Book Review: Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World, Rachel Ignotofsky (2016)

August 24th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

From Ada Lovelace to Wang Zhenyi: A Celebration of Women Scientists

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free book for review through Blogging for Books.)

It’s made to believe
Women are the same as men;
Are you not convinced
Daughters can also be heroic?

– Wang Zhenyi

Nothing says trouble like a woman in pants.

If there’s a girl in your life who’s into science – be it astronomy, psychology, or paleontology; even just a little! we’re talking the teeniest, tiniest bit! – you need to introduce her to the work of Rachel Ignotofsky. A graphic artist/illustrator, Ignotofsky uses her art to “make learning exciting.” Her first book, Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World, is a mashup of her many passions: art, history, science, and feminism – namely, celebrating the many contributions (many of them overlooked by and even erased from history) women have made to their respective scientific fields. The result is a smart, inspirational book that’s both informative and lovely.

Ada Lovelace. Elizabeth Blackwell. Marie Curie. Rachel Carson. Jane Goodall. Some of the women profiled here have managed, against all odds, to claim their rightful places as household names. But have you heard of Wang Zhenyi, 18th century astronomer, mathematician, and poet? How about Mamie Pipps Clark, a psychologist and civil rights activist who, along with her husband, conducted the infamous (and devastating) Doll Experiment, thus helping to end segregation in public schools? Or Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the Irish astrophysicist who discovered pulsars at the age of 24?

As if these achievements aren’t impressive enough on their own, consider that many of these women did so even when they were barred from higher education, prohibited from publishing papers, or even expected to obey their fathers and husbands, no matter the cost. (Prior to 1974, women couldn’t apply for a line of credit; abortion was not legalized until 1973, and even today it can be difficult for low-income women to access; and marital rape wasn’t recognized as a crime federally until 1993.)

Of course, women of color face(d) even more barriers than their white counterparts: slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, and voter disenfranchisement, to name a few that are discussed here. Just as the fight for women’s rights factors heavily into the histories included here, in her profiles of African-American scientists – Mamie Pipps Clark, Katherine Johnson, Jane Cooke Wright, Annie Easley, Patricia Bath, and Mae Jemison – abolition, civil rights, and anti-racism play a large role as well. In addition to being a computer programmer, mathematician, and honest-to-goodness rocket scientist, Annie Easley taught her fellow black Alabamians how to ace Jim Crow voting tests – and also tutored under-privileged city kids in her spare time. In 1992, Mae Jemison became the first African-American woman in space; she famously credits Star Trek’s Lieutenant Uhura as a role model, thus illustrating the importance of representation in pop culture. (Enter: Women in Science! How meta!)

While there’s definitely an American bent to Women in Science, Ignotofsky includes women scientists from all over the world: Australia, Austria, China, Egypt, England, France, Germany, Iran, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Poland, Prague, and Russia. There’s a fair amount of ethnic and racial diversity, which is awesome, and I also love that Jane Goodall, primatologist and animal rights activist, gets a nod.

Each profile is short – just a single page opposite a page of artwork – yet Ignotofsky manages to pack a ton of information in there, including in cute little scribbles and doodles in the margins. The art is whimsical and rendered in rich, vibrant colors; it’s so gorgeous I could all but eat it with my eyeballs. The sheer eye-catchiness makes this book great for kids, but adults are also sure to love it: it’s astute, stirring, and all but guaranteed to hit you right in the feels. (Three words: Wang Zhenyi’s poetry.)

I’m really looking forward to her next book, a guided journal called I Love Science: A Journal for Self-Discovery and Big Ideas, due out in March 2017. Ignotofsky’s artwork is perfectly suited for the journal format, and I’ve never heard of a journal quite like it. Probably these two together would make a really shiny gift for science-curious geek girls.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Yes! Of the fifty women scientists profiled here, six are African-American; three are Chinese; two are Jewish; and there’s one each from Iran and Egypt. The theme of overcoming structural barriers and personal prejudices, be it sexism or sexism in combination with racism, is a common theme throughout.

Animal-friendly elements: Yes and no. While primatologist and “animal rights activist” Jane Goodall is included, so are some pretty horrific animal experiments, absent their moral and ethical implications. Rita Levi-Montalcini, for example, “borrowed eggs from farmers and used sewing needles to dissect the nervous systems of embryonic chicks.”


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