BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

One a week?

This was another “Early Reviewer” program book … that I was waiting for a long time (it was from the January 2015 “batch” but just arrived a week or so ago) … and I got “faked out” by it, because it had been offered previously, and a bunch of LTER reviews were already up on the site … leading me to assume that all of those folks had gotten their copies of Rachel Swaby's Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science – and the World and I hadn't (I contacted the publisher, Broadway Books, and they kindly sent me a copy of the recently-released paperback, which pretty much arrived simultaneously with the ARC – uncorrected proof  “advance reading copy” – from the LTER offer). As regular readers of this space will no doubt suspect, the reason I was so hot to get a hold of this is that I wanted to get it read, reviewed, and passed along to my engineering student daughter … figuring this would be inspirational to her (as it was, I gave her the “finished” copy).

As one would correctly surmise by the book's sub-title, this is 52 brief biographical sketches of women in the sciences, some “household names”, but most not. The author opens up her thought process in selection to a remarkable extent in the introduction, noting:
Accomplishments alone could have warranted inclusion in a different kind of book, but to be here, narrative – a secret bedroom lab, an ocean-floor expedition, or a stolen photograph that helped solve the structure of DNA – needed to be the twin pillar of achievement. I didn't include scientists if I didn't feel like I could travel beyond the bullet points of a dazzling career.
She also points out:
The scientists in this book aren't included because they were women practicing science or math in a time when few women did – although by that criteria, many would fit. They're included because … their ideas, discoveries, and insights made earth-shaking changes to the way we see the world.
Obviously, a book like this needs some sort of organization, and while it could have been done chronologically (admittedly, each section is arranged by year, but this causes a somewhat confusing “retrograde” flow of time periods), given that another of Swaby's selection criteria was that “the book includes only scientists whose life's work has already been completed”, it is by “field”, with sections covering Medicine, Biology and the Environment, Genetics and Development, Physics, The Earth and the Stars, Math and Technology, and Invention. Personally (and this is a minor quibble), I found those categories a bit on the hazy side, leading to less clarity than there might have been … but one understands that these women were not strictly siloed into handy categories in their lives.

There is a surprisingly expansive timeline here, going as far back as Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), who is listed as a German Botanist, but is included for her detailed scientific illustrations of insects, and those primarily in Suriname (on the north coast of South America), to as recent as Stephanie Kwolek (1923-2014), an American Chemist, who, in a lifetime working for DuPont, invented Kevlar, and contributed to the development of Lycra and Spandex. It's also somewhat surprising that the list isn't dominated by 1900 dates, with about a third being 1800s or before (although some of these ladies were very long-lived, with nearly half the list living into their 80's and beyond).

Of course, in a book with 52 individual stories, there's not much of an “arc” to speak of, and so I'm just going to cherry-pick a few things that grabbed my attention (although, in the reading of it, I found it hard to add bookmarks, as nothing stood out as “essential” for the description). One that was mentioned in one of the quotes above, was the “dirty secret” of DNA … which featured one of the less-long-lived subjects of the book, Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958), who was an English Geneticist … Swaby says that (generally-credited discoverers of DNA) Watson and Crick “simply wouldn't have made their discoveries when they did had it not been for two crucial pieces of information passed from Franklin's lab at King's College in London to Watson and Crick's at Cambridge without her knowledge {bolding mine}. The two pieces were an unusually clear photo of DNA that Franklin had calibrated and captured (she'd developed a very precise process for obtaining photographic images of these molecules), and an internal report summarizing her past few years of work … these allowed Watson and Crick to correct a number of key errors they had in their data, and so publish the results before Franklin had a chance to synthesize her results into a submittable paper.

Another surprising story is that of Hedy Lamarr (1913-2000), more generally known as a Hollywood actress. Here she's an Austrian (born Hedwig Kiesler) Inventor, who developed a frequency-hopping communications system (to help the Navy aim torpedoes, which were experiencing a 60% failure rate), the 1941 patent for which (that did not emerge from being “classified” by the military until two decades later) is the basis for “Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, wireless cash registers, bar code readers, and home control systems”. Swaby follows up with:
While she had a long career as a celebrated actress, Lamarr finally got the real recognition she deserved when she was awarded the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Pioneer Award in 1996. Her response: “It's about time.”
There are some famous names (as scientists) in here as well. One being Virginia Apgar (1909-1974), an American medical doctor who is likely familiar to any parents for the APGAR score for newborns, which she developed, but which was later cleverly re-worded by a resident to spell out her name … A-Appearance (Color), P-Pulse (Heart rate), G-Grimace (Reflex irritability), A-Activity (Muscle tone), and R-Respiration. Prior to her coming up with the test, newborns weren't generally “examined” after birth, letting addressable issues turn into life-threatening situations. She later moved on to head the Congenital Malformations division at the March of Dimes.

Another name that anybody around in the 60's will recognize is that of Rachel Carson (1907-1964), and American Marine Biologist whose book on the disastrous side-effects of pesticide use, Silent Spring, was a major catalyst for the modern environmental movement. Her influence was felt both in the celebrations of Earth Day, and in the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Perhaps most media-known of this list would be Sally Ride (1951-2012), American Astrophysicist, and more famously, Astronaut. She beat out over 8,000 other applicants for her 1983 space mission, giving an icon for every STEM-loving girl on the planet.

Given that there are 52 bios in a 230-page book, none of these are particularly in-depth looks at their subject … each running 3-6 pages – enough to give some background, provide those “narrative” elements that Swaby was looking for, and hit the high points of what, in a lot of cases, were long and distinguished careers.

There aren't any “boring” parts in Headstrong, the author's search for stories and the brevity of each topic assuring that, and it's a pretty breezy read. The cover features the pictures of a dozen of the subjects (none labeled, so after Sally Ride and Hedy Lamarr, I had no clue who was who), and one thing that I think would have improved the book would have been pictures in the chapters themselves … although in some cases these might have been hard to come by.

This just hit the bookstores last month, so should certainly be available. I anticipate that this is going to be a classic for girls like my daughter, sort of a “vision board” for the whole spectrum of scientific achievement. The on-line big boys have it at nearly 30% off of (a very reasonable) cover price at this point, and that might be your best bet at the moment, unless your local book store is given to matching discounts. Aside from the “encouraging my daughter” aspects, I enjoyed reading this in the context of a fairly neglected “history of science” storyline. If your interests are in that direction (or in Feminism in general, I suppose) you'll find a lot to like here.

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Tags: book review

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