Shubashree Desikan reviews 10 Women Who Changed Science and the World …


In writing 10 Women Who Changed Science and the World, Catherine Whitlock and Rhodri Evans embark on a journey of describing the lives of women scientists whose work has made a difference to science from the 19th century to the 21st century.

It cannot have been an easy task to shortlist 10 among the many worthy candidates. Vera Rubin, for one, is conspicuous by her absence. But while the choice of 10 can always be contested, the authors more than do justice to their chosen subjects, balancing missions by the variety of specialisations ranging over astronomy, medicine, physics and chemistry, environment etc.

Even the opening pages reveal how little is known about women achievers in science.

The book is about famous scientists such as Rachel Carson, Marie Curie and Lise Meitner, but also about others much less so. Each chapter contains a story that is as inspiring as it is touching. Even when the narrative is a bit slow — as in the chapter on Virginia Apgar — it carries the spark of a life pervaded by the spirit of science. In many cases, there is an interesting story of discovery — of radium and polonium in the story of Marie Curie or the love of writing in the case of Rachel Carson, for example — that livens it up.

Working amid prejudice

Perhaps the most famous name in the list is Marie Curie. The authors of the book observe, “If you were to ask the public to name a female scientist from history, they would probably name Marie Curie.”

Despite the truth in this statement, a large section of the people who know her name and that she received the Nobel Prize twice, would not know the sequence of events that led to the discovery of radium and polonium and, eventually, the prizes.

‘Madame’ Curie, as she is referred to even when successful (instead of Professor Curie), had to work on an average salary and contend with prejudices for being a woman in a male-dominated field.

One could argue that this was in the last century and before, but women in science will recognise vestiges of that bias from their day-to-day experiences. In that sense, there are lessons to be learnt from stories of how 10 women managed to break through such shackles and scale the heights.

The book is a must read for all men and women in science and also for those interested in the subject.

10 Women Who Changed Science and the World; Catherine Whitlock & Rhodri Evans, Hachette India, ₹599.


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