By Rachel Swaby, author of Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science—And the World (Broadway Books, April 2015)
A programmer examines a computer as massive as a room and finds the first computer bug—a moth stuck in the machine’s relays. A 10-year old is hunting for treasure and discovers a Dinosaur skeleton. Hidden in a pile of data, a woman finds the inner core of the earth, another reveals nuclear fission, and another spots evidence of continental drift in the ocean floor. Who are these incredible scientists? Most of us can’t even name one.
I wrote Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science—And the World to help reveal the hidden history of women in STEM fields. The desire to write these stories was three-pronged. First, I was dismayed at the way women in science were being covered. When the New York Times obituary for the rocket scientist Yvonne Brill started with, “She made a mean beef stroganoff,” I was as disappointed as the rest of the internet. I wanted to rewrite Yvonne Brill’s profile and find a way to more appropriately honor the exceptional work of other women in science.
Secondly, I was shocked how few scientists I knew. I found surprises even in those women I thought I knew. Florence Nightingale, for instance, was not just the founder of modern nursing, but also an important heath statistician. In many more cases, I knew the discovery but not the discoverer. The Apgar Score, for example, isn’t just an acronym, but also the last name of Virginia Apgar, the pioneering anesthesiologist and the score’s developer. I found so many stories—and such fascinating ones! My hope is that one day that we’ll be able to rattle off these accomplishments and the scientists behind them with ease, just as we name any number of male scientists and their work.
Lastly—and most importantly—I hoped that girls considering STEM fields might pick up this book and read about a whole history of women succeeding. I hoped that girls would read about Grace Hopper and consider computer science. I hoped they’d hear about Mary Anning and picture themselves becoming dinosaur hunters. I hoped the stories of Inge Lehmann, who discovered Earth’s inner core, Lise Meitner, whose insight and leadership identified nuclear fission, and Marie Tharp, who mapped the ocean floor, would inspire the next generation of women in STEM.
Rachel Swaby is a freelance journalist. Her work has appeared in the Runner’s World, Wired, O, The Oprah Magazine, New Yorker.com, Afar, and others. She is a senior editor at Longshot magazine, the editor-in-chief of The Connective: Issue 1, a former research editor at Wired, and a past presenter at Pop-Up magazine. She lives in Brooklyn.