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.

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


“Wonder” is such a fabulous word. An expression of curiosity and exploration when used as a verb and an expression of amazement when used as a noun, and often these definitions exist in a wonderful superposition. During field trips to the Galápagos and Indonesia, one of my professors encouraged us to continually make an effort to begin our sentences with “I wonder…” To begin our thoughts with openness, curiosity, and amazement.

As Caltech’s de facto biology writer, I have been reading through a hefty molecular cell biology textbook* trying to understand the basic principles of life. And let me tell you, WOW, this book is hitting me in the face with new wonders on every page. A few examples of some things I’ve learned in the first five pages:

  • Your body is made up of 10,000,000,000,000 cells, all of which originated from one single cell that started to divide. Ten trillion cells—more than the number of stars in our galaxy—from a single cell!
  • If you’re over ~20 years old, you’ll have noticed that the way that computers store information has evolved drastically, from big clunky floppy disks or VHS tapes to miniscule chips in an iPhone. So you would expect that, because cells have been evolving and diversifying for over 3.5 billion years, the way they store information would have evolved too, or you’d expect that you wouldn’t be able to read the information of a seaweed cell the same way you read that of a horse cell. Lol, nope. As from the textbook: “You can take a piece of DNA from a human cell and insert it into a bacterium, or [vice versa], and the information will be successfully read, interpreted, and copied.” That’s some crazy machinery.
  • A single strand of DNA is made up of long sequences of four different chemical compounds (A, T, C, or G). Each strand has a direction in which it is read, symbols interpreted from one direction to another. So when we say DNA is “read…” it’s not a metaphor. DNA is a language.

These are only the “amazement” types of wonder. At pretty much every sentence in this book, my brain is screaming, “?!??!” How the crap did all these chemicals come together to encode information that directs the production of more molecules? When did any of this happen? Why did these complex processes like replication and transcription evolve this particular way? ARE WE “ALONE” IN THE UNIVERSE?!

I’m sure some of my biochem-y questions are going to be answered as I keep reading. But the bigger questions of life’s existence and context in the Universe are legitimately open ended. They remain to be continually wondered at.



*Molecular Biology of the Cell, Sixth Edition.

A Tiger-Striped Surprise: Ice Volcanoes on Enceladus

I wrote this piece as part of my grad school applications last fall.

At first glance, Saturn’s tiny moon Enceladus appears to be nothing like its namesake, the giant of Greek mythology whose breath caused volcanic eruptions. Enceladus (the moon) is a frozen celestial body smaller than the state of Arizona. No one would have guessed that its name would turn out to be serendipitously appropriate.

When the Cassini spacecraft arrived at Saturn in 2005, scientists didn’t intend to conduct more than a quick flyby of Enceladus. But any expectations of Enceladus as an inert, cratered moon were soon dismantled as Cassini captured images of four large, hot fissures sliced across the south pole, like the jagged claw marks of a tiger. And so it was revealed that Enceladus truly is living up to its mythological namesake: from these so-called “tiger stripes” spewed at least 100 ice volcanoes, jetting particles and water vapor far out into space.

The discovery of these plumes was a shock. One wouldn’t initially expect moons to have active processes like violent geysers of particles — moons are usually too small and cold to produce much energy. Craters on our own Moon indicate that its surface hasn’t changed for three billion years. For tiny Enceladus to have such vigorous volcanoes, something must be happening internally to generate heat and energy.

The most natural explanation for such a small moon to be producing so much power is a process called tidal flexing. Tidal flexing occurs because Enceladus’ orbit around Saturn is not perfectly circular, so the huge planet gravitationally squeezes and stretches its tiny moon as it orbits. This constant exercise of the moon’s rocky interior causes it to heat up. But scientists expect that this tidal flexing can only generate about 10% of the power that the plumes output, so Enceladus must have some sort of other unexpected internal heat storage.

Chemical analyses of the plumes hint at more subsurface secrets. Samples of the plumes reveal “salty” sodium particles, indicating the presence of silicate rocks. Along with the abundance of water vapor particles, this data paints an image of a deep subsurface ocean with a solid rock bottom.

Liquid water, heat, and a water-rock interface are a crucial combination of ingredients for the chemistry of life that has made the once nondescript Enceladus a prime target in our search for extraterrestrial life. The idea that life could potentially arise under a crust of ice on a tiny moon of Saturn has revolutionized concepts of habitable environments. Enceladus is an embodiment of the surprises of our solar system that we have yet to uncover.

Mars may harbor subsurface liquid water

I wrote this piece as my “Discovery Story” assignment for En84, “Writing About Science,” at Caltech, and got an A. The press release I drew information from is here and the original paper is here.


Ancient Mars was a warm and wet place, coursing with rivers and lakes. Though the lakebeds are now dusty and the water long gone, researchers have recently discovered evidence that the present-day Mars may not be as dry as we thought. The evidence suggests that a thin layer of salty liquid water may exist just under the Martian surface, condensing in the cool hours of night and evaporating in the morning.

Conditions on Mars are not favorable for liquid water — Martian temperatures and atmospheric pressures only allow water to exist as ice or vapor. However, the Curiosity rover recently detected a chemical compound in the Martian soil that could make it possible for water to exist in a liquid form.

The compound, called calcium perchlorate, lowers the freezing point of water, acting like an anti-freeze by allowing water to exist in a liquid state even under temperatures where it would normally form ice. Under particular humidity and temperature conditions, perchlorates can also absorb water vapor from the atmosphere, forming salty liquid solutions called brines that can then trickle down into the soil.

While perchlorates are abundant in many places on Mars, this is the first time they have been detected along with the right humidity and temperature for brines to form. Additionally, these conditions were detected at the equator — the driest and hottest region of Mars. If the delicate brine-forming conditions can exist even on the harshest region of the planet, it’s likely that milder regions can stably support brines as well.

The authors measured air humidity and temperature at the equator using Curiosity’s Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) over a Martian year. They describe the brines as “transient” because the proper humidity and temperatures for brine formation don’t last throughout a full Martian day. The salty solutions only have one night to condense before evaporating with the sunlight.

Liquid water is considered a crucial building block for life, but these brines are unlikely to harbor it — they are simultaneously too short-lived, too cold, and too exposed to solar radiation to support terrestrial organisms.

“Conditions near the surface of present-day Mars are hardly favorable for microbial life as we know it, but the possibility for liquid brines on Mars has wider implications for habitability and geological water-related processes,” says the lead author on the study, Javier Martin-Torres of the Spanish Research Council in Spain and Sweden’s Lulea University of Technology. He is also a member of Curiosity’s science team.

Though for now this finding seems to have few extraterrestrial implications, it is part of a collection of Curiosity’s discoveries that are transforming our perception of Mars. Last year, Curiosity measured sharp spikes and drops in atmospheric methane concentration, implying that somewhere on Mars is a source producing the organic chemical. Scientists have also observed dusty geysers of carbon dioxide erupting from the polar ice caps in the warming of spring. Mars is turning out to be a much more diverse and dynamic planet than we thought.