Book Review: The Stuff of Stars

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I AM SO SO SORRY ABOUT THE ADS! WORKING ON A BUDGET FOR THAT…

Author: Marion Dane Bauer
Illustrator: Ekua Holmes

Candlewick Press, 2018
Ages 6-12

The Stuff of Stars describes is a “big history” book that the describes the origins of the universe and through colorful semi-abstract art, and soaring verse that is scientifically accurate and poetic in equal measure. It begins at the beginning, with the Big Bang, moving through the expansion of the universe and the creation of the stars and planets, then proceeding towards the emergence of Earth, life, and us. The science is woven in so poetically that the untrained eye wouldn’t know it’s all describing real scientific concepts. It’s very cosmic in scope, cleverly connecting the child to these BIG processes along the way. It won the 2019 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, and it’s author has won the Kerlan Award for her body of work.

BIG science in a little story

My scientific background is not in the space sciences or physics, but I did need to learn the basics of deep time and geology as part of my education in evolutionary anthropology, and am a longtime voracious consumer of astronomy and cosmology. So I feel pretty confident in saying that this book appears very well researched. Every page introduces at least one scientific concept that I recognized.

The language is absolutely wonderful–and accurate, which is a really difficult to do when describing such non-intuitive concepts such as the incredible sizes and timescales that are the hallmarks of cosmology. And it does so in a way that helps connect the reader to it personally. It accomplishes this by cleverly anchoring the story in something it calls “a speck.”

The book begins by saying that in the beginning of the cosmos there was nothing at all, and then immediately zeroing in on this “Speck,” which I understand as being a reference to the belief that, at the earliest point we can detect, all matter in the universe was condensed into an impossibly small point infinite density and extreme heat. It describes the speck as being “invisible as thought/weighty as God.”

Using a series of perfectly descriptive verbs, the Big Bang and the events of it’s aftermath are described as having “unfolded” and “stretched” and “collided” and “fused.”

Getting more descriptive, the stars are described as having “caught fire,” which is pretty much perfect–I mean combustion is combustion, right? The stars, it says, “burned and burned and burned so long and so hot that they EXPLODED, flinging stardust everywhere.” This is a really neat page!

The book then describes the formation of star systems and planets, accurately stating, “The ash of the dying stars gathered into planets and circled other stars.”

As we proceed through the narrative, the narrator occasionally stops and addresses the child directly. It talks about how for a long time there were it was no life in the universe.

But still no bluebirds, no butterflies/no snails no giraffes/No you, no me.”

Periodically return to a new version of this wonderfully rhythmic refrain. It has the effect of connecting the reader to these grand events, but also helps to convey the idea that we are talking about some really huge timescales, here, and drive home the point that, for most of the time that the universe has existed, it existed without life. But what this refrain also does is lend a sense of building up to something–the emergence of life. The reader is spurred on.

Finally, we zoom in on Earth, which the author describes as, “lucky” (an allusion to the Goldilocks Zone) and “fragile.” So poignant.

The axial tilt of the Earth is described as being just right so that it is sometimes warm and sometimes cool. The importance of the tilt of the Earth in creating the seasons, and the importance of seasons to the sustaining of life–as well as the rituals and cultural practices of so many human cultures in times past.

Evolution is described much as other books like Grandmother Fish have done, representing generational change by referencing “great great grandparents,” and “more and more children.” It emphasizes the important roles that having children and death have in the evolutionary process.

After we have arrived on Earth, the Speck returns. Here, the Speck represents the child before they existed–as a thought, or as atoms, or both. It sets it up by saying “And then, YOU burst into the world!”

Then we turn the page to an absolutely beautiful spread, which reads, “You took a breath of the same air that was breathed by the wooly mammoths/You cried tears that were once salty seas/Your hair once the carbon in a leaf.” …All of which is known to be scientifically, amazingly, true.

“You took a breath of the same air that was breathed by the wooly mammoths/You cried tears that were once salty seas/Your hair once the carbon in a leaf”


Then it contextualizes this within the rest of “all the animals,” building to the final page, which reads:

“You
and me, loving you.
All of us are the stuff of stars.”


What of the author’s use of the word “God”?

Although this book does contain the word “God,” I would still read it to my child, as a secular parent. In the beginning of the book, the Speck is described as being “invisible as thought, weighty as God.” I don’t think that the author’s intention, here, is to imply that “God” with a capital “G” was present in this scene. I think what she’s trying to accomplish here is to use relatable constructs to describe abstract concepts. A child understands God as a very big and weighty thing–and so was the early universe inconceivably dense–but also impossibly massive. So what is the biggest, heaviest thing you can possibly imagine, that defies many of the physical laws we live with today? For a lot of children, that would thing would be God. The implication I took from it is that nature itself is just as big and just as profound as the idea of God.

Later on the narrator refers to “Love” in a similar way, when setting up the appearance of the child arriving onto the scene.

“Then one day in the dark in the dark, in the deep, deep dark, another speck floated invisible as dreams, special as love.”

Again, they’re trying to convey the feeling that, just as with God, the story is on the verge of revealing something profound and important: Life, and you.

I did not get the impression that the author is trying to “slip” religion in or appease religious audiences. It struck me more as a cultural reference. The narrative in this book isn’t even the idea of a New Age universal consciousness or anything like that, it’s purely focused in the science itself as a source of joy and spirituality unto itself. Every single page describes a scientific concept that I recognized. The goal is obviously to help children begin to understand the concept of deep timescales, evolutionary theory, to start to examine the “big” questions of their own origins, and all of the questions that leads to, and how they are personally connected. To begin to connect their own existence with the broader cosmos, and with the nature they see around them. This is an important and wonderful thing for a child to do as soon as they are able.

I would nevertheless be interested to know how the author made the decision to include the word “God,” because it really is a fraught subject, particularly when it comes to teaching children the origins of the universe and evolution. I would be curious to know here reasoning, and her own intention behind this passage.

Illustrations

Abstract art is perfect for depicting cosmic concepts, many of which introduced in The Stuff of Stars are pretty difficult to intuitively grasp–even to the adult human mind. Holmes’ illustrations are semi-abstract cut-outs made from hand-marbled paper, then assembled digitally into very colorful spreads. The illustrations won an award, but my experience of it was mixed.

Such beautiful words. Pity you can hardly see them.

Some spreads I absolutely loved. The spread that depicts the Big Bang, for example, or the moment where “YOU” (meaning the reader/child) burst onto the scene are wonderfully depicted and the feeling of those moments is crystal clear.

However, almost every spread had an element that kind of bothered me. They’re just…busy. There are lots of colorful swirls, but no clear color scheme. Some of the figures almost completely blend into the background. And I’m not sure if that is intentional, or not. At times I just felt like my eye didn’t quite know where to go. It felt rather like one of those Magic Eye books–even down to the grainy, TV-snow feel they had to them when viewing at close range.

I love the sparkly, futuristic title. But I daresay I rather liked the inside cover better! It is a deep midnight blue, with the faintest sheen that shimmered in the evening sun in the park where I read it.

The copy font, Caudex, is very “cosmic” at it’s standard boldness, but for this book the designer chose a heavy boldness, which I felt looked clunky and out of step with the theme. I can’t help but wonder if the choice to bolden it was a product of how busy the illustrations are.

Critiques

I have but few critiques of the content of this book.

After the introduction of Earth, the narrative kind of skips right to the emergence of animals and other life, and I think that’s a missed opportunity, because for quite a long time there was no life on Earth, and for quite a while after that there was only microbial life. It completely skips over the age of dinosaurs–which, I mean, HELLO! It’s a children’s book! Kids love dinosaurs! Moreover, they were around for a pretty good deal of time.

In introducing the birth of the child, It makes reference to “the carbon in a leaf.” I hesitate with the use of the word carbon in a children’s picture book, because most children in the target demo for this book will not have studied the elements yet. I feel like there had to have been a way to convey the same idea with different phrasing for this while still maintaining the poetry of it. Even just replacing the word with “stardust” would have been great. This really was the only area where I felt the learning level was out of step with the rest of the book.

Overall impression

I recommend this book for around ages 6 to 12, although I think any adult would enjoy flipping through it. Since newborns are still mostly just interested in shapes, being held, and hearing your voice, content doesn’t matter very much. So normally I encourage parents of newborns and small babies to read books to their babies that they (the adults) find interesting. Visually, though, I don’t think there is enough contrast in this book to appeal to newborns.

The Stuff of Stars is ambitious in its scope, and it delivers through rhythmic prose that will delight children of a wide range of ages. Although the art doesn’t quite knock it out of the park on every page, the science is robust enough to make it a lovely addition to any classroom, playroom shelf, or humanist children’s curriculum. This simultaneously sciencey and sentimental book leaves the reader feeling in awe of the impossible bigness of the universe, and aglow with the warmth of how lucky we are to have found each other in it.

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Guide to more effective, nuanced discussions about infant feeding

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In my previous piece on breastfeeding science denialism, I noted that many professionals, clinicians, and public health advocates have expressed uncertainty as to how approach the issue with the general public. It just so happens that I have a tiiiiny bit of public relations and science policy experience, and have road-tested some language and strategical approaches to these discussions, and found them to be helpful. What follows is a collection of tips.

Continue reading “Guide to more effective, nuanced discussions about infant feeding”

It’s time to talk about breastfeeding science backlash movement

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Knowing the type of reactions this topic elicits, I have mulled over whether or not to write this post for a long time. But World Breastfeeding Week is a time for health practitioners and health advocates to reflect, and as someone who hails from the world of science rather than clinical, and as someone who is not a parent, I think I have some unique thoughts on this subject.

Also sorry about the ads.

In July of last year, I attended a science conference. Conferences often come with lots of coffee, and was feeling a little self-conscious about how enthusiastically I had gushed about my scientific field of interest, the anthropology of infancy–which I’m sure will come as no surprise to you largely involves breastfeeding. During the closing proceedings on the last day, I felt several eyes flit in my direction when the plenary speaker brought up news that had broke that day: Donald Trump attacked breastfeeding on Twitter, prompting the New York Times editorial board to take a rare step of publishing an editorial on their own behalf. And that was the day the non-parent world found out that the breastfeeding science backlash movement was a thing.

When I chose to study anthropology, I knew I would encounter science denialism, dismissal, or rejection at some point; I just expected it to be about human evolution, not breastfeeding! Sometimes I get pretty frustrated at having chosen a subfield that has turned out to be so controversial. I just want to say “Hey, I just came here for the science, leave me alone.” So I don’t really want to write this. What I really want to write about is weird animals that make milk and that crazy new video that came out in May showing what a letdown looks on the cellular level. But I’m starting to realize that this amazing science only gets done because the public believes in its value, and this science–the science I love and have dedicated the past decade of my intellectual life to–is currently being questioned on its validity, not by people with a scientific background in this area, but by people with huge platforms. People who parents look up to and respect.

Continue reading “It’s time to talk about breastfeeding science backlash movement”

Six must-follow experts to follow for dope breastfeeding science

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Note: I apologize for the ads. I know they’re ugly. I’m working on a budget for this thing!

During World Breastfeeding Week 2019, I have been reflecting on how there is a whole heck of a lot of misinformation being spread around the internet about breastfeeding in recent years. I have noticed a trend of framing breastfeeding parents, advocates, and even clinicians as scientifically illiterate, uneducated, and anti-vaccinationist. As a lifelong philosophical skeptic and lover of science, you can imagine my dismay! Particularly stinging are implications that research hailing from the “soft sciences,” psychology and anthropology (a.k.a. my Minor and Major), isn’t “real” science, because they don’t usually involve randomized, controlled trials. 🙄

Part of the problem, here, is that breastfeeding is a reeeally under-funded area of research, so there are very few researchers doing it relative to, say, cancer research, or even erectile dysfunction. (← Click if you need a good crylaugh.) And since researchers are paid to teach and do research, there isn’t much time left for communicating their science to the public. So, it becomes relatively easy for charlatans to mislead folks by using “sciencey”-sounding language and posting cherry-picked links to scientific papers.

So how can non-scientists who love science be sure that you’re sharing information from respected experts?

Well, first and foremost, you can be scientifically literate without being a scientist. This means developing your critical thinking skills and finely calibrating your baloney detector. I’ll be diving deep into that topic in a future post. In the meantime, I have a couple of quick and dirty tricks I can share right now.

Continue reading “Six must-follow experts to follow for dope breastfeeding science”

Your butt on chairs: How chairs shaped human physiology

Have you ever thought about how odd it is that we’re the only species on Earth that uses a tool for sitting? Think about it. When your dog or cat needs to sit, she just…sits. But before you can sit, you need to grab an assistive device. What?

Of course, we can sit on the ground if we want to–so why don’t we?

What did people do before chairs?

Old bushwoman, Kalahari, Botswana, Africa

Well, as you might have guessed, we did not always have chairs. Instead, we squatted. I mean, we probably sat on the ground, too–and rocks, and logs. But the squatting position would be useful when the ground was muddy, or full of creepy-crawlies. Also, sometimes the ground is COLD! The “resting squat” was likely a major component of daily life in pre-agricultural times, and remains so today in many cultures, particularly in the East (Sheridan 2020, Hewes 1955).

Most Westerners (specifically, adult Westerners) do not find this position to be very comfortable to hold for long periods of time; but if you grow up doing it, your hip, knee ankle joints become well-adapted to this position, and it is quite comfortable.

You see, during fetal development, grooves called squatting facets are formed on your tibia and talus where they meet to form your ankle joint (Sheridan 2020).

Images: Satinoff 1972

These grooves allow the foot to hyper-flex to help the fetus fit better inside the uterus (Dlamini and Morris 2005; Garg et al. 2015). It may also be a vestigial structure, originating in a time when it was necessary for an infant to be able to grip its mother’s fur with its toes while clinging close to her.


This ability to flex the ankle joint at a very acute angle positions the squatter’s center of gravity directly over your feet, creating a stable resting position. It also allows the person to rest on their own legs, with the back of their thighs resting on their calves such that most of their muscles can relax, engaging only slightly to maintain balance (Mays 1998).

Notice the acute angle at which the foot is flexed, and how this man is able to rest his thighs on the back of his own legs.


You may have noticed that small children, especially toddlers, often use a resting squat to examine a toy or object that is close to the ground.

The squatting position is also used throughout the world to facilitate defecation (Sikirov 2003; Sakakibara et al. 2010), as well as childbirth. And it might be something to try; a review by the Cochrane Collaboration concluded that use of the squatting position during the pushing stage of labor was associated with a reduction of the duration of the second stage, as well as reductions in other complications associated with decreases in the length of the pushing stage, perception of pain, need for assisted delivery, and hemorrhage (Gupta, 1999, Nilsen et al. 2011).

Enter: the chair

But, use it or loose it. The squatting facets fade away if you don’t continue to engage in habitual squatting. The bone remodels, the Achilles tendon tightens, and the ankle joint becomes less flexible (Barnett, 1954 Sertinoff 1972).

Behold, THE KLISMOS


The earliest evidence of chair use comes from the sculpture of a chair from the Cycladic islands in the Aegean Sea, dated to between 2,800 and 2,700 B.C. For the next few thousand years, sitting on something a proper chair, such as the Greek klismos, was largely for the wealthy elite. Everyone else sat on stools, which were low to the ground and still supported a squat-like posture. Habitual squatting continued to be used for toileting until the 19th century, but even today flushing squat toilets are widely used outside of the West.

In the archaeological records, the bone markers that indicate habitual squatting are commonplace until a steady decline begins around the end of the Middle Ages (Boulle 2001; Sertinoff 1972). 

Sedentary lifestyle

Sedentary trends began with the advent of agriculture and have been particularly pronounced since World War II (Dundes 1987). The period from the 1950’s onward has, in the West, been marked by a steadily increasing number of daily hours spent sitting in chairs. Reclining in a chair isn’t just different from a squat posturally. In a squat, core, leg, and foot muscles are slightly engaged to maintain balance. A chair requires much less core engagement.

Extensive amounts of time sitting in chairs has been well documented to be associated with increased noncommunicable diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, largely through decreased energy use and insufficient cardiovascular conditioning (Owen 2008; Katzmarzyk et al. 2009). One study even found an increased risk of all-cause mortality associated with sitting for hours on end every day as is done in the West (Dunstan 2010).

man on office chair with back pain

But what about the effects on the skeletal system, and growth and development? Knee issues and back pain are a combined result of sustained sedentary posture placing disproportionate stress on certain structures in the body. But also, these things are affected indirectly by weight gain that results from the use of fewer calories. In other words, our knees and backs are very unintelligently designed, and gravity is the enemy of upright-walking apes who love bacon cheese steakburgers. (As I write this I am shifting in my seat in attempt to relieve my iliotibial band syndrome!)

Another interesting area to look is the pelvis, which facilitates the birth of babies. A 2012 comparative study conducted by the National Institutes of Health found that that a sample of 98,359 mothers who gave birth between 2002 and 2008 labored for a median of 2.6 hours longer (first time moms) and 2.0 hours longer (experienced moms) than a sample of 39,491 who delivered between 1959 and 1966 (Laughon et al. 2011). The results remained significant even when the authors controlled for factors known to affect length of labor, such as maternal age and obesity. Recent trends towards longer and sometimes more difficult labor may, in part, be influenced by trends towards an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, where a large percentage of daily life spent sitting in chairs can lead to weak pelvic floor muscles. Since it is known that a weak pelvic floor is associated with less-than-ideal positioning of the fetus for birth (Phillips and Monga, 2004), habitual squatting may contribute to optimal positioning of the fetus for birth, as may running by way of pulling the coxxyx (tailbone) back, and thus widening the pelvic outlet. Moreover, strength and tension in the pelvic floor muscles help provide control and traction during the pushing stage of labor.

Weak pelvic floor muscles are also known to contribute to prolapse of the uterus and bladder and urinary incontinence that sometimes precipitate from childbirth (Hagen and Stark 2013). Exercises that involve squatting and a generally more active lifestyle strengthen the pelvic floor muscles and assist in the retention of normal organ positioning, much in the way that a more active lifestyle would make use of the gluteal muscles.

So should I get a standing desk or what?

I mean, if you want. It is important to remember that biological imperatives are not moral imperatives, so you should do what you want with your body! But, one of the things that this evolutionary perspective does for us is tell us that the statue-like lifestyle we live today is just not what our bodies are adapted for, and that if we want our bodies to continue to work well in the long run, it might be a good idea to work with our biology as much as we can, not against it. Contrary to popular beliefs, though, we didn’t evolve to be persistence runners, and standing desks haven’t been shown to make much of a difference. The key variable, here, seems to be movement. You don’t need to hit the gym 6 times a week or run a 10k in order to reap the benefits of movement. Just, you know…move! More and more research is supporting the idea that being active can help maintain a healthy cardiovascular system and increase lifespan.

Sources:

Barnett C.H. “Squatting Facets on the European Talus.” Journal of Anatomy 88.4 (1954): 509-13.

Boulle, Eve-Line. “Evolution of Two Human Skeletal Markers of the Squatting Position: A Diachronic Study from Antiquity to the Modern Age.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 115.1 (2001): 50-56.

Dundes, Lauren. “The Evolution of Maternal Birthing Position.” American Journal of Public Health 77.5 (1987): 636-41.

Dunstan et al. “Television Viewing Time and Mortality: The Australian Diabetes, Obesity and Lifestyle Study (AusDiab)” Circulation. 2010;121:384-391.

Gardosi, J., Noreen Hutson, and Chris B-Lynch. “Randomised, Controlled Trial Of Squatting In The Second Stage Of Labour.” The Lancet 334.8654 (1989): 74-77.

Hagen, Suzanne, and Diane Stark. “Conservative Prevention and Management of Pelvic Organ Prolapse in Women.” The Cochrane Library 7.12 (2011). Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews.

Hewes, Gordon W. “World Distribution of Certain Postural Habits.” American Anthropologist 57.2 (1955): 231-44.

Katzmarzyk, Peter T., Timothy S. Church, Cora L. Craig, and Claude Bouchard. “Sitting Time and Mortality from All Causes, Cardiovascular Disease, and Cancer.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 41.5 (2009): 998-1005.

Laughon, S. Katherine, D. Ware Branch, Julie Beaver, and Jun Zhang. “Changes in Labor Patterns over 50 Years.” American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology 206.5 (2012): 419.

Nilsen, Evenise, Hugo Sabatino, and Maria Helena Baena de Moraes Lopes. “The pain and behavior of women during labor and the different positions for childbirth.” Revista da Escola de Enfermagem da USP 45.3 (2011): 557-565.

Owen, N., A. Bauman, and W. Brown. “Too Much Sitting: A Novel and Important Predictor of Chronic Disease Risk?” British Journal of Sports Medicine 43.2 (2008): 81-83.

Sakakibara, Ryuji, Kuniko Tsunoyama, Hiroyasu Hosoi, Osamu Takahashi, Megumi Sugiyama, Masahiko Kishi, Emina Ogawa, Hitoshi Terada, Tomoyuki Uchiyama, and Tomonori Yamanishi. “Influence of Body Position on Defecation in Humans.” LUTS: Lower Urinary Tract Symptoms 2.1 (2010): 16-21.

Sertinoff, Merton I. “Study of the Squatting Facets of the Talus and Tibia in Ancient Egyptians.” Journal of Human Evolution 1.2 (1972): 209-10.

Sheridan, Susan Guise. “Pious Pain: Repetitive Motion Disorders from Excessive Genuflection at a Byzantine Jerusalem Monastery.” Purposeful Pain: The Bioarchaeology of Intentional Suffering. Springer Nature Swizerland, 2020.

Wells, Jonathan C.K., Jeremy M. DeSilva, and Jay T. Stock. “The Obstetric Dilemma: An Ancient Game of Russian Roulette, or a Variable Dilemma Sensitive to Ecology?” Yearbook Of Physical Anthropology 55 (2012): 40-71.

Emergency Quick Start Guide to Breastfeeding

Note: I apologize for the ads. I know they’re ugly. I’m working on a budget for this thing!

How to use this guide
If you are really tired or drugged, and you want MINIMAL INFO ONLY, then you may read only the bolded sentences and section titles, and then read the rest if you need more details on the whys and hows of each item. There is a brief summary at the end.

What this guide covers
This is not a complete guide!! It assumes you’ve had, like, a class or something and know the basics, and so what I’m covering here is the stuff that hospital nurses often overlook or don’t have time for. Lots of “pro tips” and visual aids. It also includes a way of breastfeeding that is much less technical but is not usually taught in hospitals.

Why this guide exists (and who it’s for)
Often I am approached by a new mom, or someone who’s friend just gave birth, and Mom is totally blindsided by the learning curve* involved with breastfeeding and feeling a little overwhelmed! She’s just given birth, she’s elated and sore and tired, and needs simple information and quick! I often find myself giving the same information over and over, and have always thought it would be a good idea to organize all my information into a kind of “Quick Start Guide” to breastfeeding. Just like quick start guides to electronics, this guide is simple, to the point, and uses visual tools.

BUT FIRST, a disclaimer: I’m not a doctor, etc.
I’m not a lactation consultant or doctor or midwife or even a parent. I’m just a huge nerd who has accumulated some knowledge that some people, I’m told, find useful. It’s always best to talk to a professional.

Also, another disclaimer: Don’t let me tell you how to parent
The language in this guide is different from the way I normally talk to parents. Normally, I try to avoid “shoulds” and “do X” sort of language, because every family is different and I truly believe there is no one “right” way in parenting. However, this is a guide for someone who is overwhelmed, can’t take in too much info right now, and “just wants to be told what to do.” Normally, though, I encourage parents to critically analyze advice, trust your gut, and if something isn’t working for you–change it up!

That having been said, here are some tips and tricks that science and experience have shown are helpful for families who have decided breastfeeding is important to them.

Continue reading “Emergency Quick Start Guide to Breastfeeding”

Why I Teach

Hello. I am here to drop the babyscience.

A few years ago, at a big anthropology conference, I was a very nervous undergrad. I loved my science, and I couldn’t wait to get to every talk. But I also didn’t feel like I really belonged there. I was a “non-traditional” student, and I didn’t know where I fit in. Self-doubt followed me into every room, and every conversation I had.

It was in this context that I approached a couple of anthropologists whose blogs I admired, and told them I was thinking about starting a blog of my own.

Now, the individuals I consulted hailed from the “R-1” institutions of Fancypants University and the University of Geniuses respectively, and anyone in the right mind would have been intimidated to approach them no matter how nice they seemed. But I am a special brand of crazy. I freaking love my science and, as my friends will tell you, I can’t shut up about love to share it with others. But also, both of these people had blogs themselves, and I knew that, like me, they understood the importance of communicating this area of science to a public whose understanding of it is…lacking. (No, we don’t dig up dinosaurs.)

Well, they were not on board. “Maybe wait until you’re a couple of years into grad school,” I was told. “You don’t want to ruin your reputation before you even have one.”

Thus began my long, shameful walk back to the hidey-hole from whence I came.

Continue reading “Why I Teach”

Luke Skywalker’s Green Milk: “It’s Not a Breast. It’s an Udder.” And Other Science Facts You Didn’t Ask For

This past weekend, nerds worldwide set down their game controllers and curled up with their plush Chewbaccas to watch the DVD/digital release of the latest installment of everyone’s favorite space opera, Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Since the film was released in theaters, it has generated much discussion, from the multiple U-turns director Rian Johnson pulled with the storylines that the previous episode had set up, to whether Reylo is inevitable or a problematic perpetuation of the romanticization of male toxicity in film. These discussions left little room for the brief, dialogue-free scene in which Luke Skywalker is shown milking a giant semi-aquatic mammal then drinking straight from the tap.

Well, I am here to remedy that situation. And not unlike the scientists at the open-source science journal PLOS, who hilariously peer reviewed The Last Jedi, I’m doing it with SCIENCE.

Rey and her new friend

The scene to which I refer involves Luke milking a creature who lives on the island and procuring a vividly green-colored milk that he messily drinks as Rey looks on. Articles that have covered this scene have consistently called it “weird,” “gross,” and “bizarre,” nevermind the fact that 1.) We are a species that evolved to drink milk from a breast, and yet 2.) we think that is gross and, instead, choose to consume the milk of another species despite the fact that that it is nowhere near anything like our milk in composition, and 65% of us can’t even digest the stuff. But, I digress.

Today we’re gonna talk about straight-up nerd science. What I’m interested in, here, is not just the question of why the milk is green—We will get to that, but there is SO much more, here! In this brief, dialogue-free scene we are given several “clues” about this animal: various characteristics about its milk—not just the color, but also it’s viscosity, and opacity, and some very unique (and quite memorable) mammary anatomy. We also get some clues about it’s environment and behavior. But for the sake of brevity, I will be focusing mostly on the creature’s very memorable mammaries. If we take these clues and apply some of the known mechanisms (rules) of evolution from our own planet, we can make some guesses as to the evolution and social behavior of this creature. Let’s science the bantha fodder out of this!

Continue reading “Luke Skywalker’s Green Milk: “It’s Not a Breast. It’s an Udder.” And Other Science Facts You Didn’t Ask For”

On Melatonin and Kids

On Tuesday, BBC.com reported that three Chicago-area daycare employees were arrested for administering melatonin to twelve toddlers at nap time, without parental consent. (Aside: Curiously, apparently the British spell it “parentel”? The wonders of variations in English word spellings never cease…) Now, if you’re anything like me, you probably stared at this report, mouth agape, wondering how on earth this sort of thing could possibly happen. But then, I realized that if you look at our culture and the way the melatonin is used and regulated in the U.S., this sort of incident becomes inevitable. And it will probably happen again.

(Side note: I include links to further resources in hyperlinks throughout my articles. I also include a bibliography at the bottom, with summaries and further explanations. We’ll see how long I keep that up haha.) Also I’m sooo sorry about the ads! Working on getting rid of them…

This story comes on the heels of interesting cultural and policy changes, as well as an increasing body of research, including this study published by Colorado University Boulder on Tuesday, that indicates that we mess with childrens’ sleep in ways we don’t even realize.

This post is going to have a few tangents, but that is because stuff like this is a symptom of a larger conversation that needs to happen about kids, sleep, and childcare in America. There are several problems that converge, here.

  1. We don’t value childcare in America, and it hurts children.
  2. American parents abuse melatonin.
  3. And it’s just the latest trend in our long, messed-up history of drugging children in order to get them to sleep.

I am going to take each in turn.

Continue reading “On Melatonin and Kids”

The Mission

The late astronomer Carl Sagan foretold a “technological adolescence” — a time when humans would become completely dependent on technology and science, yet not understand it. Perhaps now more than ever, we all have a vested interest in making sure the next generation is a broadly educated, resilient, and compassionate one.

The name “Raising Wonder” — while cheesy, evokes everything I want this blog to be. The word “wonder” is reflective of what we all love about both childhood and science, but also the reverence that I have for the task set before a parent, and the positive presence I hope this blog will be in people’s lives. The “raising” in the name refers as much to raising the occupation of parenthood to the position of recognition and status that it deserves as it does to raising children.

This blog aspires to:

  • Help parents (and grandparents, aunties and uncles, and friends…because you are all important in a child’s life!) develop the tools to make informed decisions in an increasingly information-saturated world, and to raise curious, compassionate kids in a culture that punishes curiosity and rewards Machiavellian behavior.
  • Start some reasoned, nuanced discussions that need to be had about science and parenting culture. These conversations should arise from a place of genuine curiosity, a desire to cooperatively find answers, and an understanding that the science in this area is ever-evolving, gradually triangulating towards an approximation of truth.
  • Talk about how and why science works the way it works, and how it is relevant in all of our lives.
  • To represent the various scientific disciplines — biology and biomedicine, psychology, and anthropology — that have informed our understanding of human childhood.
  • To make that research accessible to non-scientists. To that end, I will try and make the science relatable, assume no prior knowledge, avoid “jargon,” and explain terms when necessary.
  • Build a sense of community around the idea that science can and should inform parenting and family life.

This blog, quite genuinely, does not advocate for any particular parenting philosophy or style. Because the uniqueness of each family simply cannot be overlooked, and because there are plenty of blogs out there that do that if that is what you are looking for. Rather, the goal here is to explore how we can use the tools of science and logic not to necessarily form some kind of conclusion about a topic, but to deepen our understanding of it. We will widen our scope to see the “big picture” as well as exploring nuance.

This approach won’t be sexy. It won’t get clicks. Which is why no one is doing it. But someone needs to. So, here I am.

This blog will heavily feature evolutionary and cross-cultural perspectives on human infancy. But as previously stated I also hope to talk about science and logic in a general sense. In the future, I hope to expand my knowledge and explore together topics such as the education of older children in science, formal logic, and ethics.

At times you may be confronted with ideas that make you a little uncomfortable. You may find yourself questioning cultural assumptions about parenting. Please remember to have compassion for yourself and for other parents.

About me: I am a scientifically literate person with a formal background in child development, academic science (particularly human evolution), and visual art. However, I encourage readers to form thoughts and opinions based not on preconceived notions about the author, but solely on the weight of the evidence and the logic presented. I am always learning and willingly acknowledge the possibility that I may, from time-to-time, be partially or entirely wrong, and thus invite reasoned criticism and corrections in comments at raisingwondermail@gmail.com. I aspire to a willingness to abandon even a most cherished belief in light of the evidence, but I also acknowledge I am human and therefore may not always be successful in that endeavor!

I believe that raising a human is the. most. important. job. anyone. has. ever. done.

And through this sacred occupation, one can well and truly change the world.

It is my hope that you enjoy this blog and find it helpful.