best American Science Writing (for the years 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2005); and The Best American Science and Nature Writing (2000, 2003, 2005, 2006).

As far as other hobbies, Angier says:

I've been a reasonably serious weightlifter for most of my adult life and have a pale, ropy scar running down the middle finger of my left hand to show for it. I'm also a devoted if incorrigibly amateur student of Spanish, and though I doubt I'll ever be fluent, I love the language nonetheless. I live in Takoma Park, Maryland, with my husband, Rick Weiss, a science reporter for the Washington Post, and our daughter, Katherine Ida Weiss Angier, who was born in August of 1996. Katherine is an extremely funny and remarkably accomplished girl who doesn't yet realize how lucky she is to be able to sit down at the piano and play Bach, Beethoven, Scott Joplin, the blues. No matter. Someday she is sure to appreciate her nimble mastery of the keyboard, and in the meantime, I know how lucky I am to hear it.

What more could you ask for?

You can check out Angier's Times archives here. I know I am looking forward to reading more, myself.

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