Wednesday, February 22, 2017

"Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science - and the World"... and why you should read it

Maria Mitchell and her
comet-seeking telescope.
Today's guest blogger is Stella Offner. Stella is an Assistant Professor of Astronomy at UMass Amherst where she works on simulations of star formation. Stella's book review of "Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science - and the World" by Rachel Swaby is a part of our series about how instructors tackle social justice issues in their physics and astronomy classrooms. The first few issues are here and here and here.

“Albert Einstein was in over his head. He had worked out his general theory of relativity, but he was having problems with the mathematics that would have to correspond. So Einstein pulled in a team of experts from the University of Gottingen to help him formulate the concepts…. [David Hilbert and Felix Klein] scouted for talent. For the Einstein project, Emmy Noether was their draft pick.”
—profile of Emmy Noether, “Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science - and the World”

Stories help bring science to life in the classroom. Unfortunately, most scientific protagonists included in textbooks are heroes rather than heroines. Contributions from women (and minorities) are often overlooked. 

After teaching introductory astronomy for several semesters, I decided to diversify my lectures by highlighting the contributions of more female scientists. However, I was brought short by a discomfiting realization: despite being an enthusiastic graduate of a women’s college and organizer of various programs for girls in STEM, I knew few stories about pioneering women of science. 

Where should I go to find these stories? And whom should I include?

The recent compendium of profiles of women in science “Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science - and the World” by Rachel Swaby comes to the rescue!  “Headstrong” includes 52 short, engaging profiles of prominent women in STEM. The women span centuries in time, and their scientific disciplines range from medicine to mathematics.  The “Headstrong” anecdotes spotlight the intelligence, quirks, enthusiasm, and pure grit of these pioneers:

- Annie Jump Cannon classified 400,000 stellar spectra by the light of candles - in the process almost setting fire to her attic observatory.
- At 29 Maria Mitchell was among the first Americans to discover a comet.
- Grace Hopper discovered a moth in an early computing machine: the term “bug” for a code glitch was born.

I recommend this book if you are looking for inspiration in the history of science. If you are a science educator, I doubly recommend “Headstrong” for its amazing stories of 52 pioneers in STEM, scientists who are also amazing women.