A debut memoir recounts the experiences, conclusions, opinions, and connections the author developed during the time she spent pursuing a career in the sciences.
Despite a few detours along the way, Gerstell found scientific study dominating much of her life, beginning in her early days. Exploring her own mathematical sequences helped mitigate boredom during grade school. In addition, numerous family members in various STEM fields, including an uncle who worked with J. Robert Oppenheimer, were around to offer stories, expectations, and inspiration. She would earn two degrees through Harvard, eventually doing postgraduate work at Caltech well into middle age, where she earned her Ph.D. in planetary sciences. Through her researching and teaching the “big ideas” that many laypeople look on in awe of, ranging from avalanches on Mars to life on other planets, the author highlights the grunt work behind these endeavors, revealing the tedium of proofreading, mechanical data collection, and the unsatisfying notion that sometimes progress is showing what doesn’t work. Gerstell’s (The Trigonometric Travelogue, 1987) memoir is difficult to approach for those with little knowledge of mathematics or science. Much of the book relies on name-dropping scientific “somebodies” while checking off the “nobodies,” though the differences between the two will likely leave less-informed readers scratching their heads. A concise and useful index and appendix, as well as adequate citations, offset some of this, but a little more information on the why of these individuals’ stardom (or lack thereof) would ease some confusion. Gerstell’s time in STEM is explored in a nonlinear fashion, often utilizing short asides to address some intriguing inequities in the field. Anecdotal stories about African-American scientists unwilling to put their names on more outlandish theories and a look at why astronaut Sally Ride is thought of as a scientific superstar while astronaut Judith Resnik goes largely unremembered bring up invaluable points about the roles race, anti-Semitism, and even gender play in the sciences. Furthermore, it is chilling to see how many areas of study die due to nothing more than a lack of funding, while conclusions with solid backings, such as climate change, are forced into greater, unnecessary expenditures because of politics.
This book’s complexity may drive some readers away, but its “in the trenches” view of science and academia should be examined.