"Ten Women Who Changed Science and the World" | 10 WOMEN WHO SHOOK SCIENCE
With its vivid portrayal of some extraordinary lives, authors Catherine Whitlock and Rhodri Evans destroy the myth that women have less mathematical & scientific aptitude than men, writes Proloy Pal
In their latest book 10 Women Who Changed Science and the World, popular science writers-communicators Catherine Whitlock and Rhodri Evans have done much more than just describe scientists and their science. They have driven home, through their superb depiction of 10 extraordinary lives, two very basic but bizarrely overlooked facts of modern world – first, every moment we live on 21st century Earth is defined and enriched by science, and second, roughly half of the human race that we call “women” have as much scientific potential in them as the other half – “men”.
The authors have produced a pleasantly reader-friendly and (most importantly!) technically rigorous work, which is thoroughly accessible to the intelligent layman. The fact that both are trained scientists – Whitlock holds a PhD in Immunology from Imperial College, London University, while Evans holds a PhD in Astrophysics from Cardiff University – has made a clear and profound difference and provides a refreshing change from the plethora of street-smart but superficial “science writers, journalists and commentators” (innocent of elementary science), who continue to litter contemporary media and literary landscape.
10 Women Who Changed Science and the World covers the time period from 1867, the year of Polish-born French genius physicist-chemist Madamme Marie Curie’s birth, to 2012, the year in which legendary Italian neurobiologist Rita Levi-Montalcini died, and the countries it covers include Austria, Poland, Italy, Great Britain, America and China. With lively prose, it recreates the atmosphere – the times, the events, the surroundings, the circumstances and the people – around which each of these 10 real life heroines was born, lived, worked and, of course, thought out their science.
The book starts with Virginia Apgar (1909-74), the pioneer of modern obstetrics (science of child birth) & neonatology, who created the Apgar Test that is today used worldwide on new-born babies. This inaugural chapter is followed by those on the life and work of biologist and environmental conservationist Rachel Carson (1907-64), Madamme Marie Curie (1867-1934), pharmaceutical and medical chemist Gertrude Elion (1918-99) whose medicines led to a cure for childhood leukaemia, prevented organ transplant rejection, and triggered the world’s first effective treatment for Gout as well as first safe anti-viral medicine, and chemist Dorothy Hodgkin (1910-94) who cracked the structure of penicillin and vitamin B12.
The sixth chapter is about star astronomer Henrietta Leavitt (1868-1921) who invented ways of ranking stars’ magnitudes and measuring extra-galactic distances, followed by ones on Rita Levi-Montalcini (1909-2012), brilliant nuclear scientist Lise Meitner (1878-1968) who Albert Einstein once called Germany’s own Marie Curie and who fled Hitler’s Germany when it was almost too late, and Elsie Widdowson (1906-2000), a pioneer in the modern science of nutrition.
The 10th and final chapter contains a masterly and profoundly human portrayal of the saga of Chinese born Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-97) who migrated to America and became one of the all-time greats in experimental physics.
The book also includes a very thoughtfully selected Glossary of scientific terms, explained in simple everyday language.
And finally, before the Index, there is a Further Reading list on each of the ‘10 Women Who Changed Science and the World’ for those whose curiosity has been ignited by the book. It is really a most complete, comprehensive yet compact and tidy piece of work.
When the authors started working on the book, it is unlikely that they had any conscious social welfare objective in mind. However, they have, indeed, ended up fulfilling a vitally significant social role.
In today’s world in general and in India in particular, there is a media and propaganda blitz that tries to create the impression that girls (and women) are born with lower mathematical and scientific aptitude than boys (and men). Pretending to be champions of feminine rights, dignity and empowerment, our public discourse agrees that women are suited to be fashion or entertainment celebrities, music rock stars, art icons, crowd-pulling politicians, fast climbing corporate leaders or even power-broking bureaucrats.
But when it comes to the analytical flair, rigorous thinking and imagination that form the essence of a scientific mind and attitude, there is almost a conspiratorial overdrive to convince everyone that women are deficient – are born inferior to men.
To say that this is a myth is a charitable way of putting it. Rather, this is a calculated, ill-intentioned, blatant lie. It is part of a deep-rooted historical conspiracy to ensure that a girl does not ask “Why?” or “How?”, does not learn to “Doubt Everything”, does not grow into a woman who “Questions Anything”.
To deny that the girl or woman is capable of mathsematics and science is to ensure her a continuing and permanent place of subordination in human society.
In 10 Women Who Changed Science and the World, Catherine Whitlock and Rhodri Evans have demolished the very foundations of this diabolical plot!