Lindy Elkins-Tanton is a professor of Siberian river courses, arc welding, code writing, patent owner, company founder, asteroid researcher and igneous petrologist. At various times she has been a farmer, competitive German Shepherd trainer, children’s book author and business consultant for Boeing Helicopters. She is currently a professor at Arizona State University, helps run a learning company, and is the lead researcher for NASA’s Psyche mission to a metal asteroid.
Her self-described “winding” career path has led her to research into planet formation, magma oceans, mass extinctions and mantle melting. The results she achieved were fundamental and have earned her a number of prestigious awards. There’s even an asteroid – Asteroid 8252 Elkins-Tanton – named after her.
Given all of this, perhaps the biggest revelation in her new autobiography, A portrait of the scientist as a young woman, is that this standout achiever was plagued by the same doubts and lack of confidence that plague the rest of us. She vacillated between forestry and geology when she applied to college, was handicapped by organic chemistry as a freshman, and was told she either wasn’t studying hard enough or wasn’t good enough. Sometimes she felt like she didn’t belong, and sometimes she was told that. But Elkins-Tanton overcame those obstacles—and others far deeper.
To cover this whole area, Elkins-Tanton intertwined several different threads in one book.
From Russia with lava
One Thread is a fascinating account of her adventures as a geologist, particularly her expeditions into the remotest wildernesses of Siberia. There, she flew into the tundra by helicopter and navigated freezing waters in a taped pontoon boat, shared a plane’s cargo hold with thawing, stinking caribou carcasses, drank vodka by a campfire in the snow, and ate in clouds of mosquitoes so fat that the Insects in her food landed as it made its way from her bowl to her mouth. She also recounts even less glamorous aspects of those trips: the occasionally difficult team dynamics, the unsuccessful search for zircon crystals, the struggle for Russian permits, and a frightening escape from an alcoholic local.
Over several years, these expeditions yielded £850 of samples, which resulted in a series of papers by a group of researchers from multiple institutions and nations. These conclusively linked the Siberian flood basalts to the late Permian mass extinction event, a key result for both biology and geology.
She also describes her early research into building high-pressure furnaces for melting rock powder. She casually mentions how her arc welder used to shock her about her eye socket. These furnaces ran for six months each, occasionally collapsing with “cracks like gunfire.” After building and running the experiment for almost a year, her samples hadn’t melted, so she just started again at an even higher temperature and pressure.
Another common thread in the book boils down to a manifesto that rejects traditional methods of teaching science and mathematics as “trying to train dogs with electric collars,” where progress is an ordeal of tests and grades. “There is a myth that people with high academic research achievements got there through an innate disciplinary genius or a childhood drive,” writes Elkins-Tanton.
Her approach favors asking questions, finding answers through research, and synthesizing the results, which is usually only done at the postgraduate level. These ideas led her to co-found Beagle Learning, an educational platform, and to patent a system of inquiry-based learning.