by Maria Popova
Ada Lovelace, Marie Curie, Jane Goodall, Mae Jemison, and more pioneers who conquered curiosity against tremendous cultural odds.
When pioneering scientist Vera Rubin was a little girl in the 1930s, she longed to be an astronomer but had never met a sole person of that vocation in real life. Decades later, after she broke the glass ceiling in astronomy by becoming the first woman permitted to observe at the prestigious Palomar Observatory and went on to discover dark matter, Rubin reflected: “It never occurred to me that Icouldn’t be an astronomer.” She traced the firmness of that conviction to a children’s book about Maria Mitchell — America’s first woman astronomer and a lifelong champion of women in science — which had expanded her horizon of possibility and seeded the idea that she, a little girl amid a culture impoverished of such role models, could one day become an astronomer. Rubin did become one — one of the greatest ones who ever lived — whilst raising three children of her own, all of whom grew up to earn doctorates in science, including a daughter who became an astronomer herself. That Rubin has not yet been awarded the Nobel Prize is both a travesty and a testament to our culture’s long history of inequality in science.
Rubin is one of the fifty extraordinary women whom artist and author Rachel Ignotofsky celebrates in Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World (public library) — an illustrated homage to some of the most influential and inspiring women in STEM since long before we acronymized the conquest of curiosity through discovery and invention, ranging from the ancient astronomer, mathematician, and philosopher Hypatia in the fourth century to Iranian mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani, born in 1977.
True as it may be that being an outsider is an advantage in science and life, modeling furnishes young hearts with the assurance that people who are in some way like them can belong and shine in fields comprised primarily of people drastically unlike them. It is this ethos that Igontofsky embraces by being deliberate in ensuring that the scientists included come from a vast variety of ethnic backgrounds, nationalities, orientations, and cultural traditions.
There are the expected trailblazers who have stood as beacons of possibility for decades, even centuries: Ada Lovelace, who became the world’s first de facto computer programmer; Marie Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and to this day the only person awarded a Nobel in two different sciences; Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who once elicited the exclamation “Miss Bell, you have made the greatest astronomical discovery of the twentieth century!” (and was subsequently excluded from the Nobel she deserved); Maria Sybilla Merian, the 17th-century German naturalist whose studies of butterfly metamorphosis revolutionized entomology and natural history illustration; and Jane Goodall — another pioneer who turned her childhood dream into reality against tremendous odds and went on to do more for the understanding of nonhuman consciousness than any scientist before or since.
But there are also lesser-known and no less extraordinary engineers, physicists, physicians, chemists, geneticists, geologists, inventors, biologists, and scientists of all stripes, united by the possession of insatiable curiosity, a singular genius for transmuting it into knowledge, and two X chromosomes.
Woven throughout the micro-biographies are visual factoids like a timeline of notable events in the history of women in science, statistics about the alarming gender gap in STEM fields, and a visual taxonomy of lab tools.
In the introduction, Ignotofsky captures just what women in science have been up against, as recently as mere decades ago, even though science itself is millennia old:
Nothing says trouble like a woman in pants. That was the attitude in the 1930s, anyway; when Barbara McClintock wore slacks at the University of Missouri, it was considered scandalous. Even worse, she was feisty, direct, incredibly smart, and twice as sharp as most of her male colleagues. She did things her way to get the best results, even if it meant working late with her students, who were breaking curfew. If you think these seem like good qualities for scientist, then you are right. But back then, these weren’t necessarily considered good qualities in a woman. Her intelligence, her self-confidence, her willingness to break rules, and of course her pants were all considered shocking!
Barbara had already made her mark on the field of genetics with her groundbreaking work at Cornell University, mapping chromosomes using corn. This work is still important in scientific history. Yet while working at the University of Missouri Barbara was seen as bold and unladylike. The faculty excluded her from meetings and gave her little support with her research. When she found out they would fire her if she got married and there was no possibility of promotion, she decided she had had enough.
Risking her entire career, she packed her bags. With no plan, except an unwillingness to compromise her worth, Barbara went off to find her dream job. This decision would allow her to joyously research all day and eventually make the discovery of jumping genes. This discovery would win her a Nobel Prize and forever change how we view genetics.
Barbara McClintock’s story is not unique. As long as humanity has asked questions about our world, men and women have looked to the stars, under rocks, and through microscopes to find the answers. Although both men and women have the same thirst for knowledge, women have not always been given the same opportunities to explore the answers.
Here, I’m reminded of how Maria Mitchell — the first person to discover a telescopic comet, which earned her unanimous election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences as the first woman ever admitted — earned three honorary degrees, even though she was never allowed to set foot in a university as a student. Ignotofsky captures the heartbreaking inequalities that only amplify the impressiveness of these women’s feats:
When women finally began gaining wider access to higher education, there was usually a catch. Often they would be given no space to work, no funding, and no recognition. Not allowed to enter the university building because of her gender, Lise Meitner did her radiochemistry experiments in a dank basement. Without funding for a lab, physicist and chemist Marie Curie handled dangerous radioactive elements in a tiny, dusty shed. After making one of the most important discoveries in the history of astronomy, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin still got little recognition, and for decades her gender limited her to work as a technical assistant. Creativity, persistence, and a love of discovery were the greatest tools these women had.
Complement the marvelous Women in Science with more creative courage for young hearts with these favorite picture-book biographies of great artists, writers, and scientists, then revisit the story of how Maria Mitchell (alas, only a sidebar mention in the book) paved the way for women in science and Adrienne Rich’s touching tribute to Marie Curie.
Illustrations © Rachel Ignotofsky, courtesy of Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC