Rosalind Franklin
Rosalind Franklin at work

Once, in elementary school, I was given an assignment to do a report on women in science. At the local library, I asked the librarian where they kept books on such a topic, and she proudly brought me to a little display that featured a biography of Marie Curie, a different biography of Marie Curie, and a dual biography of Marie AND Pierre Curie. "Are there… other… women scientists?" I asked, honestly not knowing if Curie represented some form of divine dispensation never since repeated. The librarian plopped me in front of the card catalogue (an elegant weapon, for a more civilised age) and told me to knock myself out.

What I eventually found was a painfully unobtrusive volume in military green called Women in Science: Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century by Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie. Opening it, I found hundreds of women scientists, their accomplishments reduced down to half page summaries that positively screamed out for a larger telling. Two decades later, not only do many of those figures have full studies devoted to their lives and works, but some of them count among the greatest pieces of scientific biography available. This last month alone has seen the release of not one but two new contributions, George D. Morgan’s Rocket Girl: The Story of Mary Sherman Morgan, America’s First Female Rocket Scientist, and Jim Ottaviani’s Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas, and so there seems no time like the present to review some of the most inspiring works celebrating the lives of women in science.

Let’s begin with a couple of appetisers.

Pointing my phone at the night sky, it can tell me, when it’s behaving, the name of every star I see and how far away it is from this humble, daytime television producing planet of ours. How did we ever figure those distances out, armed with nothing but a few glimmers of light collected by a couple dozen telescopes perched on a constantly spinning planet revolving around a wandering sun?

Enter George Johnson’s Miss Leavitt’s Stars: The Untold Story of the Woman Who Discovered How to Measure the Universe (2006). It is the tale of Henrietta Swan Leavitt, whose work as a humble and underpaid human calculator at Harvard’s observatory eventually led her to the discovery that the pulsation of variable stars is directly related to the intensity of the light they give off. So, by simply timing the period of a variable star, you could know something about how far away it was relative to other variable stars. It sounds like a minor thing, but for an era that had no means of accurately gauging the distance to the stars, it was the quantifiable measuring tool that formed the foundation of all future theories about the size and age of the universe.

Leavitt left behind precious few records of her life and woes, and between her early death and the blithe assumption of credit for her discoveries by her higher ups, Johnson has to fill most of this slim but fun volume with descriptions of what others like Edwin Hubble, Harlow Shapley, and the exquisitely named Vesto Melvin Slipher went on to do with her work. The result is an engrossing sketch of a small group of absurdly dedicated people wrestling with questions on a scale that evoked fright and awe in equal measure, and of the cadre of woefully underappreciated women who, in spite of mind-numbing hours mechanically cataloguing and categorizing thousands upon thousands of stars, still found the time to give us our first tools in writing the scale of the universe.

Similar in size but different in every other conceivable way is Primates by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks. Following up on the great popular and critical success of his graphic novel Feynman, Ottaviani presents slices of the lives of Goodall, Fossey, and Galdikas in comic form, showing how each contributed to our knowledge of primate behaviour, and at what personal cost. Ottaviani outlines the growth of field primatology through these three remarkable lives, neither shying away from the tragedy that often follows an individual possessed of a calling, nor downplaying the giddy excitement that came with discovering primate behaviours that had never been witnessed by human eyes before. At 130 pages it is a quick read, but it is so charming and engaging that I imagine it will catapult quite a few into the welcoming arms of Dale Peterson’s mammoth and exquisite Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man (2006) who otherwise might not have made the leap, just as his Feynman brought a new generation of readers to Feynman’s QED lecture series. I’ll only append a small bit of technical advice, and that is that you’ll probably want to get a physical copy, as I found the text unreadable and unadjustable on my Kindle. But, really, of the many things that technology has forced me to buy two copies of, this one is easily the most deserving.

And so to the main course.

There are two ways to write a scientific biography. The first is to start with a summary of what we know now about a subject, and then to jump backwards and show how one’s protagonist worked towards that knowledge. The other is to start with a completely blank slate and to take the reader on a scientist’s eye view through the discovery process, complete with false starts, strange notations, and conflicting results. Most books that I've read have opted for the former approach – it makes the biography more generally accessible by downplaying the confusing messiness of scientific discovery. But, if the subject will let you get away with it, there is something to the second approach so exciting, so uncertain, that it is worth the effort.

In this line is Ruth Lewin Sime’s Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics (1996). Meitner was a titan of nuclear physics. She co-discovered the element protactinium, contributed significantly to our understanding of alpha and beta decay, and provided the theoretical explanation of how nuclear fission works. When she gave lectures to announce her most recent results, Einstein, Planck, and the rest of the quantum pantheon would all attend.

As she began her studies, it wasn't even a sure thing that atoms actually existed. And that is where we, as readers, begin. Sime has us walk with Lise, feeling forward for a grasp on the strange properties of the nucleus as it slowly reveals its often contradictory secrets. Because the technical terms of the time don’t match those we've come to accept, because they didn't even know for sure WHAT they were looking at half the time, even those of us with a fair background in science are often kept spellbound and riveted, wondering how Lise and Co. can possibly explain the latest conundrum that nature has thrown them. Even more so than James Watson’s exciting and controversial first-hand account of the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA, Sime shows us the very guts of the scientific process here, and it’s a thoroughly breathtaking ride.

Granted, there are some pretty heavy expectations going in. I don’t think I've read a biography that makes so many assumptions about the reader’s casual knowledge of physics and chemistry. Sime throws out specific references without explanation to the statistical interpretation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, pentavalent electron structures, and the relation between beta particles and gamma radiation capture, fully expecting that all of these ideas are in the realm of common knowledge. If you remember your high school science, you should be fine, and then it’s even kind of fun to leap over the hurdles as she tosses them before you. After all, the only thing more personally satisfying than finding that you still fit into your old high school prom outfit is discovering that you fit into your old high school brain.

Sime sets us a provocative challenge - “Let’s see how much you can say about the atom if we take away the words Proton and Neutron. Go.” And as we stammer and stumble over ourselves, she takes our hand and shows us how a woman who, had she been born five years earlier, would never have been allowed a university education, figured out the deepest secrets of matter in spite of departmental prejudice, Two World Wars, racial persecution, systematic personal betrayal, and the Great Depression.

Incidentally, if you are looking for a book that unabashedly turns the challenge up to 11, my absolute favorite is Dwight Neuenschwander’s Emmy Noether’s Wonderful Theorem (2010). Amalie Noether’s place in the mathematical pantheon is undisputed, but the only widely available book devoted to her is aimed at young adults. Neuenschwander’s book isn’t a biography, but rather a detailing of her revolutionary work on invariants, and as such is a mathematical adventure for the savouring. If you’re at home with Hamiltonian mechanics, or want to be, it’s a trip you mustn't deny yourself.

And now to the book that can be put off no longer, George Morgan’s Rocket Girl, released last month. There is no doubt that Mary Sherman Morgan, the author’s mother, deserves a work dedicated to her part in the history of space travel. When the entire American space program shuddered on the verge of being unable to lift a satellite into orbit, it was Morgan who invented hydyne, a new rocket fuel cocktail that dramatically improved thrust performance and sent the US space program on its way. Since then, her role in pushing humanity out into space has become obscured and forgotten, and I am very thankful that her son did the digging and brought this story to light.

That said, this book is a hot mess. Faced with the fact that details about his mother’s life are few and far between, Morgan made the decision to cobble together a work that is equal parts fictional re-imaginings of things that Might Have Happened But Probably Didn’t, well-known historical portraits lifted from the standard biographies of Wernher von Braun and Sergei Korolev, incidental side stories that go nowhere, and thoroughly unnecessary reports of his writing and research process of the "It’s 1:35 am and my eyes stare blearily at the computer screen" variety that grind the story to a halt whenever they plummet onto the page.

And, oh, the prose – the overuse of rhythmic devices (the tap-tap-tapping of a pencil, the dripping of a facet, the laying out of cards in a solitaire game) to punctuate scenes depicting people thinking. The habit of having characters flashback to childhood memories during important life junctures. But even if those, and so many other, stylistic issues were fixed, the basic problem remains that, by the end of the book you can’t really say what new things you learned beyond that Mary Sherman Morgan invented hydyne, and the cover told you that. The rest is a sprawling creative writing project that nobody had the heart to reign in. I am probably going to give my copy to my older daughter to read, because I think it is child-accessible, and there are too few books about female engineers out there for kids to read. But for an adult reader, it’s an exercise in disappointment best avoided until a second, substantially edited, edition, comes out.

That bit of unpleasantness now behind us, it is my distinct pleasure to say that, if there is a Platonic Ideal for scientific biographies, Brenda Maddox’s Rosalind Franklin: Dark Lady of DNA (2002) is quite possibly its earthly instantiation. Her account of Franklin’s last days, crippled by cancer but refusing to be dominated by it, crawling on hands and knees up the stairs from her lab because she was too weak to walk them, had me weeping in public.

It’s an easy thing, when writing about Franklin, to let indignation take the wheel, and make of her life a tale of frustration and resentment at not receiving due recognition for her part in unravelling the structure of DNA. Maddox avoids this trap beautifully, expounding fully and fairly upon her years of brilliance-laden disappointment at King’s College, while also treating us to the full spectrum of her zest for life and science as shown in her love of adventure and especially in the tight family of researchers she gathered around her during her unambiguously joyous and successful time at Birkbeck College. By the end of her life, Franklin enjoyed international acclaim for the clarity of her work and thought, and if she ever felt frustrated at not being given equal credit with Watson and Crick, she never showed it.

Her accomplishments in carbon research, capturing experimentally the structure of DNA, and in determining the relationship between RNA and protein in the architecture of viruses were recognized in her own time, and her pride in that work, and in the research team that she loved and protected, was intense. When death came, she did not welcome it as a release from a life grown intolerable, but fought it with the same sense of purpose and love of discovery that guided her lifelong dedication to scientific research. Maddox’s Franklin is neither the prudish Rosy of Watson’s memoir nor the tragic creature born of recognition spurned that she is popularly, and all too easily, portrayed as. She is Rosalind Franklin, experimentalist supreme, devotee of life. Rich in detail, bringing the grand concerns of the age to light when Rosalind took notice of them and letting them fall by the wayside when she didn't, Maddox brings a style that balances literary and dramatic insight with a comprehension of science’s vicissitudes that is all too rare, but that found a perfect subject in Rosalind Franklin.

For me, the most cheering thing about putting together this survey of some of my favourite biographies is that I ran out of space – there are more great books than I can do full justice to, something that could not have happened even two decades ago. It breaks my heart that I don’t have room to talk about Robyn Arianrhod’s vibrant Seduced by Logic: Émilie du Châtelet, Mary Somerville, and the Newtonian Revolution (2011), or Sydney Padua’s lovely and expressive Ada Lovelace comic 2D Goggles. I didn't even have to dig into the deep Marie or Irene Curie wells that were the only watering holes available to my younger self.

The weight of scholarship is finally pushing against the school yard Girls-Don’t-Do-Science myth, and it is exhilarating to think what changes that will effect in the composition of the scientific community in years to come.