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Episode 324

Women of Science

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Posted by Mary Ann

Let me speak frankly about “The Signature of All Things” – I hated to see it end. One reason I loved this book: it portrayed a woman with a passion for knowledge and science. Like Alma, Elizabeth Gilbert’s heroine, women have pursued knowledge throughout history, but also like Alma, they have not always had an easy time of it. Remember how she published her scientific articles on moss under the name “A. Whittaker”? No one would have taken her seriously if she had been a man.

Of course, Elizabeth Gilbert has published a number of other books, including her astoundingly successful memoir “Eat, Pray, Love,” which sold about twenty gajillion copies and probably gave her the freedom to write whatever she wants for the rest of her life. She seems to be taking advantage of the opportunity!

The first women-in-science book I want to mention is a wonderful book I have mentioned before: “The Age of Wonder” by Richard Holmes. Holmes tells the stories of the scientists and poets of the late 18th and early 19th centuries who revolutionized so many ways of thinking. They actually fed on one another’s intellects – the poets would write poems about the scientists! That doesn’t happen all that much these days. Sir Joseph Banks, the world famous explorer and botanist who is featured in “The Signature of All Things,” has a role in this book.

But the person I want to talk about is Caroline Herschel.

Herschel, born in 1750, was basically keeping house for her parents in Hanover, Germany when her brother William brought her over to England to run his household. They were both fabulous musicians. They were also passionate scientists and became world famous astronomers, staying up all night for nights on end to star-watch; building gigantic telescopes you could walk through. Herschel was the first woman to discover a comet! She discovered eight all told. The Herschels, brother and sister, reminded me of Alma in her devotion to her work. “The Age of Wonder” contains profiles of a number of scientists who went to great extremes to make discoveries and advance the cause of knowledge, but Caroline is the one who sticks in my mind – I will forever remember the image of Caroline and William, freezing their tushes off, in the middle of a dank English field, staying up all night to watch the stars. She lived to the age of 97.

The next book I want to mention is 2009’s “Remarkable Creatures” by Tracy Chevalier. It’s a novel, but it’s based on the life of a real person – Mary Anning. Anning was an English girl who lived in an area of England chockablock with fossils, and she became, simply put, the greatest fossil hunter ever. In the 19th century she became much sought after by several English scientists who eventually owed some of their achievements to her discoveries. Of course, her discoveries of dinosaur remains had profound implications for the way the Victorian world thought about science and religion. The novel creates a friendship between Mary, a working class girl, and Elizabeth, an upper-class spinster who manage to forge a friendship and working relationship, fueled by their passion for their subject.

No list of books about women in science would be complete without a biography of Marie Curie. This woman was one half of another scientific couple – she and her husband Pierre made one discovery after the other about the nature of radioactivity. In many cases they did their work in unprotected labs, and would later pay a price for their health. They both won the Nobel Prize in 1903; and she carried on their work after he was killed in a road accident.

One of the better biographies of Marie Curie in recent years is “Obsessive Genius” by Barbara Goldsmith. Marie Curie lived an outsized life but she was a human being; about the time of her SECOND Nobel Prize, the Parisian press had a field day writing about her brief affair with a married man (also a scientist). When she died in 1934 she was covered in lesions from exposure to radioactivity – her daughter Irene, the SECOND woman to win a Nobel Prize in science, also died because of exposure to radioactive substances. For Marie Curie, the work was everything.

Finally, I want to mention a book about a woman who did not get enough credit for a key discovery of 20th century science. That book is 2002’s “Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA” by Brenda Maddox.

Everybody generally gives credit to the discovery of the DNA “helix” to James Watson and Francis Crick, but Franklin made a key contribution by being able to produce X-ray photographs of the structure. Watson and Crick, who were engaged in a race with other scientists to make their discoveries, then reveal them to the world, dismissed her contribution (some accounts say they basically took the substance of Franklin’s work, including one key photo of the helix, without asking or giving her credit). Franklin died of ovarian cancer at age 1937, but her story has become something of a cause celebre among people concerned with the role women play in science, even today.

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  1. VerJean Mirrielees

    Great list of women and science. Another book I had hoped you might mention: The Discovery of Jeanne Baret: A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe by Glynis Ridley

    posted 3 years ago
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