It feels too good to be true

Seven years ago I was a college freshman, reading an issue of the Caltech magazine in the Ruddock lounge. I remember clearly going up, totally unannounced, to the communications office in Millikan and asking if I could be an intern. They said no.

A few years and a bit more work experience later, I was hired as a full time science writer. And yesterday, the Spring 2019 issue was published—including my first original feature story. I can hardly believe it.

I am very grateful to the whole magazine team and my editors for, literally, helping my dreams come true. And of course, to all the professional science writers—especially Dave Tytell—who I pestered while still a college student.

Anyway! This is getting to be like an Oscars acceptance speech. But I just feel very fortunate and thankful. I hope you enjoy the story and I’d love to hear feedback.

Help your children become human

Here is a very short post with a bit of food for thought for you.

I have been thinking a lot about teaching and education recently. Today I came across this letter written by a Holocaust survivor and sent to educators.

Dear Teacher,

I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no person should witness: gas chambers built by learned engineers. Children poisoned by educated physicians. Infants killed by trained nurses. Women and babies shot by high school and college graduates. So, I am suspicious of education.

My request is:

Help your children become human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths or educated Eichmanns. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human.

The Things We Believe In

In a fit of true desperation, I decided to try acupuncture.

The woman was very nice, putting “calming” lavender oil on my pillow and gently explaining that she could feel my energies. I asked her how it worked and she answered in a kind vague manner, noting that the practice of acupuncture is over 2,000 years old.

Ancient things tend to feel weighty, solemn, lending a sacred edge and advantage to their credibility. People have been doing this for thousands of years, so there must be some benefit to it, right?

I laid very still, feeling at once foolish and peaceful, and I remembered that Christianity and acupuncture must be around the same age.

Why have these two practices, largely unsupported by scientific evidence, stuck around in cultures for so long? Certain biological traits stick around for thousands of years for a simple reason: they lend some kind of advantage that helps an organism survive and reproduce. So if a trait instead decreases an organism’s shot at survival, that trait will likely evolve out.

Ancient practices have evolved, but they have not evolved away—they are giving us something, but maybe not the primary thing we think.

I think both certain religions and acupuncture are still around for another simple reason: It’s nice to believe. It’s nice to believe that, with just some pokes of needles, we can cure our ailments, flush out all the gunk inside of us that’s making us sore or itchy or tired. It’s as uncomplicated as sweeping, or unplugging a drain. It’s nice to think that fixing, cleaning, our lives is as simple as sniffing some lavender, or drinking some unpronounceable herb tea. In short, it’s lovely to believe in magic. To believe that a few thoughts, addressed to some higher being, can enact change in the real world.

Both of these belief systems have killed people—a firm belief in acupuncture dissuading someone from getting medical treatment, and belief in religion perhaps in more obvious ways. But I think these beliefs in magic are not inherently or necessarily bad for you. Quieting the mind and getting in a “zen” place—however motivated by needles or scents—is beneficial, and I think you know that instinctually, though there are rigorous scientific articles to support it. Meditating, closing your eyes and feeling your wholeness, is a form of rest and there is certainly scientific literature suggesting that rest is necessary for health. Perhaps even praying can renew hope. You cannot cure cancer by just thinking good thoughts, but it’s safe to say that some parts of these magic practices are giving people something good.

But, while it might not be as mystical and involve so many herbs and crystals, that same awe, respect, and solemnity inspired by ancient practices can come from the scientific study of the universe. Who needs to envision some nebulous chakras when you can know that you are made up of billions of tiny cells, individuals yet all working together, striving for your survival? that all of these vastly different cells, all containing the same genetic blueprint to make exactly you, arose from a single cell? that plants secrete gases that allow us to breathe? that the churning of Earth’s interior produces a magnetic force field that shields us from cosmic particles?

Belief systems, often largely in opposition to science, sometimes attempt to simply fill in holes where science has not yet been able to probe. But beliefs remain unproven in a rigorous manner, and thus the methodical and slow hunt for true answers will forever continue.

Some magic things are undeniably true. Every atom in every thing surrounding you, every cell inside of you, every person on this planet, every planet in the solar system, every galaxy in the universe—you are all made up of the same things. You, we, descend from stars. Nothing is more ancient, or solemn, or mystical as that.

Two quotes for thought

Science is built up of facts, as a house is with stones. But a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house. (Henri Poincaré)


At some point the mind must grammaticize facts and convert them to narratives. The facts of the world do not for the most part come in narrative form. We have to do that. (Cormac McCarthy on the Origin of Consciousness)

Nuance in Two Parts

Here are some thoughts about using accurate words in two different contexts.

When nuance is lost to brevity

A few months ago, a feminist Instagram account that I followed posted a picture with some saying about how “Men are trash.” Quickly this person received many critical comments and backlash, and this person followed up defensively with a response post. This post no longer exists, but my recollection of her response is: when she says “men,” she is referring not to “your boyfriend or your dad,” but instead to patriarchal systems of oppression. (Again for the record, this is my own paraphrasing.)

The original poster certainly is justified in wanting to criticize patriarchal systems of oppression. But the problem with using synecdoche—referring to a whole by using one of its parts—in discussing complex phenomena in sociology or science is that in many cases it does not accurately convey intended meaning and can very easily be misunderstood. Saying that “men” are trash, but not actually referring to “men” as we commonly use the word, seems unwise. (And, if one is going to make clarifications in follow-up posts anyway, one might as well just have been accurate the first time. But anyway.)

Unfortunately, synecdoche sometimes is the only way to work within media that are character-limited, like Twitter. There must be a solution to reach audiences which primarily use these media and still convey complex messages—but I don’t know what it is yet.

When nuance is intentionally sacrificed to approachability

I’ve written before about the necessity of unpacking phrases and literary devices when writing about science or social issues, but I have also been recently thinking about how emotional appeals are sometimes the most effective way to convince a person of facts. These two things collided the other day when I was having a discussion about using the phrase “global warming” vs. “climate change.”

The person I was talking to clearly had a disgust for the phrase “climate change”—saying that it is vague and means nothing. I understand this. A changing climate could mean anything, from an ice age to the warming planet to a season changing. But the person also said that climate change was a cop-out on the part of the left-wing to avoid naming a real problem. This, I feel, is not entirely true.

Global warming is indeed an urgent and frightening problem. Yet nearly half of Americans—48%—are neither extremely certain that global warming is happening nor extremely certain that it is not happening. I have not done enough research to understand why so many people fall into categories of uncertainty, but I would personally guess that it has something to do with a lack of a feeling of their own scientific expertise, combined with the loud swath of right-wing politicians who claim that global warming is inconsequential, combined with some degree of fear of a planetary-scale problem.

If this guess is true, how do we get these people to feel more certain in the facts of global warming? There are certainly many answers, but I suggest that the use of the phrase “climate change” helps the subject feel more approachable. If “climate change” as a phrase offers a better gateway to discussions that will lead to a more-informed public about human-caused global warming, then I see no reason to have disgust towards it. Is it nuanced? No! Does it provide an approachable conversation starter to getting into nuanced discussions with non-scientists? Yes? Then let’s use it.

Of course, these are just my own initial thoughts and I am more than happy to discuss them and hear other arguments.

One last thing—the aforementioned person believed that using “global warming” as a phrase is necessary for “scaring” people into “believing” in climate change. But I will discuss fear and science communication in a separate post.

Facts and Feels

When I was in middle school we used to go to Lake Arrowhead and play in a small cordoned-off bay for swimmers. Almost 10 years later I returned to find the bay almost completely drained, docks left high and dry, grasses growing on land that was once deep under water.

The California drought became real to me at that moment. As much as I had seen the statistics—maps in dark red and orange indicating severity, urging shorter showers—I didn’t feel them.

We now live in a time when facts aren’t always enough. The fact that clean energy jobs outnumber coal and gas jobs five-to-one in the United States did not stop the President from renouncing the Paris climate accord. And though the president is an especially idiotic anomaly amongst all Americans, about 40% of normal everyday people are unsure about climate change despite the consensus of an overwhelming majority of scientists.

Facts are hard to feel. Numbers are hard to relate to even when they’re about people. 37 people died in a Manila terrorist attack this morning, 137 people in the November 2015 attacks in Paris, 1.5 million (1,500,000) million Armenians murdered during the first World War, more than 5 million (5,000,000) Syrians fleeing from their homes. And there are numbers that are possibly too vast to ever feel—7.5*10^18 (7,500,000,000,000,000,000) grains of sand on Earth, 7*10^22 (70,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) stars in the observable universe. What capacity do we have to begin to comprehend any of these numbers? One can only begin to absorb the sorrow and fear of 5 million refugees through one photo of a child alone on a beach. Most people have no context for understanding a CEO’s $46 million yearly salary, but it becomes even more shocking—almost personal—when you realize that it amounts to $180,000 per day.

Facts and numbers are most effective when they can connect with the heart. And thus when writing about science we have to make you feel it. We have to show you a photo of the wondrous and messed up Pale Blue Dot you’re on. We have to tell stories of names and faces. We have to see the bays of our childhood drained and dry.

I used to think that appealing to emotion was cheap; clickbait. But honestly, all I do is feel. Science—all of its simplistic glory and elegant mathematics and long nights and tears and sacrifices—makes me feel a way, makes me act a way, makes me be a way. Now I suppose the point is to make you feel a way, too.

Work Hacks for and from a Young Science Writer

When I entered the ~workforce~ at 21, with a degree in planetary science (the degree where you learn the LEAST practical life/social skills), I had to learn a ton of stuff on the fly. Yes, a lot about science writing and office culture, but also a surprising amount about sweat and spilling coffee. So I made this lil list about the latter, my important corporate life hacks that won’t make you a better writer or anything but that WILL make you a tiny bit less of a frazzled noob.

  1. Always carry a tissue whenever you go into meetings because a big serious staff meeting is when you are scientifically* the most likely to get a loud sniffly runny nose. Same logic behind going to the bathroom before every meeting.
  2. For interviews across campus and/or up stairs, always arrive about five minutes early so that you can go to the nearest bathroom and catch your breath and/or stop sweating. If it’s summer, arrive 10 minutes early. If it’s winter, take your bulky jacket off before you enter the researcher’s office to avoid mid-interview sweats. If you’re just not a sweaty person…. what are you even doing reading my blog
  3. When you go into the interview, if you’re holding a coffee/notebook/phone/jacket/etc, hold it in your left hand because the worst thing ever is that awkward juggle when you go to shake the researcher’s hand.
  4. HOLD HANDRAILS WHEN YOU’RE GOING DOWN STAIRS especially the marble ones in the Broad building my god please trust me on this one
  5. Don’t ask how old people are at the office birthday parties.

Good luck out there, fellow dweebs.


*obviously, not actually scientifically

feelings on failure

Being a science writer who was formerly a scientist is hard because it always subconsciously feels like you failed at doing the higher, nobler thing. It feels like you failed at making fundamental discoveries about the universe and now you are just the messenger. And while I think that science writing is important and I think I’m pretty good at it, these “evidences” of failure at pure science are always in the back of my head: The time when I discovered that a very close high school friend had written to the caltech admissions office to say that I should not have been admitted. The time when my research advisor fired me. The time when my grad school admission was rescinded because of low grades.

It’s particularly difficult to accept failure at science because there’s now so much push and motivation to get girls into STEM—and with this new push came, for me, the feeling that any other major, journalism or english or philosophy, anything “less” than science, was so exactly that: lesser; condescendingly expected of a girl. At 17 I really thought I would break all kinds of barriers and norms as a woman in astrophysics at Caltech. But I couldn’t do it. I scraped my way to graduation and exhaled. I couldn’t be the discoverer. Instead I am the messenger. The wingman. The assistant to the regional manager.

It’s hard to break this mindset of being disappointed in myself for leaving (not to mention, it’s probably offensive to other science writers lol) particularly because: writing is “for girls.”* Writing is “supposed” to be what girls are better at and science is “supposed” to be what boys are better at. So I’m not being a revolutionary by being a girl in writing. I’m just a girl that leaked out of the STEM pipeline because science was just too hard—and it makes me feel ashamed. I feel like I failed because everyone knows that girls ARE good at science, girls CAN succeed in science, it’s encouraged and championed and supported in order to overturn those old stereotypes. But I won’t be an example.

I look at the stories that I have published and I’m proud of them. I look at this past year of rapid promotion and growth and I am proud of it. I look at women who are boldly succeeding in science, who are pushing ahead and breaking barriers, and I will stand up and cheer and applaud and support those women. But I am not one of them. And I have to learn to be okay with that, I have to learn that success is not measured by a PhD or by papers published or by other people liking your words. I have to learn.


*I don’t actually think this is true

**Edited because some of you haters are real sticklers for proper capitalization damn

This year

If you’ve been watching the news with any regularity throughout the year, it’s understandable to think that 2016 was a disaster. The phrase “dumpster fire” (which I am not a fan of) is flung around a lot. So I felt some conflict about writing about what a lovely year I’ve personally had.

Am I allowed to do this? Does it reek of privilege? This was a hard year for so, so many. And yet I keep coming back to these words by Beth McColl —
“celebrate yourself. speak about your achievements. ask others about theirs. help anyone you can help. be helped.”

For me this year was one of joy and beauty. A year of wandering through big cities and across snowy mountains, of celebrating love loudly and in every quiet corner.

I think that’s all I’ll say. Yes, there are so many reasons for sorrow — external and internal — but still, the sun goes up and down each morning and night. For this I am thankful.