This article was originally published in the AIP History Newsletter (vol. 55, no. 1, 2023). Interviewed by Corinne Mona.
CM: Tell us a little about yourself: what do you currently do? How did your interest in the history of science come about?
DD: I’m a professional science writer – a full-time life science marketer by day, and a part-time freelance writer for various clients including the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. I feel privileged to be able to talk openly with scientists in government and industry who are really pushing at the limits of innovation. I do my best to help convey the respect and wonder that I feel for the work they’re doing through my storytelling.
I’m interested in storytelling about science, and history has so many interesting stories yet to be told. Archives like the Niels Bohr Library & Archives (NBLA) are rich with first-person accounts, photographs, correspondence, and so many other types of documents. It’s a special feeling to be able to immerse yourself in a different moment of time through primary materials, past people’s belongings.
It’s funny because you’d be hard-pressed to find the “I” in a scientific research publication, the field’s gold standard document – that’s by design, of course. But I believe in the value of sometimes finding the “I” and bringing it back in. At the end of the day, science is done by people. There’s no better place to unearth the “I” than an archive. You’ll quickly find how the people and voices of science have changed, or in many cases remained the same, over time.
I’ll say that there’s a point of view that Science is pure objectivity, and I don’t totally believe that. We do our best to remove bias from experiments, but science in a vacuum doesn’t really exist. Research is unwittingly colored by factors like social biases, political conflicts, cultural trends. In fact, I think there’s a certain danger in forgetting context. It’s how you end up with things like eGFR calculations driving organ transplant disparities or AI algorithms that reinforce system biases. The STEM field benefits from careful record of its own history.
What motivated your visit to NBLA in 2015? What was the subject of your research, and why were you interested in it?
I was a Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) fellow in creative writing at the University of Minnesota from 2013-16, and my thesis was an essay collection about topics in astronomy. I chose astronomy because it was a field I’d always been interested in, but was far enough outside of my research area of B.S. training (plant sciences) that it felt like an exciting challenge.
Growing up in an urban area obscured by light pollution, I felt like I had little connection to the stars. I was hoping to find more information at the NBLA about stellar classification for one of my essays, and I pulled a box that I thought was labelled “EPA” with the hope that it had information about light pollution inside. As it turned out, I had misread and it actually said, “ERA.” So purely by accident, I had stumbled upon an amazing box full of 1970’s era correspondence between the American Astronomical Society’s first female President, Margaret Burbidge, and members discussing the issue of whether the AAS should hold meetings in states that had not ratified the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).
In their written responses to this issue, members touched upon a huge array of social topics and detailed at surprising length the reasons that the AAS should or should not, as a scientific body, publicly support groups like women, Black Americans, Chilean astronomers living under rule of Pinochet, scientists from countries in conflict with the U.S., etc.
You don’t often see scientists’ voices outside of their publications – and the issue at heart of these letters was whether that’s a good thing or not. This was all much more interesting to me than light pollution. I pulled more boxes related to Burbidge and early women astronomers and went from there.
What research did you do with NBLA collections? Were there collections or items that were particularly elucidating or helpful? How did your research contribute to your overall project?
Once I pivoted to searching for information about the historic impact of women in astronomy, some items really stood out.
For example, I came across correspondence from Annie Jump Cannon creating the annual astronomy prize in her name for women in the field. There was detailed documentation down to the level of which galaxy the prize pin would depict and applications nominating the first winners. Margaret Burbidge later declined the award because she felt that it was an inferior honor reserved for the few women in the field, who were not typically considered for the prestigious prizes given to men. Tracing the thematic thread of women advocating for space in the field, from Cannon to Burbidge, was fascinating. I incorporated a lot of these ideas into an essay in my thesis.
What did you find at other libraries and archives?
I didn’t formally visit any other archives, though I did visit Smithsonian National Air & Space when I was in town. I browsed Nancy Grace Roman’s papers at the NBLA, so I made sure to view the Smithsonian’s exhibits related to her work and the Hubble.
My essay collection focused on various topics related to astronomy, the night sky, the moon, periods of light and dark. When researching essays, I like to pull ideas from a wide range of materials – many of which are found outside of libraries and museums. For example, I found an old TIME-LIFE book and record set called, “To The Moon” at my local used vinyl store. Some of the audio narration and space mission photographs in that set are terrific. I read scientific journal articles and pulled from my own former research (see “The moon garden” in References) about the developmental response of plants when they are first exposed to light. I interviewed people who had seen clear stars from their urban backyard for the first time during an electrical blackout. I enrolled in an introductory astronomy course at the University of Minnesota with Dr. Charles “Chick” Woodward, where I took notes on ideas that interested me and kept a moon observation journal. I incorporated sounds recorded from the Voyager spacecraft into an audio essay titled “Do Stars Welcome Us Into Their Realms?”.
Researching is the most entertaining part of writing for me. It’s like a scavenger hunt, and inspiration can come from anywhere.
Did you come across anything that surprised or delighted you in particular when you were in the research stage?
To handle pieces that giants like Annie Jump Cannon and Nancy Grace Roman had written or handled is pretty incredible. I felt like I’d stumbled onto treasure – shuttle launch souvenirs from NASA, childhood notebooks, private letters. It’s amazing.
Was there anything interesting that you found that didn’t make it into the final product of your research?
At NBLA, I came across a folder of hand-typed rejected submissions for the AAS journal. Some of the submissions were really out there, fringe “ideas of everything” and proposed explanations of the universe. Good entertainment value!
What are you working on now? Do you have a new project in the works you would like to tell us about?
I have set most of my free writing time aside these days to volunteer in my community in Minneapolis. I graduated from my Master’s program in 2016, and one of my final memories was of that year’s US Presidential election cycle. It shifted my long-term priorities overnight.
So many of our neighbors are stepping up into leadership positions and running for local office in recognition of a pivotal point in our history. Scientists too!
Right now, I want to use my storytelling skills to elevate the voices of women who are running for local office to improve health equity, educational access, environmental justice, and the community values that will allow STEM to thrive.
If there’s one thing that stuck with me from viewing the NBLA materials I mentioned, it’s that I am strongly on the side of scientists being active and visible in their communities. For better or worse, I’m convinced that visibility is how scientists can build trust. Science also has a point-of-view, even if the data don’t. I never want to be writing a letter arguing that speaking against the mistreatment of my peers in the field is not in the field’s interest. In many ways, the archive visit was transformational for me.
After the midterm season, I may step back into personal creation. I’m very intrigued by the possibilities of AI-assisted art generation and always looking for cool research to dive into. Folks can follow me at my website: damicod.com
D’Amico, Dana. September 4, 2015. “Do Stars Welcome Us Into Their Realms?” The Pinch. Accessed September 27, 2022.
D’Amico, Dana. March 17, 2017. “The moon garden: life in night-bloom.” Medium. Accessed September 27, 2022. https://medium.com/@danadamico/the-moon-garden-48b562dda2af
Nancy Grace Roman papers, 1931-1993 (bulk 1950-1980). Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics. One Physics Ellipse, College Park, MD 20740.
RECORDS OF THE AMERICAN ASTRONOMICAL SOCIETY, 1897-1988 (BULK 1920-1980). Box 1, Folder 11 (Margaret Burbidge ERA Controversy, 1978). Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics. One Physics Ellipse, College Park, MD 20740.