Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science – And The World

Jill Holtz

October 2, 2016

headstrong rachel swaby

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Have you ever heard of Yvonne Brill? Or Grace Murray Hopper? Or Annie Jump Cannon? To my shame neither had I until I read “Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science – And the World” by Rachel Swaby. Find out why I think it should be mandatory reading for all teens and especially for any interested in STEM jobs.

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Here at Mykidstime, we’re passionate about encouraging kids to be interested in STEM, particularly girls who tend to be discouraged from entering those arenas. Part of the challenge lies in a lack of role models, part of the challenge lies in encouraging parents to think of these job areas as great opportunities for careers.

Having just finished “Headstrong”, I believe this book could do a lot to help on both fronts, being a very inspiring and insightful profile of fifty-two of history’s brightest female scientists.

Before I read the book, I had only heard of 4 of the women – Hedy Lamarr, Florence Nightingale (and only in the context of nursing), Ada Lovelace and Sally Ride.

Yvonne Brill. Photo via the Winnipeg Sun.

Yvonne Brill. Photo via the Winnipeg Sun.

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?

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.

I promise that even if you are not completely into science or technology or engineering, the stories of each woman, their lives and how they overcame the many obstacles, are fascinating. Most of them were driven, determined and kept going despite society and culture telling them they shouldn’t.

Without these women some of the most important discoveries and advances in STEM wouldn’t have happened. Here’s just a small sample of the fifty-two:

  • Wrinkle-free cotton – thank you Ruth Benerito, no more ironing!
  • Tailored cancer treatments and drug deliveries – researched and tested by Jane Wright
  • The discovery of DNA – did you know that Rosalind Franklin had been ahead of Crick & Watson and that her work was handed over without permission to the men that were then credited with the discovery?
  • Invention of COBOL one of the most enduring programming languages – Grace Murray Hopper who also coined the term “bug” for a computer glitch.
Grace Murray Hopper

Grace Murray Hopper

So if you love science, technology, engineering, maths, then read this book. If you love fascinating stories about people that overcame many hurdles, then read this book. And if you have a daughter or son that have any interest in STEM, then get them to read this book.

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