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.

“Believe in the power of truth…Do not allow your mind to be imprisoned by majority thinking.”
Patricia Bath

The people are a well-chosen mix of levels of fame as well as sub-genres in science, with a small handful of famous names (Marie Curie, Ada Lovelace, Jane Goodall), lesser-known names I had heard of (Chien-Shiung Wu, Katherine Johnson, Jocelyn Bell Burnell) and plenty I had never heard of. Despite the minimal space each person is allotted, I learned so many new fascinating things.

Ignotofsky points out work done by women that led to Nobel prizes for men. She highlights major discoveries that somehow haven’t received the same attention as equivalent or lesser achievements of men. There’s Nettie Stevens, who figured out that sex is determined by x and y chromosomes. Lise Meitner, who worked out nuclear fission from letters written to her by Otto Hahn after she was exiled from Nazi Germany (she was Jewish). Alice Ball, who discovered a cure for leprosy. Mamie Phipps Clark, who designed psychology experiments that proved that segregation was damaging children.

It’s worth noting that, as far as I can tell, these women aren’t entirely forgotten or ignored in their own fields. For example, many of the medical doctors included have won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. If you have heard of a woman mentioned here, you probably already know more about that person than this book will tell you. This really is a jumping-off point, a spark for generating interest in a topic, or for proving to young people that women and people of colour (whom the author has made a clear effort to include) do have a history of achievement in STEM, that there are footsteps to follow.

“People are allergic to change. You have to get out and sell the idea.”
Grace Hopper

I did spot a few typos, which irritated me, and I also found the choice of women fairly US-centric (a lot of the non-US women included moved to the US in the latter part of their career). But those are minor quibbles about a book that I really enjoyed despite it not being aimed at me anyway. This book’s ideal audience is definitely young people. Not too young – Ignotofsky includes details about the science that would be too complex and possibly offputting to under-12s, I’d say. But it would be great to get this book in front of teenagers.

Published 2016 by Penguin Random House.

Source: Birthday present from my Dad.