Beautiful minds: books that celebrate women in science
Seattle Times book editor Mary Ann Gwinn recommends the novels “The Signature of All Things” and “Remarkable Creatures,” and the biographies “Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie” and “Rosalind Franklin: the Dark Lady of DNA.”
Seattle Times book editor
I always have a go-to book recommendation in my back pocket, one I can pull out when the question of “What should I read next?” pops up. This summer it’s Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel (Viking) the story of Alma Whittaker, an eccentric and wealthy young 19th-century woman who holds botany and plants in the highest regard. Specifically, Alma loves bryophytes — mosses, liverworts and hornworts — and in the service of her passion, she travels to several continents and makes enormous sacrifices, simply because there are things she has to know.
This got me thinking of other books about women of science. At the center of each of these stories is a woman who pursued scientific knowledge at all costs. Because she had to know.
“The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science” by Richard Holmes (Vintage). This remarkable book, published in 2009, braids together the stories of scientists and poets in the late 18th and 19th centuries who inspired one another’s work and changed the face of literature and science.
The woman in this mix is astronomer Caroline Herschel. Born in 1750, she was keeping house for her parents in Germany when her brother William freed her, bringing her to England to ostensibly run his household.
The two siblings got up to much more than keeping a tidy home. They began collaborating in a lifelong study of the stars. They stayed up for nights on end to watch the heavens, teeth chattering from the chill rising from the freezing sloughs of Slough, England. They designed and built telescopes big enough to walk through (the King of England, a patron, did just that). It was a lifetime’s work for Caroline, who lived until 97 and was the first woman to discover a comet.
“Remarkable Creatures” by Tracy Chevalier (Plume). This 2010 novel is based on the life of a real person: Mary Anning, a 19th-century English girl who lived in an area awash in fossils. She became the greatest fossil hunter of her generation, sought after by scientists eager to use and exploit her finds for their own research. Chevalier, author of “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” creates a friendship, working relationship and intellectual bond between Mary and Elizabeth Philpot, an upper-class woman also intrigued by fossils and their scientific implications.
“Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie” by Barbara Goldsmith (Norton). This 2004 biography tells the story of Marie Curie, who lived for her work, persevered and won two Nobel Prizes despite the death of her husband, a scandalous affair and radiation poisoning, among other things. Curie kept at her study of radioactivity after Pierre’s accidental death. After her second Nobel, the Parisian press had a field day writing about her brief affair with a married scientist. When she died in 1934 she was covered with lesions from her exposure to radioactivity. Her daughter Irene, who became the second woman to win the Nobel Prize, also died from exposure to radiation.
“Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA” by Brenda Maddox. (Harper Perennial). James Watson and Francis Crick generally get credit for the discovery of the DNA “helix,” but British chemist Rosalind Franklin made a key contribution by producing X-Ray photographs of the structure. In a race against other researchers to get credit for the discovery, Watson and Crick largely dismissed her contributions. Franklin died of ovarian cancer in 1958, but her story, ably told by Maddox in this 2002 book, has become a cause célèbre among people concerned with the role of women in science.
Thanks to Seattle science writer Sally James for helping me compile this list.
Sad news: Wessel & Lieberman, the rare and collectible bookshop operating in Pioneer Square for more than 20 years, is closing. The store is still taking orders through its website, but according a store announcement, “we encourage you to visit the shop in person, as we have (literally) thousands of books which are not listed online — including many books, pamphlets, artwork etc. that we simply never got to, or thought we lost, or forgot we had.” The store will remain open through Aug. 8. For information on store hours and on the ongoing sale, go to wlbooks.com.
Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Gwinn appears every Tuesday on TVW’s “Well Read,” discussing books with host Terry Tazioli (go to tvw.org/shows/well-read for archived episodes). On Twitter @gwinnma.