Friday, October 7, 2011

Ada Lovelace Day: Rachel Carson

Ada Lovelace Day aims to raise the profile of women in science, technology, engineering and maths by encouraging people around the world to talk about the women whose work they admire. 
Mooncalf asked, via Twitter, which woman in science and technology was my heroine? I immediately replied Rachel Carson! Mooncalf wasn't sure who that was, so I'm once again departing from my usual creative-type posts to give a brief synopsis of why Rachel Carson is so important. (I could be very, very brief and say: Environmental Protection Agency.)
Rachel Carson was born in 1907 in Pennsylvania. She was a writer and a scientist, who began by majoring in English and then switched to biology. (I began in English, switched to wildlife biology--although in retrospect I wish I'd switched to pure biology or marine biology--and then later I went back for the English degree, too.) She was only the second woman to be hired by the US Bureau of Fisheries for a full-time, professional position. She used her writing skills to translate science for the general public, something that is entirely underrated and requires both the ability to understand the science and communicate it clearly and in an interesting way. (This is not a common skill set.) She went on to write full time, and her trilogy of sea books (Under the Sea-wind, The Sea Around Us, and The Edge of the Sea) was extremely popular.

She is perhaps best known, however, for The Silent Spring, which detailed the effects of DDT and similar pesticides to the food chain and the environment. The chemical companies, of course, tried to discredit her. She persisted. Eventually, DDT was banned, and according to Wikipedia, "the grassroots environmental movement the book inspired led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency."
Not incidentally, and important to those of us who are raising or helping to raise children today, Rachel's mother "bequeathed to her a life-long love of nature and the living world" (source link). Carson wrote a magazine article in the 1950s, "Help Your Child to Wonder," that was later published as The Sense of Wonder. Time and time again we hear that children do not learn to be environmentalists by being told of the planet's plight at school and picking up litter (or the like); those who grow up to be environmentalists are, more often than not, the ones who as children were allowed to explore the natural spaces around them. By playing in the woods, the streams, the salt ponds, by turning over rocks and finding salamanders, by holding a sea star in your hand after coming upon one in a tide pool--that is how a child grows up into an adult who cares about the world around him. The connection is so important, something I feel strongly about, too. 

I admire Rachel Carson because she fought, hard, for what she knew was right. Thanks to her, my children can hike to a salt pond and see ospreys. (Read more about the connection between DDT and osprey.) I admire her for loving what was around her and writing books about it so other people would love it, too. I admire her for being a pioneering woman in a man's field. And I admire her for the environmental legacy she bequeathed to the United States. (The organic section in my local Whole Foods? Probably doesn't exist without Rachel Carson's influence.)

Rachel Carson died in 1964 from breast cancer. (The injustice and irony in that--it's almost too much.)

You can find out more about Rachel Carson's life and influence here.


mooncalf said...

Thank you so much for posting this.

I really had never heard of Rachel Carson and now I know much much more and am both impressed and inspired.

She's an excellent role-model to remind us to fight hard when we know we're right! Like my heroine she took the science and made it accessible to everyone. And she certainly made a huge impact for future generations.


Olivia said...

I very much enjoyed reading this, so thanks! I think I had heard of Carson before but would not have remembered any details.

Bells said...

i hadn't heard of her before and it's so very obvious reading her story why she's so important to you. What a role model! And an inspiration!