Headstrong by Rachel Swaby

A cornucopia of female scientists and engineers that got left out of the history I learned in school.

It’s amazing how much these women accomplished considering how much was stacked against them. Time after time, in these biographies, I read how a brilliant scientist would be forced to work for free, because the university didn’t hire women. Often, they’d find employment in a German university, only to be kicked out once the Nazis took power and started firing Jewish scientists.

That kind of treatment would make me rebellious, want to stop my work completely and find something less important to do.

But these women persisted.

Three of the many things I learned:

  • Grace Hopper was the first woman to graduate with a PhD in math from Yale. She invented the compiler, set the foundations for COBOL, and was considered so valuable to the Navy that she was called back from retirement to work another 19 years (!)
  • When Einstein needed tutoring in the higher math he needed to pursue his theory of General Relativity, he turned to Emmy Noether, the inventor of abstract algebra. Through the course of teaching Einstein, she invented the equations needed to set General Relativity¬†on a solid mathematical footing.
  • Marie Tharp mapped 70% of the ocean floor, and discovered the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. She insisted that it was confirmation of continental drift for years (and was fired for it!) before theory became accepted.

The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes

More a series of biographies than a proper narrative history. Still well-written and interesting, though.

Holmes’ use of language and choice of examples illustrates the Romantic belief that science and poetry were not opposed, but complementary disciplines, both seeking to understand and explain the world around them.

Three things I learned:

  • Caroline Herschel, William Herschel’s sister, was a great astronomer in her own right, discovering numerous comets and nebulae, as well as compiling the most comprehensive star catalogues of the 19th century.
  • Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, written in 1816, can be considered the first science fiction novel, as it took curent theories of biology and chemistry and extrapolated them into the future, then constructed a narrative around the consequences.
  • William Herschel was originally an organist in Bath; astronomy was a hobby he indulged in on the side. It just so happened that his homemade telescopes were more powerful than anything any one else had constructed before (!)