An Honest Review of a Book of Science and History by a Teacher of Literature Who Is Bored by History and Doesn’t Understand Most Science.
I am not a reader who would choose a collection of historical essays about women in science and medicine for my weekend’s pleasure. I am a retired English teacher and can usually be counted on to read fiction rather than history. My first cousin is a historian; my son is a historian. We are not interested in the same books. My cousin might be reading a biography of John Adams, my son a volume of art or political history, while I am contentedly rereading a novel by Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope.
I am also a lover of good essays, and the one magazine subscription I have never given up is The New Yorker.
I don’t read history; I don’t enjoy, and often don’t understand, books about science.
Yet here I sit, in my comfortable armchair, feet up on the ottoman, cup of tea next to me, reading this book about the history of women in science and medicine.
I once audited a colleague’s Introduction to Physics in the private high school where I began my teaching career; I did all the assignments and took all the tests. Much to the delight of my fellow students, many of whom were also my students, I made the lowest grade in the class.
I got up today, picked up the telephone, and rearranged my schedule in order to stay at home and read Remarkable Minds, which is not only history and science but is used as a high school textbook. It, and the earlier Magnificent Minds, recently won Outstanding Science Trade Book awards from the National Science Teachers Association!
And, not only am I reading it, I will say right now that I recommend it to you, without reservation.
Get yourself a copy and prepare to rethink your weekend plans.
For several reasons, Noyce’s historical sketches of women in science and medicine, gathered into the impressive volume, Remarkable Minds: 17 more pioneering women in science & medicine, have eclipsed all my other projects.
They are imaginative; they are well-written; they create characters who engage and enchant; and they tell darned good stories. As an added attraction, they include illustrations and beautifully-crafted timelines. They are a rich mix.
They are–apologies to the author–almost as good as a novel!!
And these are the facts that this author considers important about herself:
Pendred (Penny) Noyce grew up in California’s Santa Clara Valley just as it was beginning to be Silicon Valley. After struggling with severe asthma in her teen years, Penny became a doctor of internal medicine and set up practice in a neighborhood health center in Boston. She also spent 25 years helping to run a foundation established in honor of her father, who was co-inventor of the computer chip and co-founder of Intel. The Noyce Foundation supported improvements in math and science education nationwide, and Penny helped lead or advise improvement efforts especially in Massachusetts, where she lives.
Penny stopped practicing medicine when the youngest of her five children was born. Instead, she focused on science education. When the middle children (twins) left for college, Penny returned to an old love, writing, primarily fiction about science for middle-grade children. Eventually she started a small publishing company, Tumblehome Learning, which is now three years old. Remarkable Minds and its predecessor, Magnificent Minds, grew out of an exhibition about women in science held at the Grolier Club in New York City. Remarkable Minds is Penny’s tenth book, and the second for readers in high school and up. Penny lives in Boston with her husband and a twelfth-grade son who is about to fly.
Like her presentation of the women in Remarkable Minds, Noyce’s short autobiography is a fine balance between the impressive facts and the endearingly personal “a twelfth-grade son who is about to fly.”
And as we do with Marie and Irene Curie or Hertha Ayrton, we want to know her better.
The women surround us and pull us in.
Noyce has laid out her chapters in a kind of template that includes a photograph of the woman whose work is the subject of the essay and a timeline that places her in the context of science and medicine in her day. The format keeps the reader grounded and able to move from essay to essay, woman to woman, with confidence. As a teacher of English, including the inflexible 14-line, iambic pentameter sonnet, I believe that form allows creativity to flourish. Noyce knows how to use form to facilitate a wonderful development of characters and narratives that are part encyclopedia entry and part melodrama. They are irresistible.
I am enchanted with the creativity, the order, and the attractiveness of the timelines, and one of my favorites is the timeline for Emilie Du Chatelet, the subject of the portrait that is the featured image on this blog. Full-size, each one fills a page and is a work of art.
Noyce’s women have made their mark in chemistry and physics, in biology, electrical engineering and medicine. An especially strong chapter introduces a woman named Rosalind Franklin, born in 1920 (d. 1958).
Chapter 16 begins, “On May 2nd, 1952, Rosalind Franklin returned from a meeting of the Royal Society to her King’s College laboratory to check on a DNA sample.”
Franklin’s story becomes a page-turner and a professional nightmare, as her work is “poached” by the future winners of “a Nobel Prize in which she had no share.” James Watson and Francis Crick, who got an unauthorized look–provided by a colleague of Franklin’s–at Franklin’s photograph of a DNA molecule, went on to fame with their “model of DNA structure.”
“More insidiously, Watson’s later portrayal of her in his chatty, catty book established her in the public mind as a bad-tempered, insecure woman who not only refused to share data she couldn’t interpret herself, but who didn’t meet Watson’s standards of feminine allure.”
A story to make you cringe, written in a style that does what all good writing does: makes you care and makes you think.
Hertha Ayrton, the first female engineer–as a child, “always untidy,”–was actively involved in the fight for women’s rights; Sophie Germain’s parents limited the time she was allowed to study because they were concerned about “the effects of study on the female mind;” and, our Cover Girl, Emilie Du Chatelet, a “scholar and woman of society,” was also the “paramour” of Voltaire and eventually his rival in scientific research.
The stories seem endless. The temptation, to which I have fully surrendered, is to read a few, read them again, scan the Table of Contents looking for those of most interest, read more, keep reading.
I stop reading only to review the book and brew another cup of tea. The day is half over. There are things I should be doing. But my tea is ready and Pendred Noyce’s book is waiting for me.
Lydia Hand Bowen Roper made no scientific discoveries, contributed no new knowledge in the field of medicine. Lydia Roper, for whom I am looking in Looking for Lydia; Looking for God, walked the streets of her adopted city, talking with single mothers, helping the poor and the elderly, building shelters, known only to those she helped and to her children. Her oldest daughter carried on Lydia’s mission. Buy yourself or a friend a copy of this book of inspiration and courage. Start the new year reading about a few brave women.