Books to Get You Thinking

Since 1987, March has been designated as National Women’s History Month. March 8 also marks International Women’s Day, celebrating the social, cultural, economic and political achievements of women. It is a good time to look back in history and take inspiration from the many extraordinary women over the centuries who, defying all social norms and constraints, made substantial contributions to the fields of science, engineering and mathematics. Their triumphs and accomplishments have frequently been overlooked. Dating back to the nineteenth century, Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron, was a key figure in the invention of the computer. In 1911, Marie Curie became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in physics. Her fascinating story, as well as the inspiring profiles of other women equally remarkable for their dedication and contribution to science, are covered in the selection of books this month. All titles can be found at the Mercer County Library System!

Ada’s Algorithm
Ada's Algorithm: How Lord Byron's Daughter Ada Lovelace Launched the Digital Age by James Essinger
James Essinger pens a compelling portrait of Ada Lovelace, the daughter of the celebrated English poet Lord Byron. Though she grew up in the upper echelons of British society, she was clearly far happier in the company of scientists than in a room full of lords and ladies. Ada had a prodigious appetite for mathematics and technology and played a key role in advancing the initial steps towards the development of a computer. At eighteen, in what turned out to be a turning point in her life, she had the opportunity to meet Charles Babbage and study the working of the Analytical Engine that he had designed for computing numbers. This was the beginning of a long partnership between Babbage and Lovelace. In many respects, Ada Lovelace had a superior understanding of the kind of machine Babbage had designed and its real potential beyond just crunching numbers, but at the time it was inconceivable to think that a woman could match, let alone surpass, the mental abilities of men. Despite her brilliant analysis of the machine, Ada was always considered an assistant and not an equal partner in her collaboration with Babbage. It was much later that computer scientists and mathematicians like Alan Turing recognized the critical role played by Lovelace in the design of computers. In 1970, an important computer program was named after this remarkable woman who had the foresight and creativity to come up with the rudimentary beginnings of the modern digital age. Walter Isaacson, noted author and biographer, eloquently states that Ada Lovelace “like Steve Jobs, stands at the intersection of arts and technology”.

Obsessive Genius
Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie by Barbara Goldsmith
Barbara Goldsmith authors this compelling biography of Marie Curie (1867—1934), the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. Using the recently unsealed personal papers of this remarkable woman scientist, the author provides readers with lucid insights into Marie Curie’s personality and thinking. Born in Poland, Marie Curie was a brilliant student, but she was nevertheless unable to attend the University in Warsaw that was open only to men. She moved to Paris and became the first women who would graduate with a degree in physics from the Sorbonne in 1893, followed by another degree in mathematics. As a student in Paris she led a largely impoverished life, often without enough money to eat proper meals. Late nineteenth century was not a time when it was easy for a woman to work, but Marie’s passion for science gave her the courage and tenacity to pursue her scientific research in the face all adversities. Because of the prevailing bias against women in science, she had to struggle to get lab space for her scientific experiments and, despite her achievements, it was years of striving before she was offered a faculty position at the Sorbonne. She met and married Pierre Curie while she was a graduate student, the start of a collaboration that would lead them to discover the radioactivity for which they won the Nobel Prize. After her husband’s tragic death, Curie continued to spend long grueling hours in the lab. She was awarded a second Nobel Prize for her successful isolation of polonium and radium that would change the future of medicine.

Glass Universe
The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars by Dava Sobel
Dava Sobel, a veteran science journalist, is celebrated for her ability to make complex scientific information easily comprehensible to a general audience. The Glass Universe is set against the backdrop of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Harvard University, when the university first started hiring women to work in its observatory. This book is the compelling story of the extraordinary women who successfully studied, classified and cataloged data on thousands of stars that had been photographed and stored on glass plates. From 1877 to 1952, the observatory was under the stewardship of two open-minded, enterprising directors—Edward Pickering and his successor, Harlow Shapley. Pickering, a supporter of women’s suffrage, realized the important role that women could play in advancing the fledgling science of astronomy at that time. He encouraged women, some of whom were wives or sisters of the astronomers employed at Harvard, to come work at the observatory. It was a time when women rarely had opportunities to work in science so, despite the long, tedious hours of grueling attention to detail the job entailed, these women were quick to seize the opportunity. Using mathematical formulae, they were able to study sky coordinates, conduct spectral analysis, discover new stars, nebulae and novae and, most notably, come up with a classification system still in use today. Women like Annie Cannon and Henrietta Leavitt were torchbearers and inspired successive generations of women to take up work in science, mathematics and engineering.

Hidden Figures
Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly
Margot Shetterly’s book celebrates the immense contributions of the African American women who worked as scientists, mathematicians and engineers during the Second World War and the period following it. This was a time when segregation was practiced in many parts of the US, when educated women could hope at best to work in a school or the post office. During the Second World War there was a huge push to develop aeronautics, leading to a surge in demand for mathematicians. Facing shortages in manpower, opportunities appeared for black female mathematicians to work as human computers at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the organization that preceded NASA. The author skillfully interweaves the stories of four women: Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Jackson and Christine Darden. Defying all conventions, through their grit, determination and talents these women made a mark in a field that was dominated by men. Dorothy Vaughan was one of the first women to be hired in 1942 by NACA; Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden—both math graduates—were initially recruited to work as colored computers. They triumphed despite facing both race- and gender-related discrimination. Collectively these brilliant minds worked on thousands of equations that helped improve the aircraft deployed during the War. Later, Katherine Johnson was put in charge of calculating complicated trajectories for both the Mercury and Apollo missions, while Darden rose to lead engineering research related to sonic booms. A truly fascinating read that shines light on a piece of American history that has largely been overlooked.

—Nita Mathur


  1. very interesting books... (hadn't ever heard about the ladies of the Harvard Observatory!)


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Ocean-in-a-Bottle Craft for Kids

Neil Gaiman Ruined My Life

The Discipline of Gratitude