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NASA’s Psyche Mission: Lindy Elkins-Tanton in Conversation with Philip Ball

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Introduction

Two members of Marginalia’s Meanings of Science Project, Lindy Elkins-Tanton, Principal Investigator on NASA’s mission to Psyche, the first NASA mission to explore a metal-rich asteroid that launched on October 13, 2023, is in conversation with writer and former editor of Nature, Philip Ball.


Their conversation is lively and illuminating as they discuss the importance of teamwork for the NASA launch, why the “Great Man” myth is dangerous to scientific progress, and how public success is only part of a bigger, personal story: the journey of setbacks, unexpected paths, and growth.


Philip Ball

I’m Philip Ball and I’m here to talk to Lindy Elkins-Tanton, who is the head of an extremely exciting forthcoming space mission. Correct me if I’m wrong, Lindy, but it’s primarily a NASA mission, called Psyche.


Lindy Elkins-Tanton

Yes, it is called Psyche. Exactly so.


Philip Ball

Okay, fantastic. I want to start there, because this is clearly going to be what’s in the forefront of your mind at the moment. Last I heard, the launch date is the fifth of October, right?


Lindy Elkins-Tanton

That’s right. We have what’s called a launch period, and it opens on the fifth and runs through the twenty-fifth. We have 21 days on which we can launch. And we surely hope to launch on the first day, October fifth. That’s exactly right.


Philip Ball

Fantastic. Are you still at ASU?


Lindy Elkins-Tanton

Yes, I’m a Professor and Vice President at Arizona State University.


Philip Ball

Right. I hope that you can start by telling us: What is Psyche? What is Psyche, the object out there in space? And what is the Psyche mission?


Lindy Elkins-Tanton

We are interested in how rocky planets form and how they get to be in the structure that they are, with a metal core and a rocky exterior. And it turns out, there’s one place in the solar system that we can go to learn about the metal cores of rocky planets, and that is, ironically, this asteroid Psyche, because we’re never going to get to our own planet’s core, or the cores of Mercury, or Venus, or Mars. Or the moon has a core—we can’t get to that either: too hot, too deep.


But there are about nine asteroids that we think are made mostly of metal, and the very biggest one and the only one that’s kind of round-ish—I’d say shaped like a potato, because potatoes come in many shapes, and we’ll find out when we get there—is this asteroid Psyche. And so we’re sending a robotic probe to go find out about a new kind of world, a world with a metal surface.


Philip Ball

How big is Psyche?


Lindy Elkins-Tanton

It is about the size of Switzerland or Massachusetts, without the Cape. The surface area of it is about the same as the state of California. And so, it’s a human-sized asteroid, though large among asteroids.


Philip Ball

And it’s essentially a lump of iron and nickel, right?


Lindy Elkins-Tanton

We think it’s a lump of a mixture of iron and nickel metal, and something else. And we think that something else is probably silicate rock, but it could be sulfur. And also, there could be pore spaces and fractures. So we’ll find out when we get there. The fundamental thing about this is the primary exploration of a kind of world humans have never seen. We don’t have any photos of its surface. And probably everything I tell you today is going to be wrong when we get there. So we’ll all discover together what it is.


Philip Ball

We don’t really even know what it looks like, what shape it is?


Lindy Elkins-Tanton

That is exactly correct—yeah. We’ve got pretty good models of its shape, based on how radar sent from Earth reflects off it—we can actually shoot radar out to the asteroid belt and receive the returns, which amazes me—and also reflected light from the sun. And so, people put that together in computer models and they make shape models of Psyche. Triaxial ellipsoid, they say: it’s like a football or a potato. But we don’t know the details. We’ve got no photographs of its surface. And this is something we’re not used to. We’re used to being able to just Google the name of an asteroid or a planet, and up come photos, but there are none for this one.


Philip Ball

When you think, “Okay, it’s made of iron and nickel,” it conjures up this image of this shiny thing. Is it likely to be shiny?


Lindy Elkins-Tanton

No, sadly, it’s not likely to be shiny, although in my dreams it’s a polished slab of shining meteorite metal with gleaming inset gold and yellow crystals. But the truth is, it’s been hanging out in space for four and a half billion years, and it’s probably not shiny.


Philip Ball

And you say that this is what we think planets like ours have at their core. So how did this bit of core-like material get to be floating around naked, if you like, in space?


Lindy Elkins-Tanton

I know, a naked core in space—it’s so unseemly. So we asked ourselves, how do you get a lot of metal in one lump? And the best guess is that it’s part of the core of planetesimal, a little tiny planet that formed in the first eyeblink of our solar system. Our solar system is 4,568 millions of years old. And in the first two of those millions of years—so if the solar system was a 24-hour day, like in the first 15 to 30 seconds—bodies the size of big cities or states or even continents formed. And they formed and they were round objects—we know, because the remnants are in the asteroid belt—most of them went on to form the rocky planets that we now call home. But some of them got shattered and stranded in the asteroid belt. But before that happened, way back in those first two millions of years, some of them melted. They melted from short-lived radioisotopes, particularly aluminum 26, which is extinct in the present day, but was very heat-generating then. The material they were made of was an intimate mixture of metal and rock—centimeters, millimeters. Once that’s melted, the densest part, which is the metal by a factor of two, sinks to the middle, and the rock is left floating on the outside. So that’s our favorite idea for how you get a big lump of mostly metal. Then you knock off a lot of the rock with impacts.


Is it the only way that you could make a metal-rich body? No, there are other ways, too, but they’re all hypothetical; we don’t have any examples. You can’t use a normal distribution idea of processes for an object of which there’s only one. And so, we’re faced with trying to apply Occam’s razor to this singular body. And it might not be well known that what William of Ockham actually said was you should choose the simplest hypothesis because it’s the easiest to test. He didn’t claim it was the most likely; he just said it was the easiest to test. So our hypothesis is that it’s part of the core of a planetesimal that formed in the first two million years of our long-lived solar system.


Philip Ball

So—as well as giving us a view of this weird world, like nothing we’ve seen before—the hope, presumably, is that this mission is going to tell us something about how the planets, how the solar system itself formed?


Lindy Elkins-Tanton

Yeah, that’s right. One of the most fundamental questions that we as humans have is, why were we able to come to be on this beautiful planet Earth? What is it about Earth that makes it habitable and conducive to life? One of the things that does is the metal core. It makes our magnetic field, it helps to protect our atmosphere, it’s the repository of a lot of the heat that comes out through volcanism and plate tectonics in our planet. And so, how do you learn about a core you can’t reach? There’s like a cooking metaphor that I like to use. Effectively, our Earth is like a cake. It’s already had the eggs and the flour and everything beaten together into a mixture, and then baked and frosted. So how do you back out? What are the eggs, and what was the flour, by looking at the cake? With Psyche, we’ll be looking at one of those original ingredients, one of the ingredients we’ve never seen before.


Philip Ball

Of course, the solar system is full of objects that lots of people would love to go and take a look at. We can’t go and look at them all. So I know that getting to persuade an institutional body like NASA to actually let you do this, to go see the thing you want to see, is incredibly difficult, and your book makes it quite plain what a torturous process that is. How do you do it? How do you persuade them that this is where they want to go and not somewhere else?


Lindy Elkins-Tanton

I hardly need to tell you that the way to persuade a human being is with a human narrative. You’ve got to have a story. It’s got to be a story that brings you along and makes you feel a part of it. And it’s especially hard to tell a compelling human narrative about an object that we’ve never visited and we have no pictures of. And so, one of the things we had to do was create art based on the science that we felt was the most likely to show people what we might see, and inspire them to want to be part of it.


Part way through this gigantic three-year competition process, we were once again being asked by people on the engineering team: Why do we want to fly this instrument, versus that instrument? And we the scientists, and in fact the media people also, realized that we had this videotape running in our heads of how we thought that Psyche had formed: the body formed early in the solar system, melted, formed a core, and then things hit it, and knocked the rock off. And that is all of the motivation that we needed for the science that we were choosing. And we realized that no one else had that narrative in their heads but us. And so, we created flip books and videos and tried to write out in prose how we thought this body was formed and why it was important to us now. And so, then you have to do weeklong review processes with the external review board, and we wrote over 1,500 pages of proposals, and you go through two gigantic gates, one where they knocked 27 proposals down to five. And then the second one where they knocked five proposals down to two and selected us for flight. So it’s an epic process.


And if I might just finish up this comment by saying I never imagined that I would be working on a 20-year project. We’re 12 years into what’s going to end up being a 20-year project—fingers crossed that it continues to go well. And one thing I’ve learned is that not only is no part of it a sprint, except for the occasional emergency, but that it’s marathon after marathon. The first marathon is getting Jet Propulsion Laboratory to be our mission manager and put us in their portfolio. But then that’s just the beginning of the next marathon, which is the huge competition process. Then we get selected, and we feel like that’s it. But no, that’s just the beginning, because now we have permission to build it.


So, God willing, we launch successfully on October fifth. That is a big finish line and the beginning of a giant marathon, as we send a spacecraft down to actually do its work.


Philip Ball

Fantastic. I’m hoping that we’ll be able to loop back to Psyche at the end, because I want to ask some more about it. But I want now to go right back to how you started in science. I think you and I are probably near contemporaries, and I remember what it was like as a young person that was wanting to get into science. But it was clear from your book that as a young woman, you really weren’t encouraged to do that in those days. But you did. So what convinced you that science was going to be your thing?


Lindy Elkins-Tanton

It’s such a complicated story, and it was only just recently—within the last couple of years, bizarrely—that I really felt like I inhabited the identity of a scientist. I was always interested in the natural world, but I was interested in many things. And you’re right. There were discouraging aspects, and people who thought I wasn’t smart enough, and comments about women in science. It’s weird how gendered our brains still are—men and women—despite our efforts. I think that the possession of bias about who can do what is not gendered; everyone seems to have the same bias, men and women alike. And so, we’re biased about ourselves, and we’re biased about others. But then there were other voices in my life saying, absolutely, you can do it; go ahead. So it was nice to have a mixture.


And the thing that really motivated me in the end was teams—was how much more you could do to try to answer great big questions when you’re able to work in teams, where everyone could rise on their merits. And that is a little antithetical to the traditional hero culture of science. And I wonder if you ever reacted also to that sort of hero culture of science, where each person is meant to be self-aggrandizing and learn how to speak like an expert and shut down the competition?


Philip Ball

Absolutely. I mean, that’s something I want to go into some more, but it’s completely what I have experienced. For a long time—and I think still, actually, within science—it’s how the history of science has been told. Scientists make a very broad or probably unfair generalization. They’re still quite wedded to the great man era of science, which historians have, thankfully, got rid of long ago. But in science, it’s still there.


Lindy Elkins-Tanton

It’s still there, yeah.


Philip Ball

Yeah, and it’s a peculiar thing. What strikes me as most peculiar is that at the same time, scientists will insist that the individuals don’t matter. It’s the ideas that we work with in the end, or that we revere in the end, but somehow, individuals get statues made for them, and things named after them, and so on. So, there really does still seem to be this hero culture in science.


Lindy Elkins-Tanton

Right, right, there’s the myth that science removes the person from their position, but the truth is everything that humans do is about the humans that are doing it.


I don’t seem to particularly have this need, but there are people who really have a need to have heroes to be able to point to someone and say, “Look at that amazing thing that they did,” and to be super impressed.


But the thing that I really love is the feeling of people doing things together. And it turns out—fortuitously, for me—that, at least in part, the era of the hero scientist is past. You can no longer make fundamental chemical discoveries in your kitchen, like we used to be able to, if you were a Lord and had the time and the money and the kitchen. Now, the biggest things are things that have to be done in interdisciplinary teams, and that’s fortunate for me, because that’s what I really love.


Philip Ball

That was what I was going to ask about later on, but you’ve gotten there now. So let’s stick with that. Clearly, that’s such a crucial part of a project like Psyche. The team must be—clearly is—massive. It has to be. And you have some great advice in your book for how to do that, how to cultivate a team spirit. So what are your top tips for trying to do that?


Lindy Elkins-Tanton

I have tips to share, and then I would like to share the ways in which I’ve totally failed to actually implement this, because it’s such a learning experience. I think that the most important thing we can do is work to include every voice. It’s very common in top-down—dare I say—hero culture teams that the leadership are the only ones who really are allowed to speak. But the person who authentically knows what’s happening, the boots-on-the-ground worker who was actually writing the code, soldering the piece, whatever it is—they often don’t have a voice, but they’re the ones who know when there’s trouble. And so, there are three compelling reasons why teams should always send the question to the person who authentically knows, and encourage the shy person to speak, and draw out the person who feels like they should be sitting against the wall instead of at the table.


The first one is just ethical. I assert this shamelessly. This is the way humans should be together—allow each person to rise on their merits and shine. And it leads to diversity, it leads to equity, it leads to inclusion: things that are ideals of mine and, I hope, of lots of people’s. The second reason is risk buy-down. If you really want your project to succeed, you have to discover the problems while they’re still solvable. And the only way to discover them while they’re still solvable is to invite people to speak about them. Project success lies upon this kind of idea. And then the third reason—this is the same reason why you would want to reduce sexual harassment or bullying or any of the sort of ills of human nature—is sometimes the one that one has to resort to in moments of desperation: the legal system. It will help you avoid lawsuits if you do this. And so, there’s ethics, and there’s project success, and there’s the legal side. My number one goal is to make it so that every person can speak.


Philip Ball

So it’s not just the right thing, the proper thing, to do to work this way, but actually, you’re saying—and it seems that experience bears this out again and again—it’s the most effective way. It’s the most likely to lead to success. And within that it sometimes feels to me as though there’s still a template for what it means to be a scientist and a successful scientist. There’s a way to be. Whereas I think more and more people who work in teams come to recognize that you absolutely need people with different skills. You don’t want a team full of individualistic geniuses. That would be disastrous.


Lindy Elkins-Tanton

Turns out it doesn’t work well, yeah.


Philip Ball

So you need people who are good at forging connections between others; you need some people who will just drill down into the details; you need technical people to know what they’re doing as well as theorists—and so, a whole range of different skills, basically. There’s no single intellectual mindset that you want.


Lindy Elkins-Tanton

That’s right. Skills and behaviors. So we absolutely need disciplinary experts, completely necessary. But that’s almost a separate category of what we need from the things that you and I are talking about right now. You need people who are willing to listen to and speak to each other. You need people who keep a calm voice under moments of crisis. There are so many ways to shut down teamwork, including passive-aggression, unnecessary self-aggrandizement, all those sorts of things that you can point at as obvious bad behavior. But then in addition to good behavior and collegiality, you need people with that tacit knowledge, in the Michael Polanyi sense. It’s the knowledge that is hard to articulate in words. It’s in gestures, it’s an intuition, the way that you can make a thing or do an experiment that you can’t really learn by reading a procedure book. You need to be shoulder by shoulder by the person to learn from them for that. And so, you need people who have the tacit knowledge and the explicit technical knowledge, and that can get along in a group. And these are things that you can practice.


And I would just say that the antithesis of that was actually, I think, brought to perfection in the German academic system of the nineteenth century, when they didn’t actually explicitly realize that one of the ways that professors become successful is through charisma, and strength, and the determination of their assertiveness. And that way, they got more paying lecture students, and more fame, and therefore brought material and resources and interest to the university. And so there was the realization that the hero, the superstar, the influencer faculty member brought good things to the university, but it trains a kind of person who doesn’t work well in teams.


Philip Ball

I was very struck by that, certainly, throughout the 80s and 90s when I encountered the German system. The professor was God, and there was no questioning his word—almost always his. I don’t know if it’s still entirely like that now, but I sort of have the impression that they haven’t completely shaken off that way of working.


Lindy Elkins-Tanton

A lot of our American universities have that same model, because it was modeled on that idea. And a friend of mine from graduate school became at the time the youngest woman ever to attain full professor status in the German system. And so she got an entire city block of buildings with a museum and a million laboratories and a library and a whole bunch of permanent faculty that reported to her, and a giant budget—like the whole cake. And so, being ignorant but a little bit of a German speaker, I said to her—because the male professor is Herr Doctor Professor—so I said, “Do I call you Frau Doctor Professor?” And she said, “No, that’s the professor’s wife. There isn’t actually a word for me.” I felt like that summed it up.


Philip Ball

I want to go back now. First of all, you studied geology at MIT, and one of the things I loved about your book was the way you make that subject come alive. I felt as though the minerals become clues. Now, the curious thing that I always find about geology is that in the nineteenth century, and the early nineteenth century in particular, it was the science. That was where the big questions were, questions about ancient pasts, questions about origins. And, of course, it was central to what Charles Darwin was doing. But you mentioned that today it’s sometimes dismissed as the thing you do if you’re not good enough for the hard sciences.


Lindy Elkins-Tanton

Isn’t that fascinating?


Philip Ball

Why do you think that is?


Lindy Elkins-Tanton

The history of the natural sciences is certainly fascinating to you and me. And we’d like to believe it’s fascinating to everybody. Darwin—everybody knows who Darwin was, and how he was the companion of the ship’s captain, who just then happened to be a natural scientist, and got seasick all the time, and ran around on land and learned all these things. And a lot of what he was doing was based on the work of Lyell, the geologist; and in fact, Darwin would have Lyell’s latest volumes shipped ahead so that he could read them from his next port, because it was so influential about time periods. Darwin’s evolution doesn’t work unless you understand the length of time there is involved, which hadn’t been understood. So that was the sweet spot in history, where it was the conflation of the time when a naturalist could make huge progress by simple observation, and inference, and where the complexities of geology and biology and the timeline were coming together—and also, the way that that interacted with the zeitgeist and the time, trying to understand religion, and whether there was meaning in life, or whether things were just impersonal and timeless, and that what we did right now really had no meaning. I think there was this beautiful conflation of all of these complex thoughts.


And then progress started being made in physics and chemistry, in particular, at a very high speed, because of its straightforwardness, in a sense. Geology is such a complex mess of biology and chemistry and physics and mathematics and ecology, and everything has to be mixed in. It’s easier to make progress in a science where you can be more specific and narrow in your inquiry. And so I think that that left geology behind. But I think there’s a different attitude toward it now, because of the climate crisis: because geology is deeply involved in how planets work.


But the last thing I would add here is that it’s very hard to do what we think of as the classic scientific method where you do multiple experiments, and then someone else does the same multiple experiments. There’s only one earth, and we can’t make a new one. The problem with the scale of temperature and time and length makes it impossible to do repeat experiments. So it’s much harder to know with absolute forever certainty.


Philip Ball

Right, and that’s also where it comes down to searching for clues about huge things, huge events in the past, in tiny traces left in rocks—isotope ratios or something. It still seems extraordinary to me that you can draw such big conclusions from past events from what seemed like such minimal differences in the physical object that you’re looking at.


Lindy Elkins-Tanton

Yeah, and this was something that frustrated me a great deal during my PhD, because I was really doing experiments in the lab about the chemistry of rock materials, and I began to realize that the interpretations of the results were non-unique. The physicists could find different processes that would lead to the same things that we were measuring. And that non-uniqueness made me realize, I’ve got to learn a lot more of the physics side to try to put these disciplines together to get better answers. So that was a good lesson for me toward moving toward teams.


Philip Ball

You had a very non-traditional trajectory as a scientist, right? When you finished your master’s at MIT, you went into business for some time. What led you to do that? That was something I wondered about in the book. It sounded as though maybe there was some doubt about whether you were cut out to do science. Was that what it was?


Lindy Elkins-Tanton

Yeah, I had a really exceptional lack of confidence at that time. I had a lack of confidence that was so profound that I can’t even really access it anymore. I tried to remember what it felt like. I only know the fact of it. And I think that it was actually much more related to what I, in the book, described as post-traumatic stress disorder from some fairly horrific childhood events which I’d really not dealt with, and it took me in my twenties to work through that and recover from it, which miraculously did happen. I wasn’t confident about my ability to do science. I’d written a very nice master’s degree that did get published and was until, I think, this year my most cited paper. It’s been cited hundreds of times. But I was terrified of the idea of standing in front of a poster at a conference and being asked questions. And I can’t remember what that was like, but I did. Then when I was 31, I was not your picture of success. I was depressed and anxious because I hadn’t finished solving my problems. And I was recently divorced and a single mother, and I went back to grad school. Amazingly, the faculty member I’d done my master’s with accepted me back after I proved to him my brain still worked, and took my math GREs, and all the rest of it. So not at all the picture of success.


To me, that was one of the big reasons I wanted to write the book, because, again, I guess I’m trying to get away from the hero narrative. Right at this moment in my career, I look like a picture of success. I’m now in the National Academy and I’m leading this mission, and we’re going to launch a giant rocket, and it’s looking like things are good for me. But the point of my story is that there’s no such thing as just a straight arrow shot from when you're born and then you’re successful. Everyone’s life has these ups and these downs, these crises and these tragedies, that you have to deal with, and these moments of brilliant happiness. And life is a ride on the ocean. And so I didn’t want at all in my book to look like I arrived at this moment somehow fully fledged. I came from a very unpromising and crooked-path beginning, and I certainly don’t expect to be this picture for the rest of my life. I’m expecting more waves on my ocean.


Philip Ball

I think that’s one of the most valuable things I found about your book: that it does explain that there isn’t a set way to do this. But also you comment on the fact that there’s a pressure perhaps to create the fiction that that is the way it works. You said that you felt there was a sense that you were supposed to say, “I’ve always wanted to do this, I’m being driven.” You had to show a steady pattern of working towards it. The fact that you had taken, if you like, what turned out to be time-out, and worked in some completely different area, business, wasn’t seen as a plus at all. It was something you skate over.


That seems such a shame. It gives the impression that there is only one path that you are meant to follow in order to be a successful scientist. There are plenty of others who find their way through non-traditional routes, if you like. It does seem a shame, to say the least, that the value of that actually isn’t recognized in science.


Lindy Elkins-Tanton

When I’m looking at young people who want to come and work on a graduate degree with me, I don’t need them to have known since they were six that they wanted to be a scientist. In fact, I’m a little suspicious sometimes of people that say they always knew. But what I want to see is someone who never gives up; I want to see someone who is persistent and shows up and keeps trying and questions themselves. Those are the things that get you to some goal in the end.


And for me, those years—I spent eight years in business before coming back to teaching for two years, and then going back to the PhD—were priceless in learning about how groups of people work together in business with a common goal. And I realized back in academia that there isn’t so much of a common goal in your typical research university. Each person has their individual goal. It’s a collection of city states, like Italy before it was united. And I wonder, did you also feel that sense that you were supposed to know from the beginning where you were going, and if you didn’t want to be a top research scientist, you were somehow settling for less?


Philip Ball

I left academic science after finishing my PhD and never looked back, actually. I went into science publishing, and started working as an editor at Nature, became a freelance writer. So I’ve never had to pretend that I’ve had anything like a novel career.


Lindy Elkins-Tanton

But you must have rejected that narrative along the way, though.


Philip Ball

Yeah, I think so. I think at the time, when I came to the end of having done my PhD, I felt: “Well, I could probably manage to get by, continuing with this. I don’t think I’m ever going to do anything special in science, but plenty of people don’t. It’s a career I could do.” But actually, is that really the way I want to spend my time? I’d always written in all sorts of ways. I was also a science geek from the outset. But they were two different worlds. I’d never imagined that you could actually bring them together until that point, and I enjoyed writing up my PhD, which most people hate.


Lindy Elkins-Tanton

That’s a great thing to be able to say, I love that.


Philip Ball

Well, then, I thought that’s telling me something; maybe writing’s what I need to do. So it was a conscious letting go of that. Having said that, I did have not quite as extensive a timeout as you, but I did spend two years between my undergraduate and my PhD working—well, not working: playing in a rock band.


Lindy Elkins-Tanton

Oh my gosh. I did not know that! That’s amazing.


Philip Ball

I certainly have no regrets about that. But I had that same sort of feeling: if I leave it too late, I’m never going to get back. So I had to make that choice then that science is something I want to continue doing. That was not exactly a traditional way of doing it either.


Lindy Elkins-Tanton

Interestingly parallel lives here. That’s really interesting to me. I didn’t know about the rock band part. Your writing career has been so successful and impressive. But I think that for a lot of people, it takes strength to decide not to go the academic route after their PhD because often their advisors are pressing them to go that way and there’s a sense of failure if you choose other, that it’s somehow less than. I’d also like to change that, because we need the kind of training of the mind that comes with a PhD in every aspect of what humans do, I think.


Philip Ball

Yeah, absolutely. However, you do get back to science and you went to MIT and did your PhD and then post-grad at Brown. And then you got a faculty position at MIT, it sounded very much to your surprise and delight, but of course. And it was there that you began to do this field work. In particular, you were working on flood basalts, specifically those in Siberia. This was my favorite section of the book, because you tell the journey of this field trip to the most incredibly remote parts of Siberia. And this was, I guess, in the early 90s.


Lindy Elkins-Tanton

It was a little later than that, thank God. So they were past the famine stage in Moscow.


Philip Ball

But even so, it was some time ago, when things were not what they are now. And you convey a genuine sense of working right on the edge of the world really; it sounded like there’s a real prospect of physical danger in what you’re doing, it was so remote. So what are some of your most vivid recollections of those trips? And also, maybe you can say a bit about what you were going there for: What are these flood basalts? What are you trying to find out?


Lindy Elkins-Tanton

First of all, I appreciate the chance to talk about this. I was there four different times, and the teams went five or six times—just incredible experiences, life experiences. Why was I not afraid? Why was I afraid to go to a scientific conference when I was 21, and willing to get on bullet-riddled, ancient ex-Soviet helicopters and fly hundreds of kilometers from any person and camp out and go down rivers? I was not scared at all. I was so excited to be there. And so, I would just like to thank Jung and the therapy and everything that helped me overcome my past, because that is the perfect black-and-white comparison to what happened in my mind in the interim.


In graduate school, I became acquainted with the idea that periodically in Earth’s history, these fissures open up and these huge amounts of lava pour out onto the surface in this kind of event that as you rightly call a flood basalt. It’s only happened–I don’t know–16, maybe 20, times in Earth’s history. It doesn’t happen at plate boundaries, like mid-ocean ridge basalts or the Cascades or Japan; it happens in the middle of continents. It’s not very well understood. When it happens, it’s a million cubic kilometers of lava, or in the case of Siberia, three or four million cubic kilometers, which could cover the continental United States to almost a mile deep. So it’s a lot of lava. And it seems like at the same time as this happened in Siberia, which was 252 million years ago, way before dinosaur extinction, there was also an extinction event, the largest in Earth’s history. Almost more than 90% of species in the oceans went extinct and over 70% on land. It was close to the end of multicellular life for a little while. It was a very big deal. And lots of people had said these two events must be related to each other. But no one had really proven that there was a connection, and other people said they’re not related, because flood basalts are just calm eruptions, like Hawaii: you can walk up to them and you can go home and you didn’t die, unless the lava actually rolls over you.


And so, we decided we wanted to solve this, and we got a big grant from the National Science Foundation. It was my first big grant success. At the time, it felt huge. It was a 36-page proposal and $3.2 million. Now it’s like a walk in the park. But at the time, it was a very big deal. And so, it included 30 scientists from eight different countries, and we worked on this project for five years, and had an extension for another year or two, and it involved going to Siberia and getting pieces of the rocks. So that’s what I got to do, that part of it.


One of my most vivid moments was, I think, at the end of our first major field season in 2008. I’d been there previously, but this was a big one up in the Taymyr Peninsula in the northern part of central Siberia, up above the Arctic Circle, and we are going down this big cold river called the Kotuy in these dire little inflatable boats. We’d been dropped there by helicopter, and there were no roads, and no railroads, and only one settlement that we passed, and when we got to that settlement, we pulled out and we got picked up by another helicopter and dropped inland to a place even more remote, where we were the very first Westerners ever to go to this location. And every day was a series of astonishments, with this beautiful giant countryside, which felt—I don’t think I wrote this in the book—it felt like my understanding of the Earth was not big enough to encompass what I could see with my eyes across the endless rolling taiga, which just goes on farther than it seems possible.


So, at the end, we’ve got hundreds of kilograms of rock samples. And our Russian colleagues managed to get us a freight flight on a plane instead of a passenger plane, because it’s hard to get rock samples onto Russian passenger planes. So we’re waiting in the little wooden airport in Khatanga, this little tiny town, and we see our rocks are in a shipping container and we see the shipping container go out to the plane, and then they say it’s our turn. So we walk out around the plane, and we have to climb up a ladder that’s leaned against the plane, and there’s a rope with knots in it that we’re holding onto while we go up, so we don’t fall. And this always happened: We got in the plane, and there are already people in the plane, which is weird. How did they get there? We seem to be the only ones coming out of the airport. They’re about eight jump seats that can be folded down off the sides of this otherwise empty freight plane, and they’re all taken. So there’s no seats for us. It’s cold, and the floor of the plane is a steel plate. So we put on all of our expedition equipment, our extra layers and our waterproofs and our little hats, and we’re freezing. And the only thing we can do on takeoff is stand up and link our arms around these metal poles. There’s a navigator sitting at a desk and plotting things with the protractor. I wonder, Where am I?


We’ve got to fly about four hours to get to Krasnyarsk, in the middle of Siberia, and partway through the flight, we start smelling this weird greasy smell. I’m there with a couple colleagues and also Ben Black, who was a graduate student working with me at the time. He’s now faculty at Rutgers, and he just was in such great humor all the time. He thought everything was hilarious just like I did. You know, he fixes his video on me: “Lindy, we’re about to take off in a plane. We have no seats. Quick, write a haiku!” So we get up to look around the plane. Where is this smell coming from? We go behind the shipping container, and the whole back of the plane is stacked with flayed frozen caribou carcasses from the ground to the ceiling. They were on their way to restaurants in Moscow. So we took pictures of them, because we could not believe our eyes: they weren’t wrapped or anything. They were piled up like cordwood. And so, after having been in Siberia for several weeks, with just the occasional sat phone to my long-suffering, fabulous husband back home, the very first picture he gets from me on my phone when I’m back in civilization is a giant pile of dead caribou from the back of this plane.


Philip Ball

That’s exactly it. You know, the plane aside, I had a sense in that section of the book, it could be happening at any time in the last century. It could be happening in Dostoyevsky.


Lindy Elkins-Tanton

It felt that way. And having been obsessed with Russian writers and read, I mean, seemingly all of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and Pushkin and you name it during high school and college, I felt like I was living it, which made it a fantastical adventure.


Philip Ball

That was so fantastic to read about—​​thank you. In the time we’ve got left, I want to talk about what you have to say in the book about how science is done. We’ve spoken a little bit about that already, but this, again, was such a valuable aspect of the book, because you’re really challenging some of the ways that it’s done now, and I think in ways that are vastly overdue and hugely important. In particular, you say, “Asking questions implied ignorance at MIT.” And I think it’s so generally elsewhere. And you say, “At seminars their questions were swords, not magnifying glasses.”


This absolutely reflects the experience that I’ve often had, and again it is so peculiar when such a big deal is made in science about how important it is that scientists ask questions rather than relying on dogma. And yet sometimes it seems that there’s no training in the art of asking the right questions. There’s training about getting the techniques for answering questions, but it’s coming up with them that’s the important thing. And you have a great section of the methods that you’ve developed and field-tested with students to try to get a system for how to ask better questions. So can you say a little bit about that?


Lindy Elkins-Tanton

Thank you, my favorite topic. Where are we without questions? And the science classes you have to take in middle and high school give you the impression that everything is already known, and it’s in a textbook, and what we really have is so many more questions than we have answers. There’s room for all of us to go help answer them, but instead you think that everything is done, signed, sealed, and delivered in a hardcover book, and there’s no room for you. So we have to relearn how to ask questions.


We’ve developed with this little company that we started, Beagle Learning, and then with my colleagues here at Arizona State University, a new style of inquiry in class, where the entire class is led by the students’ questions, and where they practice asking research questions that allow them to do an aliquot, one moment of research in the form of finding a peer review paper, understanding what they can of it that answers their question, asking a new question. It turns out that this is transformative for people, because they’ve always had their material curated for them in education. And so on the old model in everything they read, they’re responsible for learning, and yes, it’ll be on the test. But in the real world, you’re asking a question. It’s possible no one has answered it. It’s likely that someone has answered a part of it, and then when you find whatever they’ve written or produced, only a part of what they wrote or produced is relevant to your question. So you need to also learn how to dig through the material. That is quite a shock for a lot of students. They’ve never had to do that. And so, in the course of the semester, they learn how to ask better and better questions, and after they’ve practiced a few times, we give them a rubric. We’ve actually developed a rubric for what makes a great research question, and we show them how to score their own questions. That then helps them to improve their questions to make them more answerable, more specific, more on target for their big goal, whatever it is. So we practice that, and the graduate students who take these courses also have said that they’re useful.


I then started working on our project here at ASU called Interplanetary Initiative, and one of the things we do is seedfund research projects. Only, I don’t want people to come and bring their own proposals for their own work that they’re going to do, which is the next slice of knowledge in front of them in their real estate. I think that a lot of that research is brilliant. I’m all for the individual researcher. But I think we also need to do another thing, which is aim for the very most important questions and get there as fast as we can, rather than just necessarily having the next curiosity question that’s easily to hand. We’re in a little bit of an urgent situation in our society, and so we brainstorm together, as a group of whoever is willing to come, the very biggest, most important questions that need to be answered in whatever topic we’re considering and then we vote on them. Then we volunteer into groups and see if we can make a project that would take us, in one year, a step toward this giant aspirational question. And if we can get that far and find someone to lead it, we give them a little bit of seed funding. It could be just $5,000 or $15,000. This ended up being very successful. We’ve now seedfunded 38 projects over seven years, and we’re still running at about a seven-times return on investment, or they get follow-on funding from grants and philanthropies to continue the work. So trying these different ways to help people ask questions, overcome the hero complex, work in teams, go for more important things—these are our little ways that we’re hacking away at that mountain.


Philip Ball

I think what’s so valuable about it is that it’s one thing to say, “Wouldn’t it be great if we did things this way,” but actually, what you’re showing is that there are systems that you can use; it’s a teachable thing. Asking questions is a teachable thing. I feel the same way about writing: scientists somehow magically know how to write, and you’re good at it or you’re not, but that’s absolutely not the case. It’s a craft that you can learn and it’s teachable.


I think that that’s one of the lessons that I took away from your book: so many aspects of science—like team building, like leadership, like mentorship—you’re supposed to somehow get if you think they’re important, but no one’s going to teach you. And yet they’re central to doing science, and I think it’s so valuable to show that actually they are teachable, and they should be taught.


Lindy Elkins-Tanton

You must have seen so much of that at Nature: how teachable writing is, and who has been taught and who hasn’t. So many examples. I see this a lot actually in the highest levels of competitive science and engineering: the idea that the hard thing is the science or the engineering, and everything else about your craft is something that you’re smart enough to teach yourself. So we’re smart enough to learn on our own how to write, how to mentor, how to write budgets, how to deal with HR issues, how to form teams, how to be a leader. But these are actually really difficult things that it’s possible to learn from other people who know more about it than you do. And so that’s a little bit of what we’re trying to bring to the table also, as you are with writing.


Philip Ball

Not doing that creates huge impediments to science. A number of times I see papers that are not difficult to understand because of the concept; they’re difficult to understand because the people who’ve written them clearly have had no training, and it’s not their fault, of course. They just haven’t had that training. But if you don’t have that—and I see it all the time—scientists are talking past each other. They have no skill or practice or training in how to communicate effectively.


One aspect of that, and then one thing that really struck me in your book, as very, very familiar, as you say: you see graduate students learning how the game is played at the moment, which is to make confident, assertive statements, whether they’re right or wrong. It’s about putting someone else’s ideas down and saying, “No, this is how to do it.” It’s a very depressing thing to see, as you say. You can see that happening; but people don’t come into science thinking that’s the way to do it. They learn that that’s what is expected.


Lindy Elkins-Tanton

That’s right. And I’ve had these arguments with postdocs and graduate students over the years a number of times, where I tell them to please not use jargon in their talks, and please remove their acronyms. And I’ve had people say to me explicitly: “But if I don’t use jargon and acronyms, how will they know I’m an expert? Won’t they just assume I’m not good at what I do?”


I think that it’s just so central to be a communicator. And in the end, I did leave that position at MIT to go to Carnegie and to come out here. And it’s a little bit of an unexpected step, to go from the Carnegie Institute and MIT to ASU, as I did ten years ago. But really, what brought me out here was the vision; it was the vision that we could educate those who are educable, instead of only allowing those who were already excellent. To me, that is a part of this whole thing that we’re talking about: the idea that you can learn these skills, and that these skills should be available for everyone to learn. And it turns out that starting with a populace that isn’t already convinced that they’re brilliant, it’s a little easier to make progress.


Philip Ball

There’s a very powerful section in your book, which also sounds so familiar, about dealing with harassment and bullying, which is now recognized as a huge systemic problem. I mean, not just in science, of course, but it is very much there in science. You have an account of a pretty horrendous episode that you had to go through where there was a reluctance to address it. It’s as though that idea conflicts with the lone, creative genius—they’re given a free pass for so much.


Lindy Elkins-Tanton

For so much, including things that are literally illegal. That’s right. In that part of the book that you’re talking about, luckily, I was not the object of the harassment particularly, only a little bit, but I was just trying to make change as a leader. We talked in the beginning about being a woman in science, and obviously there is a huge gender bias in general, in humanity, everywhere in the world. But I’m much more concerned about anyone who isn’t feeling like they are the strongest person in the room or that they have a cohort that they consider to be like them. Men who are sexually harassed have fewer resources and less help than women who are sexually harassed, who already have little enough. And so, this is an all-community problem, and it has to do with power dynamics, which feed into everything we’ve just been talking about, much more than it has to do with sexuality. It’s a symptom of the culture that we’ve been discussing.


Philip Ball

And you say that it’s perhaps made even more difficult now by the fact—you have this very interesting phrase—that sometimes students seem to be arriving in courses “pre-enraged,” because of what they’ve already experienced. And that just means passions get inflamed immediately, and it becomes harder to resolve situations amicably or at all.


Lindy Elkins-Tanton

Yeah, that’s ended up being a very useful concept for me—“the pre-enraged.” Once people are allowed to recognize the wrongs that have been done to them in the past and understand that they are wrongs and see that they were not righted, there is this rage, and rage is the result of feeling impotent against what’s wrong. And people do tend to bring that emotion with them to the next similar circumstance.


The challenge—and I’m certain that you face these emotions many times as you had to give people bad news about work that they were doing, whatever it was like. That’s not a pretty process to go through with academics. The challenge is that when the conversation about a difficult subject is already attacking, it does not motivate the other people to come to a negotiation and a good solution. You have to take that page from Ruth Bader Ginsburg and become the kind of leader and changemaker that other people actually want to work with, and it requires a lot of control. It’s very hard for anyone trying to make change to deal with all the people who are furious—not at the person trying to make change, but really at their past.


Philip Ball

I think we’re probably meant to wrap up on the hour. But I do want to finish with the big event that’s coming up, the impending launch. I cannot imagine how tense it must feel for you. But I’m going to ask you: What do you feel like at the moment? Do you feel confident? Do you feel ready for this?


Lindy Elkins-Tanton

I feel ready, but not confident. I think confident is a thing that one should not be—it’s too close to complacent. So many things could go wrong. We actually find new issues all the time, every day. And we’re just a few weeks out. So I’m glad that you asked it that way, because a lot of people ask me: “Aren’t you excited?” I hope to be excited one day! Right now, we’re just trying to do the right thing, and get there, and stay focused on what we’re doing.


I think a really important part of the story is that we were supposed to launch last August, and we were not ready. The reason we were not ready—there are many reasons; it’s a complicated thing. If we knew exactly the one thing, we would have fixed it. But there was a part of the team where team culture failed, and where people knew something was wrong and they were not able to speak up because their leadership did not listen. It was, unfortunately, the proof through failure that team culture is everything. They were not able to finish on time. It was not their fault: they were under-resourced, and they were not listened to. It was our fault. It was the leadership’s fault, and that was a very expensive and painful error. And now, we’re getting a chance to launch again, and we’ve done all that work and made it up.


So a year of lessons learned, of huge pain overcome, of amazing challenges. This team has overcome time and time again, building the spacecraft during COVID. And I’m confident we’re going to launch in October, and it’s going to be amazing, and then I’ll be very excited. I’ll be very excited when the spacecraft is power positive, thermally stable, and in communication with the earth. Then there will be lots of jumping up and down.


Philip Ball

All I can say is, the very best of luck with that! And I felt the same way with the JWST [James Webb Space Telescope], having spoken to the people involved, and now having read your book and spoken to you, I’m also invested in this myself now.


Lindy Elkins-Tanton

You’re part of the team! I’m so grateful for your time and attention and for the opportunity to speak with you. Thank you so much for this.


Philip Ball

Oh, it’s been a great pleasure. Thank you.




 

Lindy Elkins-Tanton is Principal Investigator of the NASA Psyche mission, a vice president at Arizona State University, and the author of A Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman. She has led four field expeditions in Siberia, as well as participated in fieldwork in the Sierra Nevada, the Cascades, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands.


Philip Ball is a scientist, writer, and a former editor at the journal Nature. He has won numerous awards and has published more than twenty-five books, most recently How Life Works: A User’s Guide to the New Biology; The Book of Minds: How to Understand Ourselves and Other Beings, From Animals to Aliens; and The Modern Myths: Adventures in the Machinery of the Popular Imagination. He writes on science for many magazines and journals internationally and is the contributing editor for Science at the Marginalia Review of Books. Tweets @philipcball





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