Mary Ellen Hannibal, Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction, New York, NY: The Experiment, 2016. 432 pp. $29.95 hardcover, $17.95 paperback.
Mary Ellen Hannibal’s Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction is a beautiful collection that explores a wide range of stories. From the intimate moments of an individual’s life to the larger narratives of communities, Citizen Scientist tells stories that weave together a grand narrative of our planet through our engagements with science. Her account demonstrates the collaborative nature of citizen science, describing what it means to participate in naturalistic observation.
Citizen Scientist recounts Hannibal’s experiences as a participant in a variety of citizen science projects on the West Coast. She also relates narratives of others who have contributed to the efforts for a healthy planet through citizen science. There are eleven chapters, with every chapter discussing a new citizen science topic or project. In each chapter, there is an eclectic mix of personal anecdotes, interviews, historical journalism, and natural history.
Some of those stories come from now familiar names, including Emily Burns from Fern Watch, and “the guru of citizen science” Sam Droege. Hannibal recounts her first-hand participation in the citizen scientist efforts, as well as her discussions with other citizen scientists and researchers on projects such as Hawkwatch or iNaturalist.
Folded in are also historical backgrounds on citizen science methodology, natural historical backgrounds for the ecosystems in question for each project, and deep personal meditations on Hannibal’s own life. Most chapters also have rich histories of the contributions of great citizen scientists that Hannibal could not possibly have interviewed, such as Rollo Howard Beck (1870-1950), ornithological collector, or Alice Eastwood (1859-1953), botany enthusiast.
In the spirit of shared knowledge, the backmatter of Citizen Scientist includes a wonderful reading group guide for those who want to learn together. Hannibal documents with honesty and humor the work, and also the excitement, involved in citizen science.
Citizen Scientist shows that, just as citizen science is objective, common and shared, it is also subjective, personal, and individual. Hannibal provides an integrative context for each citizen scientist effort, illustrating just how connected we are to our local environment and how our pursuits of knowledge and culture, too, are connected with each other. Hannibal integrates science, art, and spirituality to craft a rich narrative account—so do not be surprised to find among the accounts of natural histories some references to literature or poetic language.
Hannibal describes the way citizen science cherishes local histories. Despite the benefits of the global connectedness of the internet and mass media, Hannibal shows us that local histories and personal narratives are more important than ever as she describes various citizen science contributions made up by log books, personal journals, local records, and other observational work.
Hannibal examines intensive collaborations with local communities, a form of “extreme citizen science,” where local communities are fully integrated as partners in research (111-113). The benefits of this exchange of knowledge are bountiful, as experts can contribute their research to local communities and local communities can share their histories and traditions to the experts. Hannibal faithfully demonstrates how these smaller, local histories weave together into grander narratives, a “double narrative” (30) of now and of always.
This double narrative is also evident in Hannibal’s intimate accounts of her close relationship with her father, Edward Hannibal, as he nears the end of his life and as she reflects on the nature of extinction and finitude. She writes beautifully as she meditates on her own double narrative:
“I thought about what [Joseph] Campbell means when he says the hero’s death is the most important part of his journey–it’s when we let go of the thing we have clung to, the ‘I,’ and in so doing, we acquiesce to all that bigger life around and in us. My father was okay with this; he understood what was happening and he was leaning into it. He was losing is life–why do we say it that way? There was more, not less, happening here” (389).
If you want to know more about the rich history of citizen science and the complex stories that citizen scientists reconstruct in their pursuits, Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction is the book for you. Throughout Hannibal’s narratives, there is truly a sense of all time happening at once, as the past has a profound influence on the present and the future. Citizen Scientist is a fascinating read that opens a reader’s eyes to the holistic range of citizen science: an endeavor that starts in the tidepool and ends in the stars; something that is simultaneously individual, local, and practical, while also somehow shared and philosophical.
This review is part of an ongoing series of book reviews written by members of Dr. Ashley Rose Mehlenbacher’s research team in partnership with SciStarter. If you have a recommendation for a book to review, please contact SciStarter Editor Caroline Nickerson at CarolineN@SciStarter.com. This work has been partially supported by the Ontario Ministry of Research; Innovation and Science’s Early Research Award program; and the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada Insight Grant program. Views expressed are the opinions of the author and not funding agencies.
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