Female Scientists Who Changed the World

A new book out Tuesday challenges the male-centric history of science. Women haven’t just succeeded in this industry, argues author Rachel Swaby, they’ve reigned supreme.

04.07.15 4:29 PM ET

Before readers of the The New York Times knew Yvonne Brill was one of the most revolutionary rocket scientists, they learned she made beef Stroganoff and followed her husband from job to job.

It wasn’t until the second paragraph of her 2013 obituary that her critical role in both the efficiency and efficacy of today’s satellites was revealed. The overshadowing of female scientists’ accomplishments in favor of more classic gendered-roles is one of the greatest issues with profiling women scientists. 

Two years after the NYT snubbed Brill, Rachel Swaby has set out to change the narrative in a new book, out Tuesday, titled: Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science and the World.

After reading Brill’s obituary, technology and science writer Swaby was inspired to pen Headstrong, a collection of profiles of game-changing women in science. Swaby’s compendium brings visibility to the women who’ve impacted science and our world as it stands today. The Daily Beast talked to the author about her favorite profiles and the future of women in STEM.

Headstrong includes 52 profiles of women scientists. How did you select the amazing scientists to profile?

There are way too many people to fit in. We decided to do 52 profiles and we wanted them to be long enough that they weren’t just encyclopedia entries but it wasn’t just a bullet point of somebody’s life. They had to have a story attached to it, a story of a discovery or the story of the person’s life. There are 52 people in the book, and there are way more deserving people than I could include. The women had to land in the center of a Venn diagram that included not just that they were working in STEM but they had made a big discovery or made a significant contribution, one that we can track in the history of science. 

What did you find challenging while reporting for Headstrong?

Maybe somebody had made an incredible contribution, but I wasn’t able to get the sources to fill out a story. Unfortunately, I was not able to go to all the university archives and dig up the German letters that somebody wrote to have them translated. For budget reasons, I had to rely on the information available. 

How intensely has this topic been covered in the past?

There are a lot of amazing people who have already reported on women in science. There were some really great resources out there. For instance, one person in the book, Hilde Mangold, was important because she helped Hans Spemann, a Nobel Prize winner. She did the experiment that won him the prize. Then she died in a very tragic accident. She was in her kitchen, and her furnace exploded, and she died at a very young age. She ended with her thesis that was the experiment that won him the Nobel Prize.

Somebody who was in the program with her many years later, Viktor Hamburger, said her story would be lost to history if he didn’t write it down. If it wasn’t for him pulling out her story, I definitely would not have found it. [Spemann] mentioned her in his Nobel Prize speech, but it’s thanks to people like [Hamburger] that these stories have not been forgotten.

Throughout your reporting, and immersing yourself in the lives of these scientists, which story stuck out to you the most?

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This question is hard, because every time I start writing someone else I feel like, “Ah, that last scientist I wrote about was incredible and then I would start with another one and think, “Oh, this person’s story is amazing.” I always loved science. I never felt particularly good at it, but I always loved it. Math was something that I never felt good at. 

When I started doing the section on math in the book, the way that some of the mathematicians described what they did was just totally amazing and made me feel like I wanted to go back and think about math in a new way. I feel like I was misinterpreting it when I was growing up. There’s one woman in the book named Sofia Kovalevskaya and she had a biography that I read.

She thought it was a mistake of the uninformed to confuse mathematics with arithmetic. Arithmetic was just a pile of dry and arid numbers to be multiplied and divided. Mathematics was a world of possibilities that demanded the utmost imagination. To engage in mathematics was to elevate it to an art unlike poetry.

How can we bring more women scientists into the spotlight for their accomplishments?

There are so many ways, let me count the ways. A pretty easy one is expanding the way that we talk about science. We should expand our mental file system. We have people that we pull out when we talk about certain subjects in science, and I think that we should integrate women more into that. We should be talking about them over cocktails. We should be including them in news stories. It’s not inserting people who weren’t there into the conversation. These scientists were absolutely important in all of these fields, and we should be inserting them into normal conversation. 

Showing young women that there’s a long history of women doing incredible things in science should inspire the next generation. Role models are really important. It’s not that we have a lack of role models—they’re just not visible. I think the more that we can talk about the accomplishments of women in science, the more we can connect girls with role models and people to look up to. 

Yvonne Brill grew up in a place where she wasn’t hearing about other women scientists, but she did hear the story of Amelia Earhart and was super inspired by her, thinking if she can do something extraordinary, I can too. Sometimes it takes a little inspiration like that, coupled with somebody who can support you as well. There a lot of examples in the book of mentors that were helpful along the way for these women. Many of these scientists ended up being mentors for the next generation, and you can see the lineage throughout the book. 

I spoke to Silvia Tomášková, director of the Women in Science program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for an article in Wired. She said when girls are in elementary school they think they can be anyone, they can do anything. All of a sudden they get into high school, and they get into science classes, and besides the fact that they’re doing as well or better than the boys in the class, they’re looking toward their future, and they see posters full of male scientists. They don’t see themselves on the lab bench. They don’t see where their place is. 

We talk a lot about Marie Curie, one of the first women scientists to become famous (for her discovery of radium and polonium). The odds of becoming the next Marie Curie, if we think she’s the only one, are harder than becoming a professional athlete. It seems insurmountable. It’s showing people, young girls especially in high school, that there’s a space for them and women are important in science. Women’s voices are needed in science and STEM fields.