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

14 - Headstrong 52 Women Who Changed Science and the World

Rating – 5*

I saw this book pop up in a magazine (Royal Society of Chemistry magazine) quite a while ago, since then it was on my radar. I knew it was a book that I wanted to, an needed to, own. Eventually, I decided enough was enough and it was about time to pick it up, I just waited until the right point to read it. A point when I needed motivation, inspiration, I needed to remind myself why I do what I do and this book, oh this book did just that. This book is amazing. These women, all 52 of them, were incredible. They make me proud to be a scientist, to follow the path that they essentially paved for me and my female friends to be able to do what we do! They gave us access. Every single woman featured in this book is a superhero and I wouldn’t be doing what I do without them.

This book was born from the author reading an obituary in the newspaper. Yvonne Brill made a “mean beef stroganoff”, she was a wife, a mother and there was over half a page of column dedicated to her. Why? She was an incredible rocket scientist. A rocket scientist who developed technology still used by NASA today (hydrazine jet propulsion if anyone cares!). And all the New York Times cared about was her “mean beef stroganoff”, that was more important than the work she did for over 50 years. After reading this, Rachel Swaby decided enough was enough and it was about time people heard about the amazing women who have changed science (and coincidentally, the world) but are little heard about, some even forgotten entirely from scientific circles (never mind the general public!).

There are women in medicine, biological sciences, environmental sciences, chemistry, physics, engineering, and mathematics who have been overwritten in history. Some names remain, most people know who Marie Curie was, but her daughter Irene was equally as incredible and also won a Nobel prize to go with her mothers two. Many people have heard of Ada Lovelace and Florence Nightingale. But there are so many more amazing women out there; Rosalind Franklin identified the signature double helix of DNA. Lise Meitner discovered nuclear fission. Dorothy Hodgkin discovered the structure of Vitamin B12. Inge Lehmann discovered the inner core of the Earth. Virginia Apgar developed the APGAR test which has saved countless of newborn babies. Helen Taussig revolutionised heart surgery. Alice Ball was a black woman in her twenties who treated leprosy. All of these women are incredible, inspiring too. And while they only get three or four pages each, their intelligence and determination comes across so clearly. I wish, oh I wish, I could have some of these women round for dinner and just thank them, talk to them, have some of their insight because they’re incredible.

These women inspire me. Everyone should know about these women. This book is something special, it has it’s faults, the writing is a bit questionable, and jumbled, at times but the reasoning behind this book and the overall presentation is faultless. I would love more on each of these women, but the idea of reading about one woman a week for a year that is put forward in the introduction I think is great for the non-specialist or the person who just wants to read about an awesome woman once a week! I devoured it in under a week, I read a couple of sections a day (the book is split in to seven scientific disciplines).

This is by no means a book for scientists only. This is a book that, I feel, could benefit anyone. If I had known about these women earlier on in my life it would have probably sparked my interest in science sooner! 

Naturally, this is a book about science and women and it is awesome. It was a 5* book before I opened it, if I’m entirely honest. How could it be anything else?

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