Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science – and the World, by Rachel Swaby


Four stars, read in July/August 2015.

The premise of this book is basically the best. It was written in response to Yvonne Brill’s obituary in the New York Times in March 2013, which honored her not for being an ACTUAL ROCKET SCIENTIST, but for her “mean beef stroganoff.” After the public outcry, the Times amended the obituary—which, along with this book, is the perfect example of why I love social media. This absurd thing happened, and even though it’s been happening for decades and centuries, the fact that we’re all connected online means that now we can do something about it. People said “excuse us, this is stupid,” and the newspaper changed what it printed. Rachel Swaby said “excuse me, this is stupid,” and wrote this book about all the women we didn’t know because that same stupid thing probably happened to them.

There are women in medicine, genetics, engineering, physics, astronomy, mathematics, and biology. There are inventors and environmentalists. There are the names we already know—Sally Ride, Rachel Carson, Hedy Lamarr, Ada Lovelace, Florence Nightingale—but mostly there are names I’d never heard of. Inge Lehmann discovered Earth’s inner core; Annie Jump Cannon classified hundreds of thousands of stars; Helen Taussig revolutionized heart surgery. Alice Ball was a black woman in her early twenties who found a way to treat leprosy. Chien-Shiung Wu disproved what had been thought to be a fundamental law of physics.

Each of these women gets only three or four pages, but their determination, intelligence, and significant contributions are conveyed clearly. Most of them sound like people I would love to have known personally (like Rosalyn Sussman Yalow, who hung from the rafters to see Enrico Fermi speak when she was in college).

This is a book that should be studied in schools. The information is concise, and their careers are summarized with a sense for their overall impact on their fields. Nowhere else do you see so clearly how women have been excluded and ignored from STEM history, but this book draws attention to and rights that wrong all at once.


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