The Women in Science Reading List: The Twenty Best (And Four Not Best) Books To Read and Own
When I first started collecting biographies of female scientists, I thought the genre, thanks to the historical and systemic neglect of the subject matter, would be fun to collect and relatively easy to complete. Some Curie, some Meitner, a Franklin or two, and done. Six years later, and my shelves are quite literally overflowing with books on the topic, with no end in sight. Bad news for my completionism, but good news for humanity. Since today marks the second anniversary of my Women In Science column here at MadArtLab, I thought it would be fun to share my twenty favorite (and four least favorite) books from the shelves.
- The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World. by Shelley Emling.
Mary Anning is a fascinating figure, somebody who changed paleontology before she was fifteen years old, and who was repeatedly taken advantage of by the scientific community for her troubles. The only reason this book isn’t higher is its tendency to muse at length on what Anning might have been thinking at different points. But if you’ve got a young paleontology fan in your house, this is a good one.
- The Illustrated Women in Science: Year One. by Dale DeBakcsy.
Well, of course I’m going to put my own book in here! Why, it’s got everything! Cartoons! Topological Surfaces! Fabiola Gianotti hanging out with Dr. Doom! You should order several severals of it now!
- Ellen Swallow: The Woman Who Founded Ecology. by Robert Clarke.
When Clarke wrote this book in the Seventies, America was just coming back around to the ecological insights and concerns that Swallow had raised a half century earlier. It’s a great and earnest tale about one of the most undervalued figures in the history of twentieth century science, a woman who created several new branches of scientific inquiry from scratch. Earnest and inspiring, it’s worth hunting down.
- An Autobiography and Other Writings. by Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin
Payne-Gaposchkin is the person who told us at long last what stars were made of, and had to fight every step of the way to do it. Time after time, she reversed or silenced herself in the face of her superiors’ scorn for her ideas. This autobiography tells the tales of those clashes, but also tells the story of doing science in a world that is trying to tear itself apart as fast as it can. A beautifully written tale of a vitally important scientific life.
- Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles, and Momentous Discoveries. by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne
There are a number of Women in Science compendia out there which offer twenty or so brief biographies of famous female scientists, but this one is my favorite. It focuses on all the women who won Nobel Prizes prior to 1993, with substantial biographies of each. As a diving-in point for the breadth and scope of female contributions to science, it’s hard to do better.
- Blazing the Trail: Essays by Leading Women in Science. by Emma Ideal and Rhiannon Meharchand.
I love this book, because it’s the only one on this list which went out of its way to ask what is happening in science right now. Ideal and Meharchand found a broad cross section of modern era female scientists and let them speak their own stories and concerns. It’s the first book on this list I’d give to anybody considering a career in science for some current insights into what all is going on and what to expect.
- Dorothy Hodgkin: A Life. by Georgina Ferry.
[Spoiler Alert]. Dorothy Hodgkin is coming up pretty soon in year three as one of the towering figures of early twentieth century crystallography. This book, the first work from Georgina Ferry, is a charming combination of science and life, leaning towards the latter. Pair it with Maddox’s Franklin and you’ve got the makings of a great week of reading.
- On Her Own Terms: Annie Montague Alexander and the Rise of Science in the American West. by Barbara R. Stein.
Alexander’s life was so weird and improbable that I don’t think you could write a bad biography of her if you set out to. It’s a story of the glory days when Oakland, California was the Athens of the West, and one woman set out to document the natural history of vanishing American ecosystems. Alexander, the rich heiress tromping through the wilds of Alaska with her specimen traps, is irresistible.
- Seduced by Logic: Emilie du Chatelet, Mary Somerville, and the Newtonian Revolution. by Robyn Arianrhod
I have made no secret about not liking the title of this book, but everything else is delightful. A dual biography of two magnificent thinkers, one of whom brought Newton to France, and the other of whom brought Laplace to a mathematically mordant Britain, told with verve and panache.
- Caroline Herschel: Priestess of the New Heavens. by Michael Hoskin.
Herschel lived for a gloomy near-century, a quarter of it as an unknown household drudge, a quarter as a bitter former celebrity, and a half as the nexus for the recataloguing of the Northern Sky. Hoskin is the main biographer of the whole Herschel clan, and this biography shines with his knowing familiarity with their foibles and quirks.
- Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of Science. by Renee Bergland.
This book shines a light on a part of science that otherwise most people would have known nothing about, namely the pro-female, pro-science culture of Nineteenth Century Quakerism. That is a fascinating world to explore for a while, and we have Bergland to thank for unfolding it. Does Bergland say not particularly accurate things when she strays from this community? Yes. Are the statements about Ellen Swallow’s life and science ignorant and condescending? Yes. But if that’s the price we have to pay to get the rest, so be it.
- Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics. by Ruth Lewin Sime.
This is a delicious challenge of a book. It’s a scientific mystery where, rather than cast everything in terms of the solution that was ultimately arrived at, and which we’re all familiar with, we follow Meitner through the dim alleys and culs-de-sac of scientific progress, including all the dead-ends and wrong guesses and missed chances that bedevil every scientist. As a result, you feel the frustration palpably along with Meitner. Sime doesn’t say, “This result was obtained, which we now know really happened because of X,” and thereby allow us to orient ourselves. She rather says, “This result was obtained, and made no sense, and Meitner interpreted it this way, and this is where that lead” without any hint of what corresponds to that result, making all of our modern knowledge of the topic useless, which is an interesting place to be.
- Women in Science: Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century, A Biographical Dictionary with an Annotated Bibliography. by Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie.
Ogilvie is the wellspring of female scientist studies. This was the book that first put me onto the track of women scientists outside the Curie-Meitner-Franklin trinity, and it’s served that role for many others for four decades now. Today, much (but still not all, amazingly enough) of this information can be found through Wikipedia, but if you’re looking for the reference that Started It All, this is it.
- Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age. by Kurt W. Beyer
Beyer was charged with the task of making the standardization of programming code seem engaging, and he absolutely succeeded. Hopper was the hard-drinking, hard-working force behind the first compiler, the first de-bugging protocols, and the mammoth COBOL system, and Beyer tells her story in properly massive terms.
- Emmy Noether’s Wonderful Theorem. by Dwight E. Neuenschwander.
I loves me a book that is half biography and half hard-core mathematics. That’s what this is. There’s a biographical introduction, followed by a steady and absolutely lovely development of Noether’s theorem that linked all the laws of conservation ever. If you’ve got your differential equations still in your skull, this makes for a fun and intellectually keen read.
- In Praise of Imperfection. by Rita Levi-Montalcini.
If it weren’t for Feynman, this might be my favorite scientific memoir of all time. The story of chasing down the secrets of Nerve Growth Factor while on the run from Mussolini’s fascist purity squads is gripping and highlighted here and there by bittersweet psychological insight into the work and troubles of the scientists around her.
- Irene Joliot-Curie. by Noelle Loriot.
Irene Curie’s story has everything. The daughter of the most famous female scientist of all time, she herself lived a cinematic life that combined service amongst the carnage of World War I, resistance to the Nazis, service as a government minister, and all the while a persistent level of scientific excellence that uncovered the phenomenon of artificial radiation. Loriot has a firm grasp of Curie’s haunted psychological world, and tells the story with vividness. If you are comfortable with reading French, this is one of the tucked-away delights of the genre.
- Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man. by Dale Peterson.
Massively researched, engagingly written, Peterson’s Goodall is a perfect combination of field science gnashing against bureaucracy with a small clutch of idiosyncratic pioneers dancing around the chaos to make fundamental discoveries about the natural world. Peterson takes nothing for granted. While other biographers usually toss off the Childhood and Ancestors section without any particular care for finding the fragile beauty therein, Peterson makes this section among the most interesting in a book filled to the brim with Very Interesting Things.
- Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis. by Kim Todd.
When I get asked in interviews or after talks about who my favorite female scientist is, my answer is immediate: Merian. And Todd’s book is mainly responsible for that. She tells the story of Merian’s exotic, artistic, scientifically rigorous, but spiritually complex life with easy grace and a real sense of her importance in the development of an ecological approach to taxonomy. Plus, it includes a nice selection of Merian’s absolutely gorgeous entomological illustrations. A book lovely in every detail.
- Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA. by Brenda Maddox.
I know, it’s like ending a list of the Top 100 Albums of All Time with Sgt. Pepper or Thriller. But, guess what, Sgt. Pepper and Thriller were really good albums, and The Dark Lady of DNA is a phenomenally good book. I don’t know what I love most about it. The portrayal of the British Jewish community at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. Franklin’s carefree years doing coal science in Paris, falling desperately in love while honing her craft. The masterful account of her time doing DNA crystallography in the least amenable work environment ever. Actually, I do know what I love most, and it’s Maddox’s account of her years researching the Tobacco Mosaic Virus, surrounded at last by people who respected her and whom she respected in turn, traveling the world as a scientific celebrity all the while slowly dying inside from cancer. It’s a triumphant tragic end, and Maddox handles it beautifully.
So, there you are, twenty books to start off your own collection. Now, a few books that can be safely avoided for a while:
- Ada‘s Algorithm: How Lord Byron’s Daughter Launched the Digital Age. by James Essinger.
Sometimes you just don’t have enough material for a full book, so you start taking other characters in the story and telling anecdotes about them that are amusing and entertaining and not entirely to the point. And that’s largely fine, but with Lovelace, there’s a good deal that can be gone into about her mathematics and science that Ada’s Algorithm more or less decides to avoid in order to tell more stories about Charles Dickens.
- The World of Maria Gaetana Agnesi, Mathematician of God. by Massimo Mazzotti.
My original review of this features the line, “It is under-long, over-priced, and in general, I do not like it.” That pretty much still sums it up for me.
- Soundings: The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Mapped the Ocean Floor. by Hali Felt.
You remember how frustrating it was, every time, in Julie and Julia, the story hopped away from Julia Child so we could spend more time engaging at length with Julie’s blog-borne narcissism about her creative process? How you’d yell at the tv, “It’s not about you! Not everything is about you! Please, oh ever so much please, go away!” There’s a lot of that in Soundings. This is a book about Marie Tharp, who in all ways deserves a full length biographical treatment, but Felt believes very strongly that what we really want, as readers, is to hear her tell the story of how she discovered Tharp, in detail. That’s how the book starts. It’s how the book ends. Maybe some day, when Felt become the Lytton-Strachey of the twenty-first century, these extended detailings of her process will prove irresistible, but for now they’re just aggravating and unnecessary.
- Rocket Girl: The Story of Mary Sherman Morgan, America’s First Female Rocket Scientist. by George D. Morgan
I feel bad about talking ill of this book. Morgan just wanted to tell the story about his mom in the best way he knew, and received some spectacularly bad editing advice along the way. Mary Morgan is an interesting figure in the history of science, and we should thank George D. Morgan for telling us more about her. But, man, this book is bad. It is astoundingly bad. It is community center adult school recreational creative writing at twenty four dollars a quarter bad. It’s so bad, though, so honest in its clumsiness, that it’s endearing, whereas Soundings is merely pretentious and self-involved. The writing is much worse, but the spirit behind it, the heart of the book, is much better, and though Soundings probably technically deserves the number 1 spot, I think Rocket Girl, by being so honest about showing its seams, should be honored for the purity of its purpose. If you’re going to buy just one bad women in science biography, buy this one. I guarantee good times.
“The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II” by Denise Kiernan was a great read, and talked about the Manhattan project from the point of view of many different women who contributed to the project, and not just the “well known” and highly educated women. It covers all levels and abilities of involvement.
Cool! That one’s on my stack, but maybe now I’ll have to bump it up two or three places! – Dale
Most of these books sound interesting, but I really wish people would stop confusing environmental science and ecology. Ecology is the study of interactions among organisms and between organisms and their environment, which may or may not be connected to practical environmental issues. Ellen Swallow did what we now call environmental science, not ecology.
True, but as the book was written half a century ago, when concerns about man’s interactions with the environment marched under the broader banner of ecology, it doesn’t bother me as much as if the book were written rather more recently.
BRB adding everything to reading list
This seems like a good place to ask: What’s your favorite bio about Marie Curie?
Ooooh that’s a good question. I can’t pretend to have read them all, but I do love Eve Curie’s book about her mother. It’s idiosyncratic and strange and has style, and if you want an engaging personal portrait of a scientific giant, it’s your book. For a quick but sturdy read, there’s Ogilvie’s book, which is nice because of how important Ogilvie was to putting female scientists on the historical map. The book I keep by me is Quinn’s Marie Curie: A Life because it doesn’t shy from the science like other accounts tend to. Recently, I’ve had Redniss’s Radioactive strongly recommended to me, so I’ve put that on the pile for the mystical day when I’ve time to read what I want to read instead of what I have to…! Hope