Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science-and the World

by Rachel Swaby

Paperback, 2015




Broadway Books (2015), Edition: First Edition, 288 pages


"Covering Nobel Prize winners and major innovators, as well as lesser-known but hugely significant scientists who influence our every day, Rachel Swaby's ... profiles span centuries of courageous thinkers and illustrate how each one's ideas developed, from their first moment of scientific engagement through the research and discovery for which they're best known"--Page 4 of cover.

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½ (81 ratings; 3.8)

User reviews

LibraryThing member TadAD
In the Introduction the author says, "As girls in science look around for role models, they shouldn't have to dig around to find them." The rest of the Introduction goes on to imply—and I'm summarizing—that we need to get this book in front of our girls and young women.

I agree wholeheartedly.
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However, I don't think it's enough of a statement. It is necessary but not sufficient to instill a sense of expectation and confidence in the female half of our youth; we also need to instill a sense of expectation and normalcy about it in the male half.

The New York Times obituary for Yvonne Brill (inventor of the hydrazine propulsion system still used in satellites) spent the entire first paragraph lauding her cooking, her loyalty as a wife, and her excellence as a mother. Though Swaby doesn't note this, that obituary wasn't written by a woman. Nor was the British Daily Mail article expressing its pleased surprise over "Nobel Prize for British Wife"...presumably, per Ms. Swaby's delightfully wicked aside, Dorothy Hodgkin did so while matching her husband's socks.

While this book occasionally reaches for an awkward bon mot and has a couple moments where it is uneven, it is usually illuminating, inspiring and exceptionally readable by a person of any age or gender. Moreover, Swaby's informative but easy style is suitable for anyone regardless of their investiture in STEM disciplines. It doesn't teach science, it teaches about those who did science.

I might say, "As boys in science look around for models of peers, they shouldn't have to dig around to find them." Honestly, I think this book, or one very similar to it, should just be required reading for every middle schooler. It should inspire them at times and make them mad at others but, in the end, credit where credit is due.
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LibraryThing member datrappert
The stories of the 52 women in this book are fascinating, inspiring, and sometimes a bit heart-breaking. But mostly they show incredible perseverance against incredible odds. It is amazing how many of these women had to work at major universities FOR NO PAY because of policies against women
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faculty. Nevertheless, they ended up winning Nobel prizes, making major discoveries, and proving themselves the equal of their male colleagues time and time again. If only Swaby's book was as good as their science. Her short highlights of each woman's life and achievements are marred by a sloppy writing style that doesn't do her subjects justice. She lacks a grasp of science that allows her to explain the achievements with as much precision as they deserve, and her accounts frequently jump back and forth in time to no good purpose. Nevertheless, these shortcomings become less annoying as the book goes on and the sheer brilliance of these women outweighs the shortcomings of their chronicler. I plan to pass this on to my daughter as the next science read for her 6th grade home schooling. Despite the missing 1 1/2 stars, I still highly recommend this book--at least until someone points me to another that does as much to exalt these frequently downplayed and sometimes completely forgotten achievements. Swaby's choice to limit the subjects to those already deceased is a wise choice by the way. A more carefully edited sequel about living women scientists would also be welcome.
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LibraryThing member bah
A nice little book with brief profiles of influential scientists from a wide range of fields who all happened to have been women. The entries read almost wikipedia-ish at times, but a three- to four-page profile isn't much space to do more, and the writing is engaging enough to make it a good read.
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Definitely a good book for inspiring any young woman to pursue whatever intellectual endeavors interest her. The biggest complaint I have is how tiresome it is for every single story to have a "she took whatever job or position she could get for no pay just to have a chance to do her research, since women weren't allowed into that university at the time" section -- but that's a complaint for stupid men in history, not the book.
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LibraryThing member Jaylia3
Remember when the New York Times obituary for rocket scientist Yvonne Brill led with her beef stroganoff and devoted wife credentials rather than the jet propulsion system she invented? Headstrong doesn't make that mistake. Lively, entertaining, and inspiring, the book contains 52 brief but
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fascinating profiles of women from the 17th through the 21st century who have made significant contributions to science.

Rachel Swaby sketches the women in just a few pages, but that's enough to give a sense of each woman, the scientific advance she was responsible for, and the historical era she lived in. Fifty-two women means there's one entry for every week of the year, and it's a great book to have along when you only have a short time to read--commutes, waiting rooms, etc. Many of the women I had heard of--Rachel Carson, Sally Ride, Ada Lovelace, Maria Mitchell among them--but far more were new to me.

I greatly enjoyed this book, and while I think it was written with adults in mind the engaging accessible style means that middle and high school students will be able to appreciate it too.

I read ab advanced review copy of this book provided to me at no cost by the publisher through LibraryThing. Review opinions are mine.
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LibraryThing member eo206
I borrowed this book from the library excited to read about women in STEM fields. It is well written and interesting enough. I was disappointed by the Eurocentric and American centered perspective. I was hoping for more diversity in the women presented. After heavy skimming I only found one person
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of color in the book. Maybe I missed some of women of color featured, but overall it was too Eurocentric for my liking.
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LibraryThing member bragan
This book was inspired -- if "inspired" is quite the right word -- by the New York Times's obituary for Yvonne Brill. The piece starts out by mentioning the woman's cooking skills, her husband, her kids, her role as a wife and mother... and then, only in paragraph two, gets around to the reason she
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merited an obituary in the first place: she was a rocket scientist who made a lasting and important contribution to her field. (She invented a propulsion system to help keep communications satellites in their orbits, in fact, so next time you're using your cell phone, you should offer her a "thank you.") This obituary was published in 2013. It's truly impossible to imagine an article starting that way if it were about a man, but apparently even now we're not quite over the idea that a woman's primary sphere is domesticity.

Needless to say, things were even harder for women in the past than they are now. And yet, over the years, many, many women have accomplished great things in the fields of science, technology, and mathematics. This book features 52 of them -- 52 women, that is, who are not Marie Curie, the only female scientist most people can name. In addition to Curie, it also leaves out living scientists, the author having chosen to limit herself to people whose life's work can be looked back upon as a complete whole. In no case does it comment on anyone's cooking skills.

The writing is adequate but nothing special, and it's summarizing entire lifetimes of sometimes rather complicated technical achievements in just a few pages each, so, needless to say, it comes across as a bit simplified. But the subject matter is terrific. These are fascinating women who did a wide variety fascinating and important things, and I was astonished by how few of them I'd ever even heard of. As a women in a STEM field, myself, I find it oddly heartening to look back on this long history of women's scientific accomplishments. I'd recommend the book, in particular, as a great gift for girls who are interested in science and technology and might be inspired to take it up as a career.

Rating: I'm a little unsure how to rate this, because the execution is really just OK, but I found the subject so inspiring that I didn't much care, and kind of loved it anyway. I'm going to go with 4/5.
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LibraryThing member krau0098
I got this book to review through the Amazon Vine program. This book goes through quick profiles of 52 women who had large contributions to science. The women are divided into different areas of science by the science they contributed to (physics, math, earth and stars, medicine, etc).

This is a
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decent book. My biggest complaints are that the sections on each woman are so brief that just as you are getting interesting in that woman the section ends. It only gives you a very brief look into their lives.

Also the sections are a bit sloppy...some start at the beginning of the woman's life, some at the end. It would have been nice to have a bit more format to each section.

Additionally I would have loved to see a few pictures in here. Of the women themselves or of the work they did...this would have really enhanced this book quite a bit. As is the book is a bit dry and it’s hard to engage in.

Overall it's a good book but not a great book. I enjoyed learning about these fascinating women but wish the sections had been more consistent, had some pictures, and had a bit more detail. There aren't a lot of books available give an overview of women in science, so it was nice to see this one come out. I would recommend if you are interested in learning more about influential women in science.
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LibraryThing member MarysGirl
This is a good book of its kind: a survey of women who made significant contributions to math, science and engineering. The author intended to highlight lesser known women--those whose accomplishments were downplayed in history or, in some cases, outright stolen by male colleagues. (So no Madam
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Curie, but her Nobel Prize-winning daughter is included.) By their nature, these kinds of books can only give a summary of the life and work of each woman, so anyone who wants to find out more than what can be conveyed in 4-5 pages, must look elsewhere. The author does a good job of sketching the background, obstacles, and accomplishments of each woman. Her writing is clear and she explains the nature of the science/math in a way that lay readers can understand. My only complaint is the dearth of woman of color--only three of the fifty-two and one of those died at age 24 before her career could even get started. Given the obstacles that woman in general met, much less the double burden of both gender and race, these three may have been the only women of color that actually made major contributions, but I hope not. All in all, a satisfying survey.
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LibraryThing member tungsten_peerts
This is an important book. When I first released it from its envelope (thanks, Broadway Books, for sending it) my first thought was "Aaaa! It's so tiny!" What it lacks in physical size, though, it makes up for in utility and sprightliness.

I have to agree with other reviewers about the occasional
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stylistic wobbles: occasionally I thought "OK, OK, Swaby -- we get it, you're hip and irreverent," but this was far outweighed by the tales told, and the fact that there are a lot of them (52 ... one per week ... a tad arbitrary, but acceptable) and they don't feel repetitive, even though names will sometimes reappear.

Furthermore, you get just enough scientific detail to become intrigued, but no more. For that reason I wish the bibliography was more substantial -- but it's a start.

Why do I care? Why was I excited when this book showed up in Early Reviewers? Well, I consider myself a feminist. Also, I work in (well, in support of) science, and can tell you firsthand that, although women have made great strides in attaining equal standing with their male cohorts, there is a great deal of work still to do. Gender-role indoctrination starts early, and rarely lets up. I've seen it. The fact that it is 2015 and I can still make the previous statements is shameful.

So it is good there are books like this, to show budding (or flagging) female scientists that it can all work out. It's inspiring to me, too, and I'm male -- but a wannabe science-person all the same, so these stories of triumph over adversity and ignorance are womanna from heaven (sorry).

Read, marvel and rejoice.
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LibraryThing member nancytribe
I found this collection of 52 brief biographies of female scientists and mathematicians fascinating, inspiring, and moving. Although the author’s decision to include no living scientists means that there are fewer women of color than might have been hoped for, her range is international and
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cross-historical, showing how a variety of women from various backgrounds were drawn to scientific study and outlining the crucial contributions they made. The author made me reexamine women whose body of work I hadn’t fully understood, as when she reframes famous bedside angel Florence Nightingale as a pioneer of statistical analysis. She also introduced me to women whose stories I didn’t know, some of which, like Rosalind Franklin’s deliberately obfuscated contribution to the discovery of DNA, angered and saddened me. These women’s courage and tenacity are inspiring, but the author rightly rejects tokenization of her subjects; as she says in her introduction, her goal is to “treat women in science like scientists instead of anomalies.” This book should be required reading for anyone committed to helping girls consider careers in STEM fields or indeed anyone interested in the history of scientific discovery.
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LibraryThing member LTietz
Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science – and the World, by Rachel Swaby, is a diverse collection of stories of incredibly bright women who helped shape our lives today. A few of the women are familiar to most, such as biologist Rachel Carson, and astronaut Sally Ride.

I especially enjoyed the
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stories of some of the lesser-known women, such as chemist Ruth Benerito, who discovered wrinkle-free cotton and changed the clothing industry. And, physicist Lise Meitner, who experimented with nuclear fission, escaped Nazi Germany, and today has an element on the periodic table named after her.

This collection is highly readable; each profile is succinct and well-written. It’s an inspirational assortment of stories of women in physics, medicine, and other areas of science who significantly impacted today’s body of knowledge.
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LibraryThing member silentq
52 short (about 3 pages each) reviews of important but mostly forgotten women in the sciences. You can tell that lots was left out, this could have been a multi volume set, but I learned a lot about a lot of women whose accomplishments have been buried. So many examples of sexism were on offer that
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it started to become depressing to read. Only dead women are covered, but the author envisions another edition that expands on the list. There are good end notes and a bibliography for further reading.
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LibraryThing member themulhern
This book contains 52 capsule biographies of female scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. The author has decided to leave out Marie Curie (since she is the one female scientist that everybody is sure to have heard of, so she really doesn't need to be covered). I was pleased to see that Emmy
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Noether was included among the mathematicians (as I used to make use of good old Noetherian induction in a previous, more academic life). Some of the biographies served a really useful function in exposing the reality behind the media-constructed story. Growing up in the '80s, I was taught that Sally Ride was a woman in space, some kind of awkward baggage for the real astronauts to work around. It is useful to be reminded that she was an elite athlete with a Ph. D. in physics. Similarly Florence Nightingale's feminine image is generally emphasized at the expense of more substantive accomplishments that I had not heard about until I read the book. The tone of the book is sober and factual, even though, in many cases, these outstanding women had to deal with outrageous sexism.

This is a well-written book with an important purpose but only a niche audience. Female or progressive science teachers might keep it in their classrooms; female scientists like me would read it to give a little more context to their own lives.
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LibraryThing member MizPurplest
Disclaimer: This book was provided by the publishers for review.

For a title that sounds like it would be full of technical mumbo-jumbo, this book is incredibly down to earth and written for normal readers. Possible too much so - I found myself wanting more details and technical information, and
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occasionally annoyed by the flippant comments about these women's achievements. However, overall I found the book refreshing and informative, introducing me to important figures whom I might not have been aware of otherwise. The writing is very accessible, and each blurb is short enough to make its point without overselling or losing my attention. I found this the perfect bedtime read - one or two bios a night, to end the day on an upbeat and inspiring note.
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LibraryThing member Helcura
I loved this book. It's rather like being at a party where every waiter that walks by has some delicious little bite on the tray. Each of these brief biographies made me want to learn more about the amazing women they described and the challenges they faced.

My only regret is that, except for the
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unidentified cameos on the cover, there are no pictures. I would have really liked to see photos or paintings of these amazing women, and I don't think it would have required all that much to include them.

Worth owning and sharing.
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LibraryThing member CarolO
Should a woman be offended to read an obituary about a female scientist that describes the deceased as a wonderful mother before mentioning her profession? Should a man be offended to read an obituary about a male scientist that mentions his profession before his family? I am left pondering this
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one point. Yes, each of these women was overlooked and underappreciated but, in the end, I find it just as sad that a man is not appreciated as much for being a great father as a woman is not appreciated for being a great scientist.

This is a fabulous idea and I think the author’s suggestion of reading one bio a week would make for better reading than straight through as I did. So many of these brilliant ladies that I did not know about, so many that I wanted to know more about than the few pages allotted. Reading straight through gave the bios a predictable pattern. Reading one a week and spending some time researching any that captured my interest would have been more fulfilling.
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LibraryThing member juliebean
I was really impressed with this book. I knew from the introduction that this book was going to be something special, since Swaby explains why she's leaving out an entry for Marie Curie. I agree with her: first, there are many other books one can read on Curie, and second, if we always sing the
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praises of Curie and leave out the other women who have made major contributions, then it seems like Curie is a freak of nature - that one woman who could do science. As this book demonstrates, that is not true. Many women have made a significant impact in the STEM fields, and it's about time we learn more about them.

One of the other things I liked about this book is that most of the women had a particular attitude towards the sexism of their lives. They just ignored it and kept doing their research. I appreciated that attitude; sometimes, you lead by example by just doing what you love and stepping over anything that gets in your way.

I think this book would be a great gift to young people (both men and women) who are interested in the sciences. For young women, it might give them the confidence they need when they are surrounded by disbelief about their abilities. For young men, it will show them the sort of awful treatment women have received in the sciences, which might give them pause when they see it themselves in their everyday lives. Also, for all young people, it might give them new heroes or introduce them to new interests.

It's a fun book with fascinating women, and I hope that it is widely read.
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LibraryThing member kaulsu
Amazingly, in 2013 the New York Times published an obituary for Yvonne Brill. It told of her good cooking, parenting, and that she was a terrific wife. "After a loud, public outcry," the Times rewrote the obit to lead off with the fact that she was a "rocket scientist." This was the nascent
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beginning of Swaby's desire to write this book.

It isn't surprising to hear of "unheard of" women scientists from the 17th century, but it was mind boggling how many there were from the 20th, and re: Brill, the 21st century!

A book every student of science should read, every science teacher, every science professor and EVERY YOUNG GIRL!
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LibraryThing member book58lover
I had high hopes for this book because the topic of women in science is seldom covered. But I was disappointed. The bios were very short and when one woman excelled in various fields, such as Alice Hamilton, the information on each was sparse. Many bits of information were missing that would have
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rounded out the bios. Mary Anning influenced Charles Darwin but we don't know how. The word 'eucaines' was used in Alice Hamilton's article but not defined and not explained by context. Alice Evans' work in bacteriology seemed critical to medicine but she had three short pages.
The bibliography seemed to be exclusively web sites which I found extremely disappointing. If I could go on the internet and read about each woman, why would I need to buy this book? My go to reference is the five volume "Notable American Women" which covers 18 of the women in this book. Published by Harvard University, it is very authoritative and would have been invaluable for a book like this. Why wasn't it used? I won't even mention the numerous typos which I hope would have been caught in the final version. I would pass on this one.
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LibraryThing member drsyko
Headstrong is a clever title for an interesting book. The book provides short biographical sketches of 52 female scientists whose inventions and research led to significant discoveries or products that changed the world in some way. I would have liked to have had a little more detail about these
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women, but I really enjoyed reading about the significant impact these women had in many different fields. Their stories are inspiring, and considering what they had to endure to even get opportunities to practice in their chosen fields, what they ultimately achieved is even more remarkable. This book is a wonderful introduction to women's history, especially in the sciences.

One note: hopefully this uncorrected proof did get corrected before actual publication as there were a ton of typos! There were so many mistakes that at times it was a bit distracting. Other than this, the style was very readable, and the stories are gripping, even if a bit short. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in women's history.
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LibraryThing member michaelg16
This short book -and I wish it was much longer - was a small pleasure to read and it made me think and rethink my assumptions and prejudices about the history of discovery and science. More than that, it grew in my imagination and it led me to seek out many more in-depth biographies about some of
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the amazing women represented in the book under review. What started as an enjoyable subway read became a kind of constant in my thoughts for months - I couldn't shake it and didn't want to! Brava.
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LibraryThing member Tricoteuse
This is a nice quick read, and very interesting. So many of these women managed to do extraordinary things as scientists with so little support. This would be a good reference for science teachers who want to cover more women in their lessons.
LibraryThing member Alliebadger
I did not read this book in the fashion it was intended, so take it with a grain of salt. This book will be perfect for teachers, or parents who want to inspire their daughters, to share with a middle school or high school girl one chapter at a time. I read it straight through, which got pretty
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repetitive and boring. Each woman did amazing things, and the stories were incredible, but unfortunately reading 3-5 pages about each one's accomplishments all in a row wasn't as inspiring.

Each chapter has clearly been incredibly well researched, and translated from complex scientific concepts into something a more general audience can understand. Sometimes it got a little too simple for my taste (ie, trying to use slang or familiar words/phrases), but if it's intended for a younger audience, it'll work really well.

In short, I'm really glad this book exists - I'd just recommend reading a chapter at a time here and there.
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LibraryThing member EowynA
Well-named book! There are 52 biographies in this book, each only a few pages long, but enough to point the interested reader to further research. It is a book intended for empowerment - see the cool things these women researched! But it is a book that makes me frustrated and, well, gob-smacked at
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the problems that most of them faced just to get into the field they exceled in , or to get their work accepted, or even to be credited with it once it was accepted.

Marie Curie does not appear in here - she doesn't need recognition. But her daughter is. I recognized a few names: Virginia Apgar, whose standard checklist identifies newborns at risk; Hedy Lamarr, who patented frequency-hopping comms; Sally Ride, astronaut; Ada Lovelace, computer pioneer; Florence Nightingale, nurse; Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring.

But it is the lesser-known women who are the revelation. They were working, contributing, and are generally unknown. Women in science have come a long way in terms of being allowed to enter fields. But we must be aware how easily those that went before can be forgotten. They do not deserve that. Read this book. It is not deathless literature, or even great biographies. But it is a start to understanding women's history in science.
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LibraryThing member bluesalamanders
Headstrong is a collection of brief bios of women who were influential (though in many cases, virtually unknown) in the history of science. It is an enjoyable and informative book, even for someone like me who doesn't read much non-fiction.


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