Do not allow your mind to be imprisoned by majority thinking

Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers who Changed the World
by Rachel Ignotofsky

We tend to think that until the latter half of the 20th century, science was done by men. The history books and allocation of awards such as Nobel prizes strongly support that view. But in recent years a slew of books have begun to challenge that version of history. This is the first I’ve read but I’m keen to follow it up with Hidden Figures, The Glass Universe and others.

Ignotofsky both wrote and illustrated this beautiful book, profiling women scientists in a design-heavy layout that simply and effectively tells their stories.

From Hypatia (approx 350–415 AD) to Maryam Mirzakhani (1979–present), this book devotes a double-page spread each to women who have made significant advances in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). In each, the left-hand page is an illustration of the woman herself, with a few key facts floating around, while the right-hand page contains a bio of the woman and a few small, light-hearted illustrations. In every case there is a quote either by or about the woman, and these often reference being a woman in a man’s world.

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Royal Society Winton Prize shortlist announced

Today, the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books shortlist was announced. Congratulations to all the 2015 contenders:

The Man Who Couldn’t Stop by David Adam

Alex Through the Looking-Glass: How Life Reflects Numbers and Numbers Reflect Life by Alex Bellos

Smashing Physics: Inside the World’s Biggest Experiment by Jon Butterworth

Life’s Greatest Secret: the Story of the Race to Crack the Genetic Code by Matthew Cobb

Life on the Edge: the Coming of Age of Quantum Biology by Johnjoe Mcfadden and Professor Jim Al-Khalili

Adventures in the Anthropocene: a Journey to the Heart of the Planet we Made by Gaia Vince

After the great success of my 2014 Popular-Science Reading Challenge, I have completely dropped the ball and read zero popular science this year, so I have read none of the above titles. Ellie of Curiosity Killed the Bookworm has read and recommended The Man Who Couldn’t Stop. I don’t think any of the others have been covered by bloggers I follow, but I may be being rubbish at searching so please do leave a link in the comments if I missed your review.

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Sunday Salon: International Women’s Day

The Sunday SalonHappy International Women’s Day, folks! While I can only remember hearing about it for the past couple of years, this day was created in 1909 as a national day in the US and went international in 1911. There’s all sorts of fun facts about this day on the official website, but my favourite one is that International Women’s Day is now an official holiday in Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, China (for women only), Cuba, Georgia, Guinea-Bissau, Eritrea, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Madagascar (for women only), Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Nepal (for women only), Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uganda, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Zambia.

I am mostly celebrating by listening to 6 Music, which seems to have dedicated its whole day of programming to International Women’s Day, but when I do find some time to read I’ll be continuing my way through Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Her birthday was 6 March and to celebrate I wrote a piece for the Redhead Reads micro newsletter. Aurora Leigh is an appropriate read for today not only because it was written by a woman but also because it’s about a woman trying to break free of the social constraints placed on her by her sex. And it’s really good.

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Dark suggestions of extramarital affairs, hidden wealth and poisoning

The Most Remarkable Woman in England

The Most Remarkable Woman in England:
Poison, celebrity and the trials of Beatrice Pace

by John Carter Wood

I think I first heard about this book in the Guardian, which goes to show that I do still occasionally read newspaper review pages and like something I see there. Now, I mostly liked the sound of this book because it’s about a historical event (okay, a death that may or may not have been murder) in the Forest of Dean, but it’s about so much more than that, tapping into issues around celebrity, poverty, gender equality, domestic violence and depression.

The history being recounted here is that of Harry Pace, a quarryman and sheep farmer who died in 1928 slowly and painfully, aged just 36, and his wife Beatrice Pace who was accused of murdering her husband by poisoning him. The long-drawn-out inquest and subsequent trial were the sensational news story of their day, not just locally in the Forest of Dean but also nationally, with details both revealed and (amazingly) kept hidden about infidelities, domestic violence and other dark secrets.

“[Harry Pace’s death might have] remained as obscure as that of any other working-class person. But investigations by the local police were soon accompanied by dark suggestions of extramarital affairs, hidden wealth and poisoning. The local coroner’s decision to postpone the funeral and order an urgent post-mortem suddenly made Harry’s demise newsworthy, especially when it was later proven that he had died from a large dose of arsenic. Precisely how it had gotten into his body was anything but clear, but there were only three obvious possibilities – accident, suicide or murder – and, at first, no way of deciding among them.”

You might think that a book about a mysterious death in (or very near to) my hometown back in the 1920s sounds a bit gruesome and/or specialised. But while the setting was certainly the reason for my initial interest, it was the way the story was told that kept me hooked.

Because this is a really well written book. Wood, a historian, acknowledges himself on his blog that he was trying to write for both a general audience and an academic one, and I think that shows, but not at all in a bad way. I have tried to read a few historical books written for a popular audience and generally I’ve struggled. Even the super successful The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, which it’s hard not to compare this to, didn’t entirely get it right in my view.

The way in which Wood does get it right is, to begin with, his identifying what it was about the case that made its players instantly famous. He has some very smart things to say about celebrity culture being tied to social and political changes, such as women’s liberation or distrust of the police force. Wood quotes extensively from original sources, which serves two purposes: you are left in no doubt as to where each fact/opinions comes from, and you get a real flavour of the time and place. Papers quoted Beatrice and other key witnesses extensively (and indeed both Beatrice and her oldest daughter had their stories serialised in the national press) so there’s lots of material to be drawn from and Wood has done an admirable job picking out the right lines to tell his story.

“The ‘seemingly interminable’ inquest stretched through April and May, attracting ever more attention. By mid-May, the World’s Pictorial News observed: ‘Throughout all these months of inquiries, throughout all the ten hearings before the Coroner, the widow has been called upon to face the gaze of curious eyes. Crowds flocked into Coleford from villages for miles around to see the woman who had become such a figure of public interest.'”

Because this is after all Wood’s story above all. He works at the Institute of European History in Germany, specialising in the history of crime, policing, violence and media; and those interests are very much at the fore. Which is in many ways what makes this book interesting – it doesn’t just lay out the facts and then have a stab at “solving the case”, instead it uses the case as a detailed case study. And they’re all fascinating subjects that are still relevant now.

I know that this book worked in a narrative sense because for most of the time I was reading it I felt a prickling at the back of my neck that I only get from a good crime book, whether true or fictional. It really is a very readable book, despite its extensive references. I’ll keep an eye out with interest for the next research interest Wood decides to expand into a whole book. I’d also like to thank Wood for e-mailing me with the genuinely interesting fact that the journalist most involved in covering the Pace case, Bernard O’Donnell, was the father of Peter O’Donnell, who created (and wrote the many many stories about) the character Modesty Blaise, who I really like. That’s a good fact.

Published 2012 by Manchester University Press.

Source: Christmas present from my Mum.

Sunday Salon: Women on banknotes? Oh my.

The Sunday Salon

So there’s been a bit of controversy lately about women on UK banknotes, or rather the lack of them. It began in April when the Bank of England announced that from 2016, Winston Churchill will replace Elizabeth Fry on the £5 note. This caused a bit of an upset because Fry is currently the only woman on any of the four UK banknotes. In fact, the announcement led people to take a look at the full list of figures ever featured on our banknotes and notice that women have always had pretty low representation. Which started a whole equal representation campaign.

Following this campaign, this week the Bank of England announced that the next £10 note will feature Jane Austen (also in 2016). So that’s alright then, isn’t it? They’ve picked a historically significant woman, and a writer to boot. I should be thrilled!

The thing is, Jane Austen is not the woman I would have chosen. She’s not even the writer I would have chosen and I’d probably have leaned toward woman scientist over woman writer, to be honest. Rosalind Franklin, Ada Lovelace, Dorothy Hodgkin – they all have a much stronger case for how much they contributed to the betterment of society and as role models than Jane Austen, surely?

But that’s not to say that literature can’t contribute to society. Clearly I don’t believe that. Perhaps it’s because I’m not an Austen fan, but she’s just never seemed particularly revolutionary to me. She was a woman, yes, and that in itself was unusual for the time. But that can’t be enough to make her an admirable figure. She wrote about a very narrow section of society. I hate to repeat the trope that she only wrote about money and marriage, but there is something in that accusation.

So which woman writer would I choose? Obviously she must be British and meet the other Bank of England criteria (which are currently under review, following the whole Churchill debacle). Well, I’m not the biggest George Eliot fan either (I loved Silas Marner, was less thrilled with Silly Novels by Lady Novelists and gave up on The Mill on the Floss – but that was a long time ago so please don’t judge me!) but she certainly seems to have covered a lot more of British society than Austen. I am a fan of Virginia Woolf and she was central to an artistic movement (Modernism), co-founded a publishing house (Hogarth Press) and contributed a lot to the growth of feminism. However, she might be considered too controversial for the Bank of England, between her bisexuality, depression and suicide. I hope not.

Which British female historical figures do you think deserve to be honoured on our banknotes? Do any novelists rank up there for you? Do you think this is even a debate that needs to happen or do you shy away from positive discrimination? I’d love to hear your thoughts.