Review: Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science – and the World

Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science-and the World, Rachel Swaby

Published April 7th 2015 by Random House

Paperback, 288 pages

Source: e-ARC from Edelweiss

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From Goodreads…

In 2013, the New York Times published an obituary for Yvonne Brill. It began: “She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job, and took eight years off from work to raise three children.” It wasn’t until the second paragraph that readers discovered why the Times had devoted several hundred words to her life: Brill was a brilliant rocket scientist who invented a propulsion system to keep communications satellites in orbit, and had recently been awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. Among the questions the obituary—and consequent outcry—prompted were, Who are the role models for today’s female scientists, and where can we find the stories that cast them in their true light?      

Headstrong delivers a powerful, global, and engaging response. Covering Nobel Prize winners and major innovators, as well as lesser-known but hugely significant scientists who influence our every day, Rachel Swaby’s vibrant profiles span centuries of courageous thinkers and illustrate how each one’s ideas developed, from their first moment of scientific engagement through the research and discovery for which they’re best known. This fascinating tour reveals these 52 women at their best—while encouraging and inspiring a new generation of girls to put on their lab coats.

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This book was totally inspiring! I almost wished I’d stuck with my original college goals in science after reading Headstrong.  Swaby chose 52 amazing women to highlight and by specifically only including women whose “life work has been completed” she really makes you think about how far women have come in the fields like medicine, physics, and chemistry.  For example, the first woman featured, Mary Putnam Jacobi who to enter medical school in Paris had to enter lectures through a separate door and maintain a buffer of empty seats around her.  Or chemist Ellen Swallow Richards who was the first woman admitted to MIT in 1870.  Richards was admitted tuition free – so that if anyone complained about her being a student the school could claim that she was not establishing a precedent for the admission of females.

These women were amazing!  They were brilliant and all around inspiring.  Virginia Apgar – besides coming up with the Apgar test to evaluate newborns – “always kept the following things on her person: a penknife, an endotrachial tube, and a laryngoscope, just in case someone needed an emergency tracheotomy.”  And its the BOY Scouts who are prepared?!  I could have pulled a quote from any chapter that was this cool!

At the same time this book made me kind of want to tear my hair out reading the stories of these geniuses that were unpaid, relegated to work in closets or not given credit for their ideas. Barbara McClintock, who won the Nobel Prize for genetics, was asked if she was bitter that it took so long for the Nobel to come to her she said “When you know you’re right you don’t care.  It’s such a pleasure to carry out an experiment when you think of something.  …I’ve had such a good time, I can’t imagine having a better one.  …I’ve had a very, very satisfying and interesting life.”  I really don’t think I could be that big of a person!

This was a short book despite the lengthy list of women included and for non-fiction it was a really fast read.  TJ at My Book Strings did a great post pairing Headstrong with a children’s book: Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women.  I cannot wait until Babycakes is just a bit older so we can read this one together!  She’s a “mathmagician” she tells me so I cannot wait to show her what amazing women can do.

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I loved that Swaby points out that if she wrote this book 5 years from now that her book would be much more diverse- I hope she comes out with another book then!  It’s going to take me 5 years to read all I can about the women that particularly intrigued me in Headstrong.

Headstrong was kind of like an excellent meal at a tapas restaurant.  Lots of pleasing small courses- sometimes you’re just left wanting more but you still leave totally satisfied!

4 stars!

Thank you Random House and Edelweiss for this advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

All quotes taken from an unfinished advanced readers copy.

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15 Comments

  1. I’m so glad you liked this book, and your comparison to a tapas bar is perfect. That’s exactly what this is! And the stories are so inspiring. Did you see the #distractinglysexy tweets in June, after some professor referred to some female scientists as “girls who cry and fall in love a lot”? I loved reading them all after reading this book. And thank you for the link. I hope your mathmagician will be inspired! (Isn’t kid logic the best sometimes?)

  2. This definitely sounds like my cup of tea. I know I would not be as big a person as Barbara McClintock. I’d be like “yeah it’s annoying. Just because I don’t have a penis, doesn’t mean my ideas are invalid.” But I guess she was also a product of her time. We’ve come a long way but we still have such a long way to go!

  3. This sounds fascinating. I’m definitely going to try to remember when I get requests for exciting non-fiction reads! (I always felt slightly bad for fitting into the stereotypically “female” areas by being an English major and eventually becoming a librarian. But I really can’t imagine pursuing math or science to that level!)

  4. Now, I definitely want to read this and share it with my daughter and her friends. We need more books celebrating female accomplishments in math and science like this. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

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