I’ve been spending a lot of time lately wondering what I’d like to do with my life – professionally, that is. It’s hardly a unique problem: I know plenty of people graduating this year from university, defending their Ph.D.s, or finding that it’s time to move on from their current job. As we fumble through cover letters and grant applications, it can be easy to forget what’s motivating us.
When I lose perspective, I sometimes think back to a childhood memory from the shores of Monterey Bay. I was giddy over the marine life my vacationing family had spotted in the kelp beds and tidepools along the coast. My mom was giddy over what might have been my first real interest in a scientific career.
“If you want to be a marine biologist,” she told me, “You have to go to Woods Hole. That’s where Rachel Carson worked.”
It’s hard to underestimate the influence that Rachel Carson had on my family. My dad read her natural history accounts of the sea while he was growing up, and almost had a career in marine biology because of them. And Carson’s fearless environmental and conservation reporting won over my mom’s heart.
But there’s a reason that Rachel Carson is a household name in more than just our scientifically-fixated one: Her work changed the entire world.
After decades of writing about science for the public, Carson published Silent Spring in 1962. The book exposed the dark underbelly of the chemical pesticides that had become wildly popular after World War II. Though obviously immediately effective at, for example, killing off disease-spreading mosquitoes and crop-devouring locusts, pesticides have some major problems. First, they aren’t a long-term fix: insects (and other things we like to fight with chemicals, like bacteria) can evolve resistance, so that over time, the pesticides stop working. Second, pesticides can do tremendous environmental damage: they’re rarely specific in their toxic effects, so they can pose poisonous danger to other animals, including humans. For example, DDT, highlighted by Carson in Silent Spring, works its way up the food chain, accumulating in the fatty tissues of long-lived top predators, like the osprey and eagles whose populations were decimated by DDT-induced nest failure, and even us humans.
Silent Spring sparked an uproar. The book was published at a time when America’s confidence in its scientific prowess was high. After all, science – in the form of an atom bomb – won the war for us in Japan. Tremendous government investments in other technologies were pushing industry forward. And a woman with a 300-page book had just thrown a wrench into the works.
It must have been a scary thing to do. And given the amount of preparation Carson and her publishing team did before Silent Spring’s public release, she knew what was coming. The endless interview requests. Testifying before Congress. Personal attacks calling her a bad scientist, and even a Communist (quite the loaded term in those Cold War days).
And she did it all while she was fighting terminal breast cancer, which would ultimately claim her life less than two years later. Rachel Carson died at age 56, before she could see many of the lasting effects of her work come to fruition, like the nationwide ban of DDT, the passage of the Clean Air Act, and the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Last July, more than fifty years after Silent Spring, I stood by the sea in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, as the town dedicated a statue of Rachel Carson, looking out over the water as she must have so often during her time there. The Reverend Deborah Warner gave a closing blessing, calling on the scientists there to “rededicate ourselves to the service of stewardship to this burdened, yet bountiful beckoning blue planet,” and thanking Rachel Carson, for always “tirelessly telling the truth.”
When I think about my career, my writing, my life – from political debates with friends to deliberating over organic vegetables and fair trade chocolate to struggling over scientific publications and grant-writing – I think about those moments by the sea. I think about Reverend Warner’s words, and my mother’s. I think about Rachel Carson, and doing the right thing. I think about the beauty of the scientific method, my own call to honor it, and the value of tirelessly telling the truth.
Holly truly welcomes reader feedback at hollyvm “at” stanford.edu.