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

May 6, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0

Swaby_Headstrong


★ ★ ★ ★

Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science — and the World by Rachel Swaby | April 2015 | Broadway Books, an imprint of Crown Publishing | Paperback $16.00

In 2013, the New York Times published an obituary for Yvonne Brill. It began: “She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job, and took eight years off from work to raise three children.” It wasn’t until the second paragraph that readers discovered why the Times had devoted several hundred words to her life: Brill was a brilliant rocket scientist who invented a propulsion system to keep communications satellites in orbit, and had recently been awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. Among the questions the obituary—and consequent outcry—prompted were, Who are the role models for today’s female scientists, and where can we find the stories that cast them in their true light?

This review is based on a print uncorrected proof copy, which I won in a Goodreads giveaway. That’s part of why it took me so long to get to — I was waiting on the preferred physical version. I also had access to an e-ARC via NetGalley.

Headstrong is a lovely little collection of profiles of lady scientists who probably don’t get enough credit for their contributions to our world. The first paragraph of the introduction explains the author’s motivation quite well, I think:

‘This book about scientists began with Beef Stroganoff. According to the New York Times, Yvonne Brill made a mean one. In an obituary in March 2013, Brill was honored with the title of “world’s best mom” because she “followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children.” Only after a loud, public outrcy did the Times amend the article so it would begin with the contribution that earned Brill a featured spot in the paper of record in the first place: “She was a brilliant rocket scientist.” Oh, right. That.’

I remember when this happened, and I remember being so frustrated… but not so surprised. Women have been involved in the sciences for a very long time, but the various disciplines still often operate like good ol’ boys’ clubs (though obviously circumstances vary from place to place and from field to field).

This book is a little shorter than I’d hoped for. It’s more like a mini-buffet of biographies than a full feast of them, but that’s OK because it makes for perfect lunchtime reading. I’m sure it is difficult to do such interesting people complete justice in just a few pages each, but Swaby did a fine job and there were several scientists that I really want to learn more about now!

Every included scientist is treated with respect and honesty, which I wish could be the case for women in the sciences in every other situation. If I could, I would put a copy of this in the hands of every AP science high school student or pre-med freshman. More young people — young women and men, especially those who intend to make a career in any scientific field — need to know about these all-too-frequently forgotten scientists.


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Publication information: Swaby, Rachel. Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science — and the World. New York: Broadway Books, 2015. Print.
Source: ARC from publisher via Goodreads giveaway.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.

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