Being a Good Scientist Prized Over Differentiation of Sexes in “Headstrong”


Headstrong 52 Women Who Changed Science–and the World 

by Rachel Swaby

The pivotal line of this book is delivered by Hertha Ayrton, who was a scientist, an author, a close friend of Marie Curie, and the inventor of a fan that dispersed noxious gas away from soldiers. She is quoted as saying: “Personally I do not agree with sex being brought into science at all. The idea of ‘women and science’ is entirely irrelevant. Either a woman is a good scientist or she is not; in any case she should be given opportunities, and her work should be studied from the scientific, not the sex, point of view.”

This is the standard of measure of all the women in the book Headstrong by Rachel Swaby. In this work, Swaby covers the lives and contributions of 52 women in varying branches of science including invention, physics, mathematics, biology, chemistry, and more. Why 52? Swaby reasons that there are 52 weeks in a year, and so in reading this book you can learn about a different female scientist each week.

Each selection is just a snapshot of their life and their lasting impact to human progress and innovation. Some of these portraits are only two pages long; the longest is only about 5 pages. Although each segment is brief, the value of having so many different contributions by women compiled together effectively drives home the point of the impact women have made to the umbrella of science area which they fall under and upon the larger world.

The work is fact-filled, interesting, full of trivia, and delivers strong evidence of the value of female scientists without harping on or getting lost in hot-button issues like male dominance in science and exclusion of women in the field. The book deals in facts, and these include the struggles women had to go to in obtaining education and standing in their passions within fields where they were the glaring minority.

My favorite profiles included those of Gerty Radnitz Cori, a Biochemistry scientist responsible for our understanding of glycogen; Virginia Apgar, who developed a test to establish newborn health standards; Marry Anning, a pioneer in paleontology and fossil discovery;  Tilly Edinger, a Jewish woman who encountered Nazi targeting in establishing paleoneurology; Rachel Carson, the voice behind environmental awareness and author of “Silent Spring”; Rosalind Franklin, whom developed a structure of DNA that was “borrowed” by Watson and Crick; Hedy Lamarr, an well-known actress who also worked in tandem to invent a system for coded radio waves to aid torpedo navigation during war-time; and household name Florence Nightingale, responsible among many other contributions for her statistics work and suggestions for improved hospital conditions like better lighting and quiet time for recuperation that are still being pursued today.

Headstrong was enlightening and kept my interest. I see this being a valuable tool for students in researching these scientists, and grasping the timeline of scientific discovery more fully through human interest stories such as these. For me, this would be a recommended reading for college freshman or AP high-schoolers. The work is well-researched and written, and with such a variety of topics of interest that spurred me to want to know more about each of these women.

I would highly-recommend this read to those who love science, history, feminism, and generally just a good read.


Interested? Buy it from Random House

More info on this author at: Rachel Swaby

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Dear Luke, We Need to Talk. Darth…and other pop culture correspondences

This blog is a review of my recent read “Dear Luke We Need to Talk, Darth…and other pop culture correspondences.” I recieved this book free of charge through a nifty little Web site called Blogging For Books. While I didn’t pay for this book, I did choose it from a selection of titles. I disclose this in the interest of full disclosure for any bias this may predispose an author to.

 Dear Luke is a recent publication (still on our new in paperback table at the bookstore) by author John Moe, host of Wits and McSweeney’s contributor. This book is a humorous look at all things pop culture from Star Wars to Friends to Harry Potter. Moe does a good job of throwing in something that I imagine almost anyone can relate to. Part of the fun is in deciphering what piece of pop culture he is going to reference next.

The book is almost 300 pages of brief communication from favorite characters like Mickey Mouse, the shark from Jaws, Kurt Cobain, Dorthy of Oz, Bill Cosby’s sweater collection, and more and then more. Looking at that list though, it’s actually a list of not-so-favorite pop culture icons that Moe speaks for in Dear Luke. No aspect of popular media feels neglected though. With lots of references to music, movies, sports, TV, and even politics, there’s a chuckle here for almost anyone. I feel like I kept up with most of the references, but I did have a couple go by me. I’ve never seen Breaking Bad or the X-Files and so those were more of just a nod of acknowledgement on my part. 

I was not a fan of the “Rejected Super Bowl Half-Time Show Proposals” that were scattered throughout the book ever 5 to 10 pages. It covered the history of super bowl half-time shows, but it seemed like a thin stretch on humor. Then again, I’m not a sports fan or a fan of the half-time shows, so perhaps these sections just weren’t for me. 

I went through as I read and dog-eared all the pages where things that were particularly clever and/or funny stood out to me. My count of marked pages in total came to eight. For a 300 page book, eight instances of entertainment is pretty good. It’s not a spectacular count, but it’s not a total wash either. The book reads almost like a parody movie on pop culture, a popcorn flick, something good to see from Red Box on a rainy day. It’s a standup routine, and it’s effective for a few laughs. I think, that probably being the purpose of the book, it succeeded in this.

My favorite of the comedy vignettes included one from the management of “The Hotel California,” Axl Rose’s manager critiquing his song lyrics, Kurt Cobain writing to the board of Teen Spirit deoderant, the Walking Dead online forum for walkers, a CIA letter about special threat Barney the Dinosaur, and the backstory of the ghosts from Pac Man. Moe did a good job in most of the references to musical pop culture and the mainstays of pop culture. I think the struggle came to some of the less well established pop topics.

I could see this being a book I would buy my dad for father’s day or for a guy friend. For some reason, it doesn’t seem like something I’d reccomend to a female friend. Not that I think that women wouldn’t enjoy the references, it just seemed like something maybe an adolescent boy would get the most kicks out of. This book is very current in covering the trends of what’s popular now or things that have a timeless sense of humor to them. Unfortunately, I think this book will fall off into obsurity in a year or so because it is so current and it dates itself in a big way.

Bottom line: If you see this book in a used bookstore for a couple of bucks, pick it up for a relaxing, light read. Set your expectations low, have fun, and you are good to go.