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Why has it been so hard to let brilliant women shine?

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By Victoria Jaggard, SCIENCE Executive Editor

My all-time favorite Halloween costume is one I made mostly by hand, using my rudimentary sewing skills to transform a generic princess dress into the gown worn by Ada Lovelace in her famous 1840s watercolor portrait. Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, was the wayward daughter of the poet Lord Byron and is often credited as being one of the world’s first computer programmers. Much to my chagrin, though, very few people understand the costume when I wear it out, or know who I mean once I explain it.

I’ve found this to be a pattern: Even as stories of women who’ve made significant contributions to science come bubbling up in greater measure, public recognition remains hazy at best. Scientists in general may never have the same cachet as pop stars, but it can happen under the right circumstances (just ask Dr. Anthony Fauci). One common factor seems to be that many women who are being lauded today, and who would have been at the peaks of their careers in the past few decades, had to overcome tremendous hurdles just to get started.

This week alone, I’m seeing stark parallels in the stories of antiviral pioneer Gertrude Elion and physicist Myriam Sarachik. Both women were pursuing research careers while they were being told outright that they had no place in the lab. Elion graduated summa cum laude in 1937 with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, Patrick Adams reports for Nat Geo, but she had to move back in with her parents and take a series of temporary jobs until wartime labor shortages opened up opportunities at pharmaceutical companies. Now, thanks to her research, we have antiviral drugs for ailments ranging from herpes to AIDS—and maybe COVID-19.

Meanwhile, Sarachik (pictured below) had to plead with her Columbia University professor to help her find work as a research physicist in the 1960s. Her postdoctoral work at Bell Labs led to a breakthrough in understanding electrical resistance in metals. But “I got no recognition for it for years,” she tells Kenneth Chang of the New York Times, and soon she was looking for a new job. After a varied career dotted with personal tragedy, she is only now being recognized with one of the highest honors bestowed by the American Physical Society. “Women are no better and no worse at doing physics than men are,” she says. “They are, however, at least if they’re my age, more persistent."

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Being tenacious in the face of adversity is a quality to be admired. But it forces us to confront what these and other women could have achieved if they had not needed to be so persistent in battling sexism, and they could have channeled that energy into their work. Similarly, what scientific bounty could we be reaping if people of color and other diverse scientists were not even now fighting against racism and bigotry? There is power in telling the stories of diversity in science, and in working on bringing more brilliant people from disadvantaged backgrounds into the public eye. And so I will persist in wearing my Ada costume, and I hope we will all persist in bringing these vital stories to light.

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Today in a minute

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Cosmic cataclysm: On a morning in May, the Earth trembled from the vibration of a faraway, seven billion year-old collision of two immense black holes. The pileup produced a black hole 142 million times more massive than our sun, Nat Geo's Michael Greshko reports. The event, announced today by Physical Review Letters, is “probably the largest explosion we’ve ever known in the universe,” says Caltech astronomer Matthew Graham.

Cruel, cruel summer:
California farmworkers have been working through a summer of increasingly brutal conditions—record-breaking temperatures, wildfires, and COVID-19. For many of these “essential workers,” battling poverty without legal protections, there is no choice but to keep picking crops, Nat Geo's Alejandra Borunda reports. “In heat, COVID, or fires, you just have to keep working,” says Sarait Martinez, the organizing director of Californians for Pesticide Reform. Her parents are both farmworkers in the Salinas Valley.

Why is the U.S. so bad at contact tracing?
Only about 41,000 people—including many unpaid volunteers—are working in the U.S. to track sources of COVID-19 infection and hopefully save other people. Even with more than six million Americans infected and more than 183,000 people dead, it’s impossible to overestimate the importance of contact tracing, says Constance Chen. “I’ve noticed a definite sense of hopelessness. But we can’t afford to give up,” Chen tells Lois Parshley.

Promise: After eight months of treatment, doctors are finding ways to blunt some of the worst effects of the coronavirus, Nat Geo’s Michael Greshko reports. One steroid holds promise to stop the body from overreacting to COVID-19. Also promising: Interferon-beta, used by severe asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease patients to better fight off viral infections. Basic medical care is helping, too, putting patients on their stomachs or tweaking ventilators to limit the pressure and volume of air blown into the lungs.

Get ready for arsenic: The EPA rolled back regulations for dealing with residue from burning coal and smokestack filters at coal-fired power plants. The move loosens restrictions on the plants’ wastewater, which can contain high levels of toxic chemicals including mercury, arsenic, nitrogen, and selenium. Check out how the two presidential candidates stand on the environment.

Your Instagram photo of the day

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Miss Piggy: That’s the name of this helium-filled tethered balloon, deployed by scientist Holger Siebert at the Villum Research Station. Researchers at Greenland's northernmost science base measure turbulence, terrestrial and solar radiation, and black carbon, with the goal of understanding the processes contributing to rapid change in the Arctic. Photographer Esther Horvath has specialized in studying the science and the scientists at the world's geographical extremes.

Related: At this remote base, life is anything but lonely

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This week in the night sky

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Where’s Mars? Sky-watchers can see the waning gibbous moon and Mars rise in the east together in evening skies this weekend. While the two worlds will appear on Saturday at their closest together for most people, those across most of South America will actually witness Mars disappear behind the moon. Known as a lunar occultation, the moon will seem to glide in front of Mars from 10 to 20 minutes, as seen across a vast portion of the central region of the continent. Meanwhile observers in the southern part of South America will see the moon glide below Mars, while North Americans can catch the moon pass above the ruddy-colored planet. Mars will get bigger and brighter as it heads toward opposition in mid-October—when it will make its closest approach to Earth in two years. — Andrew Fazekas

Related: NASA’s newest rover heads to Mars to search for extraterrestrial life

The big takeaway

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'Our life depends on keeping it safe’: That’s pioneering marine biologist Sylvia Earle (pictured above in 2017), defining our duty to the Earth’s seas. Celebrating her 85th birthday last Sunday, Earle told us that she was optimistic that these next few months would be crucial for people to stand up for the oceanic world while there is time to save it. “Why do we think that we have the wisdom, the authority, to tear it up for the gain of a few countries, a few companies, a few individuals who will get very rich very fast at the cost of everyone else?” Earle asked. “This should not be acceptable."

In a few words

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The last glimpse

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We can do it! It’s not too late to fight effectively against COVID-19. That’s what experts are telling Nat Geo’s Craig Welch. Although it won’t be stamped out until a proven vaccine is released and distributed to all, the virus can be limited with continued social distancing and increased mask use; the closure of high-risk spaces; and strengthened contact tracing. Frequent, easy, and ready testing would be a game changer, but until then, Welch writes, we have to keep nudging each other to stay safe. (Pictured above, 10-foot-diameter, social distancing circles at San Francisco’s Mission Dolores Park.)

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, with photo selections by Jen Tse. Kimberly Pecoraro and Gretchen Ortega helped produce this. Have an idea or a link? We'd love to hear from you at david.beard@natgeo.com . Thanks for reading, and have a good week ahead.