Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly
Margot discovered that her home town of Hampton, Virginia, was also home to many African American women mathematicians who worked for NACA, later NASA, in the 1940s and beyond. The college educated women, many of them teachers, were recruited as human computers during World War II, running calculations for aerospace engineers. These jobs paid much better than teaching, and many of the women stayed on as they began to raise children, and as NACA transitioned to NASA. Virginia was defiantly a southern state, resisting integrating schools in the 1950s and 1960s, and the women worked in the all black West Computers section at first, with a white section head. The cafeteria tables and bathrooms were also segregated, but the pioneering women proved their importance, getting reassigned to other sections, sometimes getting promoted to mathematician and rarely to engineer. In the 1940s and 1950s, the goal was to produce new faster and safer airplanes, and later they worked on projects developing rockets, calculating spacecraft trajectories, and programming early computers. Several of these pioneering women are highlighted, and the stories of their careers and personal lives are fascinating and surprising. I haven’t yet seen the popular movie based on the book, but I look forward to it, and to learning more about the human side of NACA and NASA during the Civil Rights Movement. The author’s thorough researching of the people, place, and time make for a compelling and memorable read.
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
Hope is a Norwegian American from Minnesota, daughter of a community college science teacher, who was expected to major in English at the University of Minnesota, but found her calling instead in science. She has been a scientist for over 20 years, and along with her lab manager Bill, has built and run laboratories in Georgia, Maryland, and Hawaii, as well as done fieldwork in Ireland, Norway, and many other places. Her field is geobiology, which seems to be a blend of geology, botany, and the environment. Her passion is for plants and trees, and her story is framed with descriptions of the life cycle of different kinds of plants. The themes of her story are cold, night, silence, sleeplessness, the joy of discovery, and the rewards of persistence and asking questions. Bill is a delightfully quirky, sarcastic character, and I’m glad to know they still work together. Hope struggles as a young woman in a sexist environment, and as one with a bipolar disorder. There is actually plenty of humor here, along with the evident joy she feels in a scientific life of research, discovery, and teaching. Her difficult journey to motherhood is also shared. I was fascinated by Hope’s well-publicized memoir, and found it a very quick and satisfying read.
Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence, and Emperor Penguins by Gavin Francis
This isn’t the sort of book I usually read in December, but I’m glad I did. Gavin is a young Scottish doctor who is thrilled at the chance to spend 14 months on the Antarctic ice shelf at British research station Halley. He takes passage on a freighter headed there with supplies, via South America. 60 scientists and engineers spend the short Antarctic summer at Halley, along with those there to resupply it and haul away the waste. The station, the fifth at the same location, needs jacking up every summer above the level of the snow. The fourth Halley station is buried under snow, and another eventually fell into the sea. I was interested to learn that a newer Halley station can move horizontally across the snow and ice as needed on skis. Gavis was at Halley from the end of 2002 to the beginning of 2004, as station doctor. Only 14 crew spend the seemingly endless winter together, where time alone on the small station is at a premium and contact with the outside world is rather limited. Gavin is fascinated by emperor penguins, and a colony is wintering nearby. He is also well-informed on the history of Antarctic exploration and shares just enough of this with the reader, allowing more space for observations on the penguins, and on life in the beautiful Antarctic. One of the crew members trades duties to avoid going outside in the frigid winter, but Gavin rather likes shoveling snow into their water tank and watching the stars and the Aurora Australis. I found this to be an absorbing, thoroughly readable memoir.
Lives in Ruins : Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble by Marilyn Johnson
This is an engaging look at the lives of archaeologists, a combination of armchair travel, popular science, and history. I enjoyed reading it very much, especially the author’s travels to visit archaeological sites and interview archaeologists in the Caribbean, Peru, a tiny island in the eastern Mediterranean, South Dakota, Fishkill and Fort Drum in New York, and the harbor of Newport, Rhode Island. The author audits classes, goes to field school before volunteering at a dig site, attends conferences, and visits museums. Other than the weather and working conditions, it sounds like fun. As a group, archaeologists are highly educated, passionate about their work, and grossly underpaid, if they’re even employed. They eat sandwiches, swat mosquitoes, work under hot sun or in the rain, often with a developer’s bulldozer looming, drive old vehicles, and tell great stories and drink beer at the end of a long day.
The reader learns about the discovery of an unknown Revolutionary War cemetery in New York, and how a civilian archaeologist working for the Department of Defense is helping soldiers learn to protect sites of cultural and historical importance with decks of playing cards. Many sites have been lost to development, while others are waiting for funding, such as the search for explorer James Cook’s Endeavour in the Newport harbor. This is a November Library Reads pick.
A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan
Young Isabella, daughter of Sir Daniel Hendemore of Scirland, is fascinated by tiny winged creatures known as sparklings. They are considered insects, but she wonders if they might be related to dragons. Scirland is an alternate version of Victorian era England, a fantasy version with dragons. Also, the industrial revolution is slowed by a lack of sufficient iron deposits. When she’s 17, Isabella’s father very kindly has a matchmaker draw up a list of eligible young men who might share her scholarly interests, normally discouraged in women. Isabella is fortunate in her marriage, but longs to go on an expedition to study dragons, despite the danger and discomforts of a sea voyage to snowy Vystrana. She gets her wish, in order to take notes and make detailed drawings for the expedition; her drawings are scattered throughout the book. Things go badly from the beginning, with a mystery and threats. The book is narrated by an older Isabella, so we know that she makes it back to Scirland, and her adventures are continued in The Tropic of Serpents. This novel really kept my interest, and may appeal to readers of Mary Robinette Kowal, Caroline Stevermer, and Patricia Wrede.
If you have enjoyed watching Your Inner Fish or Cosmos on television recently, you might enjoy this book. The author of Your Inner Fish combines cosmology, geology, paleontology, and evolutionary biology in a history of our planet and how all life is connected. His writing is accessible, informative, and often engaging, especially when he describes fossil hunting in Greenland and elsewhere. The formation of the planets, our moon, continental drift, ocean rifts and volcanoes, and even photosynthesis contributed to our biology. Why is hydrogen, the most common element, so important? When and why did mammals develop color vision? The discoveries of several scientists are described, along with the difficulties they had in having their discoveries accepted.
The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan
This is the story of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, one of the Manhattan Project’s secret cities, and several of the women who lived and worked there. From 1942 until the end of World War II, several huge factories were constructed to enrich uranium to make plutonium for atomic bombs. At one point, over 75,000 people lived in a city that wasn’t on any map until 1949. Many of the workers were young women recruited from small towns across the south, and sent by train to a secret destination. The author interviewed dozens of these women, and focuses on ten of them, who worked a variety of jobs in Oak Ridge, including janitor, welder, machine operator, secretary, nurse, statistician, and chemist. Except for the chemist, the women had no idea about the nature of the project, as there was high security everywhere. Anyone who talked about their job faced eviction from the town. Housing, much of it temporary, was in high demand, from huts to trailers to dormitories. There was mud everywhere, yet there was also a sense of community. These young women worked and lived in an odd mix of freedom, away from families and home towns, and with restrictions. Some married couples couldn’t even live together, and there was racial segregation. When the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the community of Oak Ridge reacted with a mixture of shock, pride, guilt, and shame. They had helped end the war, but with a high cost. The author has tied the stories of these women together in the memorable story of a little known chapter of the war.