Headstrong – 52 Women Who Changed Science and the World*


Women are notoriously under-represented in science but the situation seems worse because such women scientists as there are tend to be misunderstood, misinterpreted, under-rated or ignored. Out of the 52 in Rachel Swaby’s book, the general reader might only have heard of Mary Anning (fossil hunter), Rachel Carson (author of Silent Spring), Rosalind Franklin (the “dark lady of DNA,” played by Nicole Kidman in the West End play, Photograph 51), Ada Lovelace (Byron’s daughter and pioneer of computing), Florence Nightingale (famed for nursing in the Crimean war), and Hedy Lamarr (celebrated actress, less known as an inventor). Swaby deliberately omits Marie Curie who has received substantial coverage (though there can never be enough about this double Nobel prizewinner, in my opinion).

In the past, it was difficult for women to gain an education or to carry on with their studies or work when they married. I will just mention a few of the 52, choosing those of earlier times or who are known for other activities.

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) became interested in insects as a child in Frankfurt. At thirteen, she was bringing up a colony of silkworms, taking notes and painting the stages in their life cycle. At a time when the metamorphosis from caterpillar to moth was not understood, Merian observed and painted insects throughout their lives, showing them in their habitats. These illustrations were published in her groundbreaking book Der Raupen wunderbarer Verwandlung (The Wondrous Transformation of Caterpillars) in 1679.

At 52, she set off for Surinam with her children on a very early example of a purely scientific expedition to collect and study the insects of plantations and jungle alike. The result was Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, with 60 exquisite copperplate engravings of insects and other animals on leaves and branches, crawling, flying, eating, unfurling proboscises, attacking each other…

Her work was admired by Goethe and used by Linnaeus in developing his classification of living things.

Mary Anning (1799-1847) was a child of a poor family which gained extra income by selling fossils from the cliffs of Lyme Regis to tourists. Mary learnt her father’s fossil-hunting trade at ten and, after his death, carried on with her brother Joseph. Usually finding fossil shellfish, her brother noticed part of a skull protruding from the rock. This was the head of an ichthyosaur and Mary unearthed the rest of it. This, the first example of its kind, was sold for £23, a considerable sum. In her early 20s, Mary took over the business, going out in winter (the best time for the cliff falls that exposed new fossils) with just her dog. She discovered the first plesiosaur skeleton and the first pterosaur found in Britain.

Her discoveries were evidence for extinction of species which contradicted the notion that God’s creation was perfect. Furthermore, there seemed to have been an age when the dominant animals were reptiles. Her knowledge of fossils and geology was extensive and yet, being a working-class woman, gentleman geologists tended to gain the credit from writing about her discoveries. She began to be treated as a fellow scientist, gaining the respect of geologists William Buckland, Charles Lyell and Roderick Murchison, and of the Swiss palaeontologist Louis Agassiz.

Never well off, she was helped by her scientific colleagues selling specimens and drawings on her behalf. Eventually she was awarded a civil list pension by the government. When she became ill with breast cancer, the Geological Society (which had earlier refused her membership as a woman) raised money for her and, after her death aged 47, paid for a stained glass window in her local church. Charles Dickens wrote of her life in 1865, ending his article with “The carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it.” In 2010, the Royal Society included Anning in a list of the ten British woman who have most influenced the history of science.

Émilie du Châtelet (1706-49) is largely known as a lover and intellectual companion of Voltaire but she was instrumental in introducing Newton’s ideas to France. Born rich (which always helps) but mainly self-taught, she followed a conventional path for the time until, aged 27 and expecting her second child, she became interested in mathematics, studying Descartes’s geometry and engaging talented tutors who introduced her to Newton’s work. At 32, she entered the French Royal Academy of Sciences essay competition on the nature of fire (i.e., heat), in which she predicted what we now know as infra-red radiation: her entry was highly praised and published by the academy.

She then published Institutions de Physique (Foundations of Physics), a state-of-the art textbook in which she not only put forward Newton’s theories but improved on them. When this was attacked by the secretary of the academy as being the unsound ideas of a fickle and weak-minded woman, she refuted each of his criticisms and sent her response to all members of the academy. The secretary resigned soon after.

Her experimental work confirmed that the kinetic energy of an object was proportional to its speed squared (Newton had not discussed this, focusing rather on momentum). Her greatest achievement was her translation (from Latin) of and commentary on Newton’s Principia. It remains the standard French translation. Days after completing it, she died, aged 42, after giving birth to her fourth child.

Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) is famous for her innovations in nursing but is arguably one of the founders of evidence-based medicine. Gathering data on causes of death among British soldiers in Scutari, she devised a method of displaying her statistics in a visual form, the polar-area diagram (essentially a circular bar-chart or histogram). The diagram is composed of wedges, one for each month, whose area is proportional to the total deaths. The wedges were subdivided in proportion to causes of death – wounds, infections, or other. She was able to show that death rates declined as sanitary methods improved. The government soon established a Statistical Branch of the Army Medical Department.

Later, she devised statistical forms for hospitals to gather data on their patients’ progress. She became the first woman member of the Royal Statistical Society in 1858.

Emmy Noether (1882-1935) was a mathematical genius who succeeded despite the active obstruction of the authorities, whether of universities, the Prussian state or the Nazis. For eight years, she worked at the University of Erlangen, unpaid, developing the theory of invariants, supervising PhD students, publishing several papers and lecturing on behalf of her professor father whose health was deteriorating. In 1915, she was invited by two of the world’s greatest mathematicians, David Hilbert and Felix Klein, to work on General Relativity at the University of Göttingen but she was refused employment after protests by those who thought it inappropriate to have men taught by a woman. With Hilbert’s support, she worked for several years, until 1923, unpaid. Here she proved her first theorem, Noether’s Theorem, which states that, for each law of symmetry, there is a conservation law. This solved a problem with General Relativity where it seemed to violate the Law of Conservation of Energy. It has been said that this theorem is on a par with Pythagoras’ Theorem in importance.

Despite her brilliant achievements in pure mathematics and physics, she was the first professor at Göttingen to be sacked under the Nazis’ anti-Jewish laws. She carried on tutoring illegally, even to Nazi students, but soon was found a job at Bryn Mawr College in the US. She died two years later after surgery for an ovarian cyst. Shortly before her death, Norbert Wiener described her as “the greatest woman mathematician who has ever lived; and the greatest woman scientist of any sort now living,” while Einstein said after her death “Fräulein Noether was the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began.”

Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000), better known as an Austrian-American film actor, was in the US when war broke out. Incensed by the torpedoing of ships carrying civilians by her erstwhile compatriots, she wanted to help the Allied effort. US torpedoes in 1942 had a 60% failure rate, largely due the inability to guide them. This could be improved by radio transmissions from ship to torpedo but these could be easily jammed by the enemy. Interested since childhood in machines and how they worked, Lamarr and a composer friend, George Antheil, worked on an idea of frequency changing programmed into the transmitter and receiver. This would be impossible to crack before the torpedo struck. They patented their idea and reported it to the US government, who immediately classified it as secret. Unfortunately, for various reasons, the idea was not used in war time. However, it had a wider applicability and is used in such areas as wireless cash registers, bar code readers, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS. Hedy Lamarr was awarded the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Pioneer Award in 1997.

This is a very readable book and all the women chosen are fascinating characters. Each is worthy of following. I include a few illustrations of the work of the women mentioned in this review. They are:

1 From Merian’s Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium (1705)

2 Drawing of plesiosaur found by Anning (from Transactions of the Geological Society of London).

3 A version of one of Nightingale’s polar-area diagrams.

4 Du Châtelet’s essay on the nature of fire.

5 Emmy Noether sometimes discussed abstract algebra by postcard. This is addressed to Ernst Fischer at her former university of Erlangen.

6 Hedy Lamarr’s secret communication system patent.

*By Rachel Swaby. Broadway Books, 2015: ISBN 9780553446791 http://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/247131/headstrong-by-rachel-swaby/9780553446791/

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