The best books on historical women in science

Who am I?

Formerly curator of astronomy at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, I am an occasional writer and researcher and a now full-time primary school teacher in the north of England.  My popular books include The Stargazer’s Guide and The Quiet Revolution of Caroline Herschel; I have also contributed to various academic publications, including a paper on William Herschel for Notes & Records of the Royal Society which won their 2014 Essay Award.

I wrote...

The Quiet Revolution of Caroline Herschel: The Lost Heroine of Astronomy

By Emily Winterburn,

Book cover of The Quiet Revolution of Caroline Herschel: The Lost Heroine of Astronomy

What is my book about?

Caroline Herschel was a quiet, unassuming, always accommodating eighteenth-century singer turned astronomer. She discovered several comets, nebulae, and star clusters and contributed in various ways to a family project that allowed her brother, William Herschel to become an astronomer so prolific and inventive he is sometimes termed the father of modern astrophysics. Curiously, much of the work that made Caroline her own name in astronomy took place in a 10-year period entirely missing from her journal.

My book looks at those 10 years, in part to celebrate that work which made her the first woman ever published in the Royal Society and a respected name across Europe, but also to understand why she decided to destroy the journal evidencing of her thoughts and feelings during that same period.

The books I picked & why

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Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World

By Rachel Ignotofsky,

Book cover of Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World

Why this book?

This beautiful book introduces 50 unsung women in science, giving a brief biography of each one.  Women in science are still often seen as a novelty, not as well known or celebrated as their male counterparts. It is often hard to find out about them because of their relative invisibility and this is especially true of women of colour and women from outside of Europe and America. Although not exhaustive, this book is a good introduction to some of the women across the world, and throughout time, who have helped shape science as we know it today. For similar reasons, it is also worth looking through some of Jess Wade’s biographies on Wikipedia if you’re interested in discovering a few more unsung heroines of science.

The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars

By Dava Sobel,

Book cover of The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars

Why this book?

This is a very readable account of a group of women working on a project at Harvard University’s observatory in the late nineteenth century. The project involved studying glass-plate negatives of the sky and in doing so learning more about the night sky, the composition of stars, and their evolution. Through the story of these women, Sobel shows the extent to which the university supported and nurtured them, it also brilliantly brings to life these women using their own words to show their awareness of certain injustices. This book is a great way into to understanding science as it properly is: more often than not collaborative and collective rather than the isolating work of a stereotypical lone genius. It is also a great story, engagingly told.

Vera Rubin: A Life

By Jacqueline Mitton, Simon Mitton,

Book cover of Vera Rubin: A Life

Why this book?

This book – which came out at the same time as a picture book, also about Vera Rubin – tells the story of astronomer Vera Rubin and in particular her work bringing prominence to the theory of dark matter. Rubin’s work on galaxies showed dark matter was needed to explain what she could see. Before that, it had been simply one possible, if not widely supported, theory. The authors, husband and wife team, Jacqueline and Simon Mitton are both astronomers themselves, and tell the story of Vera Rubin with a great deal of respect. It is also filled with lots of primary sources as they allow Rubin’s story to be told as much as possible in her own words. Through those, we learn not only about her astronomy but also about her polite and direct way of dealing with the gender inequality she found in science and these are a joy to read.

Science: A Four Thousand Year History

By Patricia Fara,

Book cover of Science: A Four Thousand Year History

Why this book?

To properly understand where women fit in to the history of science, we need to have a fair grasp of what science and the history of science is, and this book offers a perfect introduction. It is the antidote to many linear “progress” driven narratives that insist that the history of western science is simply a straight line from the Greeks with each generation building and improving on the one before. This book attempts to tell the whole story of science, science from across the world, the internationalism of it, the politics, the interrelation between ideas and culture. Although not strictly about historical women in science, I’ve included it here as a kind of foundation to understanding the rest.

Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong-And the New Research That's Rewriting the Story

By Angela Saini,

Book cover of Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong-And the New Research That's Rewriting the Story

Why this book?

One obvious obstacle to women in science has been their historic additional work within the home. While men might have been able to devote themselves completely to their science, women would more often than not have had to find time for their science after they had first given time to their homes and children. In addition, however, there has been a long history of science “proving” women were physically and mentally incapable of participating in science. What makes this book really interesting is that it shows science to be biased; for all its claims of objectivity, it is still a human endeavour and so shaped by the biases of the humans carrying it out. In doing so, it shows why having women – and as diverse a range of women as possible – in science is so important. Without it, we are only getting biased science.

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