Headstrong: A book review by Bob Morris

HeadstrongHeadstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science-and the World
Rachel Swaby
B/D/W/Y: Broadway Books (2015)

“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” Helen Keller

Do you already know that, during the last 100 years or so, many of the most important breakthroughs in science were achieved or led by women? Frankly, I did not until reading this book in which Rachel Swaby provides mini-profiles of 52 truly exceptional scientists in seven fields: medicine, biology and the environment, genetics and development, physics, Earth and stars, mathematics and technology, and invention. By the way, all of them are women. When examining the list, I did recognize the names of several, notably Jane Wright, Rachel Carson, Barbara McClintock, Irene Joliot-Curie, Sally Ride, Ada Lovelace, and Hedy Lamarr.

With regard to Lamarr, born Hedwig Eva Kiesler in Vienna in 1914, she was among the most popular film stars in the 1930s through the 1950s but, as Swaby points out, she and George Antheil developed a frequency-hopping technology that was a much better way to guide torpedoes. “Lamarr’s ideas paved the way for a myriad of technologies, including wireless cash registers, bar code readers, and home control systems, to name a few. While she had a long career as a celebrated actress, Lamarr finally got the full recognition she deserved when she was awarded the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Pioneer Award in 1997. Her response: ‘It’s about time.'” Of course, her contributions during World War Two were classified and her key insight was not revealed until 1976 — “thirty-five years after Lamarr patented it.”

Here’s a representative selection, a “sampler,” of biographical details among those of greatest interest to me:

o Charlotte Auerbach (1899-1994) realized that, to understand a gene, she needed to understand its mutation. “Just a few mustard-gas burns and some lab work later, and Auerbach was at the top of the field, the so-called mother of mutagenesis.”

o Anne McLaren (1927-2007) not only proved in vitro fertilization was possible, “but years later, she was also responsible for safely and ethically guiding it into the world.”

o Marguerite Perey was the first woman elected to the French Academy of Sciences (before Madame Curie) in recognition of her development of a new radioactive element, #87, that “filled an empty square in the periodic table’s alkali metal group, and completed the table’s spaces for naturally occurring elements.”

o Chien-Shung Wu (1912-1997): When the results of her experiments in radioactivity to coax the K-meson into an observable state were announced, “an article in the New York Post gushed, ‘This small modest woman was powerful enough to do what armies can never accomplish: she helped destroy a law of nature.”

o Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) was the daughter of Lord Byron and received what was in her time a superb education. Her research notes helped Charles Babbage to develop his “Difference Engine” and then his “Analytical Engine,” providing what amounts to programming code for two of the earliest computers.

o Stephanie Kwolek (1923-2014): Her preparation of the cold-spun threads (kevlar, developed in the DuPont labs) “launched a brand-new area of research around liquid crystalline polymers.”

Throughout the history of science, most breakthroughs have been the result of cross-functional, often cross-generational collaboration. The 52 scientists on whom Swaby focuses would be among the first to acknowledge the value of what they learned from others as well as the value of what their associates contributed to the given process eventual success, to reveal, for example, the complex structures of biochemical substances (Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin) or to calm the temperament of the arc light (Hertha Ayrton).

Rachel Swaby urges her reader to learn about those whose research “jump-started the Environmental Protection Agency, who discovered the wrinkle-free cotton and even those whose ingenious score has now saved generations of struggling newborns.”

If you are a young woman who aspires to gain an education and then pursue a career in one of the STEM disciplines or is now embarked upon that journey, I urge you to read and then re-read this book and leave the final comment in this brief commentary to one of my personal heroines, Helen Keller: ““Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”

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