Science communication is all too often a matter of reporting end states. Scientist X has discovered Thing Y, and we should be happy/anxious/enraged about that because it means Z. We certainly need people to do that, particularly in an age where discovery is rapidly outpacing the ability of even a dedicated amateur to keep track of it all. But what is more precious, and more difficult to describe, is the process X went through to eventually find her way to Y. That calls for a very particular gift of threading one’s way between an abundance of technical detail and the temptation to over-romanticization which is possessed by a lucky few science writers.
It’s a game with high stakes. Over-emphasize the excitement of a scientific career and you risk creating a disillusioned generation of young researchers who leave science when they discover it is less about explosions and more about pain-staking massaging of data sets. Over-emphasize the hard-core scientific minutiae, and you risk turning off young minds at the start from a career that might have well suited them. The twentieth century boasts a handful of science writers who sailed masterfully between these twin threats to meaningfully and deeply engage a wide audience, to teach them the first steps of scientific curiosity that saw them on their way. Helen Sawyer Hogg was one, Carl Sagan was another, and in our time we are fortunate to have figures like Sarah Parcak, Lisa Randall, and our subject for today, the entirely original Jess Phoenix.
Phoenix is an individual directly from super-hero central casting. A volcano researcher, who goes on perilous scientific expeditions that have brought her gaze to the tops of volcanoes and the depths of the sea, who once faced down members of a South American drug cartel to get her favorite geologic rock hammer back, who has hair that is lava red and is occasionally worn in a punk mohawk, whose last name is Phoenix, which is as close a thing to a lava bird as exists in world mythology- that is nine tenths of a Marvel character right there.
Phoenix overcomes injuries, exhaustion, and often omnipresent peril to achieve the scientific tasks she sets herself, and that example, of what one can do when an iron will is placed in the service of broad-based curiosity, is an inspiring one.
It would be the easiest thing in the world for somebody with that compelling of a backstory to forsake the rigors of research and responsible communication to become a pop science icon, but what becomes clear in reading Phoenix’s memoir is her steadfast resistance to becoming that type of science communicator. Her work is guided by an infectious 1-2 rhythm of instinctive curiosity followed by hard science, a refusal to restrict her questions within the bounds of her micro-specialization bound to a drive to see those questions through to their answer regardless of the demands on her endurance or time.
Ms. Adventure is the chronicling of a life driven by that rhythm, and a peek inside the world of just how X ultimately gets to Y. In it, we track Phoenix over the course of the early 21st century, from her early work on the Hawaiian volcanoes Mauna Loa and Kilauea to her time at sea as a geologist on an expedition investigating the undersea volcano Lo’ihi Seamount, to her work in South America investigating moraines for evidence that the Little Ice Age extended to the Southern hemisphere, and culminating in account of working with the Discovery channel to create a documentary surrounding her work at the active Ecuadorian volcano El Reventador that shines a whole new light on the often manufactured world of nature films.
The focus throughout is on the human requirements of scientific work, with enough scientific explanation to allow the reader to understand the significance of what is happening without getting bogged down in the dizzying minutiae of earth science terminology. We see the personal cost and rewards of a life out in the field as experienced by a person driven by the resolve to not let the theoretical limitations of the human body stand in the way of their need for answers. Phoenix overcomes injuries, exhaustion, and often omnipresent peril to achieve the scientific tasks she sets herself, and that example, of what one can do when an iron will is placed in the service of broad-based curiosity, is an inspiring one. She shows us that you can throw yourself into the deep and rigorous work of science without losing your basic wonder at it all, and that is perhaps the most important message that we can communicate to the rising crop of eager young minds trying to find their way.
There are a few curious omissions in the book. There aren’t any diagrams of the structure of volcanoes or the processes that go into their formation and development over time, and as gifted a describer as Phoenix is, I found myself often unable to picture where Phoenix was at different moments in her research and what she was up to there. She also describes a number of sensational photos she took in the field which are frustratingly not present in the memoir, though perhaps in an age of pocket super computers it is now redundant to have expensive color pictures in books. Still, their inclusion, or a footnote with a link to her gallery of them, might have put a nice cherry on top of the narrative experience. These issues, however, might easily not be problems for people with a better ability to translate words into three dimensional pictures than I happen to possess.
The ultimate question with any book is, “Who is this for?” If you are going into Ms. Adventure expecting to learn in detail the geology of volcanoes, you will likely be disappointed. It is not a volcano textbook and is not trying to be one. What it is is a wonderful book to put in the hands of a junior high or high school student who thinks she might want to do science but is apprehensive about science’s reputation for being all about computer screens, fluorescently lit labs, and statistical analysis. Here is science in all of its adventurous bloom, where a healthy sense of curiosity and self-determination can take you places you could scarcely imagine before. Here are people trying their hardest to pool their abilities to pull off great things on grand scales, and you cannot help but be pulled into their common and very human enthusiasm. It is a book for people who want to find their way back to the wonder of inquiry, and the excitement of being alive on this curious little planet of ours, and I believe we could all use a bit of that just right now.
images courtesy of Timber Press