Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Some leading ladies of science

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, short biographies, women, science

My parents knew who Hedy Lamarr was; she starred in more than 20 American films in the 1940s and 1950s, after being a film star in Europe beginning in 1930. They didn't know she held the patent for spread-spectrum radio, a critical technology for secure communications. I learned of it in the 1960s after her work was declassified.

What other women of science did I learn of? Naturally, my mother had the books by Irene Joliot-Curie, so I knew of Madame Curie and her nearly-forgotten husband Pierre, and or Irene herself. Working only the memory banks here (Boy! Am I tempted to rely on Google…):

  • Being a computer programmer for 40 years, it is a slam dunk that I'd know about Admiral Grace Hopper, a founder of the COBOL language, who is credited with changing our word for a machine error from "glitch" to "bug"…and pasted the wayward moth into her notebook.
  • And of course, Ada Lovelace, who wrote the first computer program, for Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine, a machine that is a whole lot easier to emulate in software than to actually build of brass gears and ratchets.
  • Being a DuPont-er, I knew of Stephanie Kwolek, inventor of Kevlar®. Wish I'd had the chance to meet her while she was still at the company.
  • I have met Ellen Kullman, current CEO of DuPont, who began as a mechanical engineer.
  • I read Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, and later a few of her essays.
  • I read of "jumping genes" in a popular article by Barbara McClintock, and later the monographs in which she reported her work.
  • Emmy Noether, honored by Alfred Einstein for cracking the math needed for his general theory of relativity.
  • Florence Nightingale, who used statistics to show that battlefield hospitals were a hundred times as deadly as enemy bullets, and reformed nursing practice as a result.
  • Lise Meitner, a physicist on a par with Bohr and Heisenberg.
  • Rosalind Franklin, who would be the discoverer of the Double Helix if she hadn't been undercut by her boss.
  • Lynn Margulis, who first explained how complex eukaryotic cells developed from collaborations among simpler prokaryotic cells (known today as bacteria).
  • Sylvia Earle, in my opinion the most innovative practicing oceanographer.
  • Sally Ride, the first American woman astronaut.
  • Teacher Christa McAuliffe, who died aboard the Challenger when it blew up.
  • Primatologist Jane Goodall, whose most recent book will be reviewed here in a few days.
  • Primatologist Dian Fossey, who did for gorillas what Goodall did for chimps.

That's 16, and I could probably dig deeper, but time won't allow. With the help of good library work, Rachel Swaby has gathered biographical material for 52 of the best women scientists for her book Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science—and the World. In her introduction she explains why she included only deceased women, so three people on my list above could not have appeared, though I wish she'd included Fossey. She also explains that the incredible fame of Marie Curie made it rather moot to include her, though she did include her daughter Irene.

Thus we learn of Alice Ball, who concocted the first practical, injectable serum of chaulmoogra oil to treat leprosy; Emilie de Chatelet (sorry I left off the accents), who translated Newton's Principia into French, and wrote a commentary about the same size; Annie Jump Cannon, who practically created the Henry Draper Catalog of Stellar Spectra by classifying nearly 400,000 stars, also pretty much creating the classification criteria as she went; and Marie Tharp, whose work resurrected the theory of continental drift that is now called Plate Tectonics. I guess I could add Tharp above as a 17th; I read articles she wrote with Bruce Heezen in 1970.

It was enjoyable reading, but I think I'd have been more pleased were the book a third longer. Many of the mini-biographies are barely two pages, and the style would suit Joe Friday ("Just the facts, please."). It is a good beginning towards restoring a historical imbalance in science reporting. It wouldn't be a bad idea for a copy of this book to make its way into every middle school girl's backpack.

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