It’s not that long since women and science hardly ever went together – in this book aimed at teenagers, Patricia Fara explores the roles of women in science from the 17th century to the present day. Before going any further, we need to clear up the title of this book- when this review was written, Amazon.co.uk had it as Scientists Anonymous, while Amazon.com had a cover picture that said Athene’s Owl, but the page was titled Hyenas in Petticoats! We’ve spoken to the publisher, who blushingly admits all three were possible titles before they settled on Scientists Anonymous – confusing, but it makes an interesting insight into the book design process (and for what it’s worth, our money would have been on Hyenas in Petticoats).
We have to start straight away with a problem with this book – it’s very slow getting going. Fara comments “deciding where to start a book is difficult…”, and sure enough this thought comes at the start of the book itself – but it’s on page 31. Everything before has been a wordy and slow-paced introduction, the last thing you want for a younger reader (or for that matter an older reader).
The fact that the book has achieved our near-best four star rating reflects the fact that once this point is past, Fara changes gear, and all of a sudden Scientists Anonymous has much more bite and movement. Once she does get going, it’s fascinating stuff. Because the fact is, we don’t know much about women in science until very recent times. All too often their work was published anonymously, or even worse with a man’s name on the front to make it “respectable”. Though, as Fara points out, we can’t apply the attitudes and labels of the present day to a previous society, it is quite mind boggling just how far the scientific community was prepared to go out of its way to ignore the brilliant female minds who would have loved to play a fuller role in the world.
In the 17th century we see patrons of science like Queen Christina of Sweden who notoriously worked Descartes to death, and women who managed to get a toehold in science by being married to, or mother of a scientist. As time passes, it becomes possible for women to work more in their own right, and eventually, after all too long a time has passed, to attend and teach at university. This was surprisingly late – as Fara points out, the great early 20th century German mathematician Emmy Noether was not allowed a university post: “What will our soldiers think when they return to the University and find that they are expected to learn at the feet of a woman?”
Funnily, once Fara gets going, if there’s any criticism it’s that she’s a bit brief, rather than too wordy. For example, in a previous book (quite possibly another of Fara’s), this reviewer was very moved by the description of the feeling of inevitable destruction brought on Emilie du Chatelet, the brilliant 18th century French scientist, by her late pregnancy – all too often fatal in those days, as it proved to be this time. The knowledge of this doom hanging over her like a death sentence was extremely poignant, but here we just get “Because she was convinced she was going to die…” Again, the situation of perhaps the best known modern example of a woman missing out on Nobel honours, Rosalind Franklin, whose X-ray diffraction photographs were essential to the discovery of the structure of DNA, is covered in too summary a fashion. It’s pointed out that it seems unfair that she didn’t get a Nobel prize, but neither of the restrictions on the prize (maximum number of recipients and not being allowed posthumously), which have robbed many others of potential prizes is mentioned. There’s no doubt that Franklin didn’t receive enough credit (nor that there were complex personality clashes that certainly weren’t all from the male side of the team), but it’s a shame to omit essential data.
However, brevity is certainly better with this audience than going on at great length, and overall, Fara does a good job in bringing the existence of so many hidden women of science to the notice of the young reader. Even now there aren’t enough women going into science, and if this book helps inspire a few, as well as educating many more, it will have more than justified its existence. Ought to be required reading for the age group.
Review by Jo Reed
See a contrasting review by Allen Esterson – note this is an external website and we are not responsible for the content.