By Victoria Jaggard, SCIENCE Executive Editor
Science, as a discipline, is somewhat obsessed with the notion of due credit. Woe betide the news writer who does not note which person is the lead author on a study. That’s one reason I’ve been personally fascinated with recent efforts to bring so-called hidden figures in science into the spotlight.
Stories highlighting marginalized people’s contributions to science have been trickling out for decades, but the term “hidden figures” leapt into our shared consciousness thanks to the incredible 2016 book, and subsequent movie, about the Black women who made vital calculations to send early NASA astronauts into space. Both works catapulted NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson (pictured above) into international stardom in her mid-90s—even though she made her contributions to the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space programs decades earlier. Johnson, who died this week at the age of 101, was a true pioneer, and her story will resonate for decades to come.
The exponential increase in stories about other hidden figures can be inspiring stuff, although sometimes the patterns that emerge are heartbreaking. The more I read, the more I see two common narrative arcs: People who did the work loud and proud and were persecuted for it (looking at you, Hypatia), and people who did the work quietly and went consistently unrecognized for far too long (over to you, Eunice Foote and Rosalind Franklin).
Still, I have hope for scientists working today, thanks to the efforts of people like Jessica Wade. A woman working in physics, Wade has been adding biographies of notable women and people of color to Wikipedia’s bounty of scientist biographies. And writers such as Angela Saini are really hitting science where it hurts, uncovering the dark history of inaccuracies, biases, and downright bad research practices that led to so many good scientists being stifled. Maybe, as more people like them champion inclusion in science, the need to celebrate hidden figures will become a thing of the past.
Do you get this daily? If not, sign up here or forward to a friend.
Your Instagram photo of the day
Steaming: You’re looking at Mount Pavlof (right, a.k.a. Pavlof Volcano) and Pavlof Sister in Alaska’s Aleutian range. Mount Pavlof has been one of the most active volcanos in the United States since 1980; its most recent eruption came four years ago this March. Pavlof Sister has been quiet since 1762. If you look closely, you’ll see that photographer Toby Harriman captured plumes of steam and volcanic gas rising from Pavlof Volcano.
From the archives: Alaska's erupting Pavlof Volcano puts on fiery display
Are you one of our 131 million Instagram followers? (If not, follow us now.)
Today in a minute
Will warm weather slow the coronavirus outbreak? That’s how it works with the flu, but experts caution that COVID-19 is new—and they’re not sure, Nat Geo’s Sarah Gibbens reports. U.S. officials are warning that clusters of the virus will likely break out in the United States, and Olympics officials say they may cancel the Tokyo Olympics unless the outbreak lets up in coming months.
Why is Mars humming? “The source of this ancient music remains unknown,” Nat Geo’s Maya Wei-Haas reports. But it is among a treasure trove of information from NASA’s InSight lander, which touched down on the red planet in November 2018. The latest batch of data shows the first active fault line discovered on Mars and patterns and pulses in modern Martian magnetic fields, Wei-Haas writes.
Old-school recycling: Companies such as Coca-Cola used to collect 98 percent of their bottles back from customers—and re-use those bottles 40 to 50 times. New companies are working to learn from those lessons to lessen the onslaught of plastic upon the land and water, Laura Parker reports for Nat Geo.
Accepting science—and getting our calendars in order: This Saturday, February 29, you may want to thank Julius Caesar for squaring Roman time with Egyptian calendars, and introducing leap years. It was a messy job, writes Brian Handwerk for Nat Geo. For one thing, Caesar decreed a 445-day-long year in 46 B.C. to rectify the calendars in one fell swoop. The period became known as, you guessed it, the Year of Confusion.
This week in the night sky
Goddess of Love and Seven Sisters: As night begins to fall on Friday, don’t miss watching a stunningly thin crescent moon in the western sky next to a very bright Venus. Their proximity is an optical illusion, since the moon is only 1.2 light-seconds away, while the planet is 12 light-minutes distant. And if you train even the smallest of backyard telescopes on the beacon-like Venus, it reveals itself to be not a round disk, but a miniature version of the gibbous moon, thanks to the way sunlight hits the planet from our vantage point. By Monday, the moon will have risen higher in the sky and sandwiched itself between the bright orange star Aldebaran and the Seven Sisters star cluster. —Andrew Fazekas
The big takeaway
Saving the planet, defined: Maybe the reason humans have not been able so far to save themselves from human made destruction, academics say, is that we haven't developed the proper vocabulary to explain the danger of climate change. A wonky but infectiously hopeful new set of essays, An Ecotopian Lexicon, is trying to do that. "Maybe language that forces us to confront loss directly and thoughtfully might prevent the onset of total despair," writes The New Yorker's Hua Hsu in a review. "Maybe it can lead us somewhere else altogether."
Did a friend forward this to you?
Come back tomorrow for Rachael Bale on the latest in animal news. If you’re not a subscriber, sign up here to also get Whitney Johnson on photography, Debra Adams Simmons on history, and George Stone on travel.
The last glimpse
Another uncounted cost of carbon: Methane gas, a vastly more potent heat-trapping gas than carbon dioxide, leaks from the ground both naturally and from coal, oil, and gas extraction. New research shows that more of the gas in the atmosphere comes from the fossil fuel industry than previously thought.
Read: Natural gas is a much ‘dirtier’ energy source than we thought