Science

Victorian Marine Biologist Margaret Gatty’s Stunning Drawings of Seaweed

The tenderness of feathers meets the grandeur of trees in the otherworldly life-forms of the seas, which offered an unexpected entry point for women in science.

Victorian Marine Biologist Margaret Gatty’s Stunning Drawings of Seaweed

Although the Victorian botanist and photographer Anna Atkins became the first person to publish a book illustrated with photographic images and the first woman to take a photograph, she was one of very few women who managed to subvert and transcend the era’s limiting gender roles in intellectual life and creative work. It was a time when women were formally excluded from science — the great scientific institutions of the era didn’t admit female members until pioneering German astronomer Caroline Herschel and Scottish mathematician Mary Somerville became the first women admitted into the prestigious Royal Astronomical Society in 1835. But astronomy has always led the way, in science and in society. Natural history lagged far behind. London’s Linnean Society — the ivory tower of botany — wouldn’t even allow women to attend its meetings, much less admit them as members, which didn’t happen until 1905. It was the same Linnean Society that barred beloved children’s book author Beatrix Potter from presenting a paper containing her little-known yet revolutionary contributions to mycology, which remained dormant for decades.

Margaret Gatty, 1860 (Portrait Gallery, London)

But women found one particularly opportune loophole in entering science: algae-hunting. It was another children’s book author, Margaret Gatty (June 3, 1809–October 4, 1873), who took this popular hobby — one with such famous practitioners as George Eliot and Queen Victoria herself — and brought to it equal parts scientific rigor and artistic acumen.

Through her conversations and correspondence which her second cousin, the zoologist, meteorologist, and philanthropist Charles Henry Gatty, she became fascinated with marine biology and entered into correspondence with some of the era’s most prominent marine biologists. Gatty eventually educated herself in the science of the seas and taught herself to draw her specimens in exquisite detail.

In 1848, five years after Anna Atkins’s pioneering cyanotypes of sea algae, Gatty published British Sea-Weeds (public library | public domain) — a stunningly illustrated field guide to local algae, fourteen years in the making, detailing 200 specimens in two volumes.

Under Gatty’s brush, these otherworldly life-forms of the sea come to life with the tenderness of feathers and the grandeur of trees. Algae, like moss, become a reminder that beauty beckons from even the most overlooked corners of…

The Mushroom Hunters: Neil Gaiman’s Feminist Poem About Science, Read by Amanda Palmer

“We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry,” the great astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in science, wrote in her diary in 1871. Nearly a century and a half later, I hosted The Universe in Verse in collaboration with astrophysicist and writer Janna Levin and the Academy of American Poets — an evening of poetry celebrating science and the scientists who have taken us to where we are today, and a kind of symphonic protest against the silencing of science and the defunding of the arts, with all proceeds donated to the Academy and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

To our astonishment, eight hundred people poured into Brooklyn’s Pioneer Works and thousands watched the livestream of the sold-out show — a heartening testament to this seemingly unsuspected yet immensely fertile meeting point of science, poetry, and protest, featuring poems about Marie Curie, Jane Goodall, Oliver Sacks, Caroline Herschel, Euclid, neutrinos, and the number pi, by poets like Adrienne Rich, John Updike, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Wisława Szymborska, read by beloved artists and writers, including Rosanne Cash, Diane Ackerman, Ann Hamilton, Brandon Stanton, Jad Abumrad, and Elizabeth Alexander.

Amanda Palmer with her reading as the audience packs into Pioneer Works (Photograph by Amanda Palmer)

The readings concluded with something very special: “The Mushroom Hunters,” a feminist poem about the dawn of science, written by the inimitable Neil Gaiman especially for this occasion and read by his wife, the ferocious musician, artist, and my dear friend Amanda Palmer — what a generous gift and what a perfect finale, tying together an evening whose unspoken yet deliberate theme was the often untold history of women in science. (The image I chose as the backdrop for Amanda’s reading of “The Mushroom Hunters” comes from children’s book author Beatrix Potter’s little-known yet revolutionary mycological work — another fragment in the canon of women’s underheralded contribution to science.)

Amanda Palmer

In this excerpt from the show, I frame the significance of the poem in the context…

Why Men Don’t Make More Than Women Infographic

Why women actually don't make less than men

The claim that women make 77 cents to every dollar men make disregards many choices women make, leading to false claims on social inequality and skewing gender debates.

It’s true, but only if you don’t account for occupations, positions, education, job tenure and hours worked per week which lower the wage gap to about a nickel.

What’s really going on then?

Expectations and sex-based stereotypes push men towards STEM careers (Science Technology Engineering math) and women towards “pink-collar” health and education jobs. The real wage gap is expanded by common choices by gender, like what college major you choose. Males overwhelmingly choose higher paying majors, females lower paying majors. This is abased not…

Science Not Silence – The Future Can Be Bright Again If We Persist

It looks like science is being attacked by the forces of ignorance once again, as those who would have us roll our calendars back a hundred years or more are doing everything in their power to defund art, science and charity for the sake of corporate greed and regression. They would rather fill their heads with alternate facts and fairy tales than face the fact that embracing science is the only way to make this country great, but we will not let them subjugate…

Some Scientists Are Skeptical of the March for Science

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On Earth Day, April 22, millions of people plan to hit the streets of Washington, D.C. and cities worldwide to March for Science.

The organizers of the march frame it as a reproach against “an alarming trend toward discrediting scientific consensus and restricting scientific discovery.” Lead organizer Jonathan Berman, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, described it like this to the New York Times:

“Yes, this is a protest, but it’s not a political protest… The people making decisions are in Washington, and they are the people we are trying to reach with the message: You should listen to evidence.”

Speaking to Buzzfeed News, Bill Nye, one of several public leaders for the march, said:

“People are denying the facts of science in the world’s most influential economy. We’re marching to remind everybody of how much science serves you, a person, as a citizen in our society.”

But despite the good intentions of organizers, some scientists are questioning whether the march will do more harm than good.

A lack of consensus

The March for Science got off to a rocky start, and almost all the bad noise came from within the scientific community itself. Soon after the march was announced in January, an organizer sent out a tweet that some scientists considered overtly political.

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker responded with a tweet that said the march “compromises its goals with anti-science PC/identity politics/hard-left rhetoric.” Organizers soon deleted the tweet, issued an apology, and revised their mission statement, though they never mentioned Pinker.

Pinker wasn’t alone in thinking the organizers were using highly politicized language.

“I was pretty appalled,” said evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne to the New Republic. “Their mission statement was like, all the buzzwords of the regressive left. It wasn’t a march about science, it was a march about identity politics. And at that point, I couldn’t support it.”

Meanwhile, other scientists criticized the march for failing to be inclusive. After it was announced that Bill Nye would be the march’s first honorary co-chair, complaints arose about how organizers weren’t committed to diversity.

“I love Bill Nye,” said Stephani Page, a biophysicist at University of North Carolina who was invited to join the march’s board in February after she criticized its approach to diversity, to BuzzFeed News. “But I do feel comfortable saying to you what I said to the steering committee: He is a white male, and in that way he does represent the status quo of science, of what it is to be a scientist.”

Regardless of questions of…

The Founding Father of Neuroscience on Solitude, the Importance of Science in a Nation’s Greatness, and the Ideal Social Environment for Intellectual Achievement

“The real wealth of the Nation lies in the resources of the earth… Their administration is not properly, and cannot be, a matter of politics,” trailblazing scientist and writer Rachel Carson presciently admonished in 1953 as she made the case for protecting science, nature, and thus humanity itself from greedy and destructive political agendas. “The scientific way of thinking,” Carl Sagan wrote in his final published masterwork, “is … an essential tool for a democracy in an age of change.”

Half a century before Carson and a century before Sagan, neuroscience founding father Santiago Ramón y Cajal (May 1, 1852–October 17, 1934) considered the crucial role of science in a nation’s welfare and greatness in his book Advice for a Young Investigator (public library) — the science counterpart to Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and Anna Deavere Smith’s Letters to a Young Artist, and the source of Cajal’s insightful taxonomy of the six “diseases of the will” that keep the talented from achieving greatness.

Self-portrait by Cajal at his library in his thirties, from

Cajal writes:

Today’s statesmen undoubtedly have limitations, one of which is not realizing (or at least not advocating) that the greatness and might of nations are products of science, and that justice, order, and good laws are important but secondary factors in prosperity.

But science, of course, only thrives when scientists thrive. For science to steer a society toward greatness, Cajal cautions, that society must nurture an optimal intellectual and moral environment for its inhabitants. He writes:

Like all mental activities, the accomplishments of the scientist are heavily influenced by the physical and moral environments…

Neil deGrasse Tyson Says This Is His Most Important Message Ever

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Famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson released an emotional new video in which he passionately implores Americans to reconsider how they are increasingly relating to science.

In the post accompanying the video on his Facebook Page, Tyson wrote that this video contains “what may be the most important words I have ever spoken”.

He explains that innovation through science is how America, a “backwoods country,” became “one the greatest nations the world has ever known”.

“Science is the fundamental part of the country that we are,” says Tyson [0:35]

But something has been changing in the way some Americans view science and it’s greatly worrisome to Tyson. When it comes to making decisions about scientific topics, he sees that “people have lost the ability to judge what is true and what is not.”

Case in point – American politicians.

“When you have people who don’t know much about science, standing in denial of it and rising to power, that is a recipe for the complete dismantling of our informed democracy,” warns Tyson. [1:00]

This stark statement is followed by an archival clip of then-congressman Mike Pence saying that evolution should be taught as a theory not fact.

The video, directed…

9 Up-Close Scientific Images from the Wellcome Image Awards

Each year, the Wellcome Image Awards highlight some of the most fascinating scientific images from around the world, as chosen by a panel of experts from the fields of science communications and medicine. The awards go to photographers and researchers who create “informative, striking and technically excellent images that communicate significant aspects of healthcare and biomedical science,” according to the Wellcome Trust, a biomedical research charity based in the UK. Here are nine of this year’s winning images:

ZEBRAFISH EYE AND NEUROMASTS

Ingrid Lekk and Steve Wilson, University College London

In this 4-day-old zebrafish embryo, a certain gene expressed in the lens of the eye and other parts of the visual system glows red when it’s activated. You can see the lens of the eye, the head, and neuromasts (those red dots around the rim of the image) glowing red, while the nervous system glows blue.

BLOOD VESSELS OF THE AFRICAN GREY PARROT

This image was created using a 3D reconstruction of a euthanized parrot. It models the system of blood vessels in the parrot’s head and neck down to the capillary level.

INTRAOCULAR LENS IRIS CLIP

Mark Bartley, Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust

Iris clips can treat nearsightedness, cataracts, and other eye issues. This photo shows an iris clip fitting on the eye of a 70-year-old patient. He regained nearly all his vision after the surgery.

BRAIN-ON-A-CHIP

Collin…