Thursday, February 11, 2016

#NFBookClub: Headstrong Discussion #1

I am participating in the Nonfiction Book Club hosted by Katie at Doing Dewey and this month we are reading Headstrong by Rachel Swaby. It’s time to discuss what I’ve read so far, scientists who found success in Medicine, Biology and Environment, and Genetics and Development. Here are the questions from Katie, along with my answers.

What did you think of the obit beginning with Brill’s domestic accomplishments?

My initial reaction was that I was a little upset with the author for being so negative; I felt that she devalued family. Many time celebreties point out that despite their many accomplishments, the most important one to them is their children, so I don’t think it is out of line to mention family first, no matter how famous one becomes. I think this is particularly true on an obituary page. However, I think I also need to look at context. I don’t know the context of this one, but if this was not published in Brill’s hometown newspaper, and we can assume the only reason her obituary was in the Times was BECAUSE she was an accomplished scientist, that accomplishment should have been mentioned near the beginning of the obituary. But I do think family needed to be mentioned. In a way, that makes her accomplishments even greater. So many times in this book I’ve read that the woman gives up the idea of marriage and family in order to devote her time to science. There is nothing wrong with that, of course. But it is nice to have examples for young women that show they can have a family life and still have a successful career.

How do you like the vignette style of this book?

I’ve really got mixed feeling about this. On the one hand it is very readable. I can pick it up even if I only have five minutes and read about one scientist. But on the other hand, I’m not really learning a lot about the scientist or the science. I kind of wish there was a little more detail on the science of the discovery. I also feel that this book may not really accomplish what it sets out to do, assuming the goal is to get these women recognition. I am reading about their accomplishments, but six months from now, I’m not sure how much I’ll remember. I’m pretty sure I won’t remember the names. It might have been better to write a longer book, or even a series of books covering the different topics and including more detail. But then again I would have been less tempted to pick up a 500 page book! Perhaps it’s enough just to be able to remember ‘a woman did this’!

Do you have a favorite story so far? If so, which one and why?

I forget!
Seriously, I’m enjoying a lot of these, particularly when I can make a connection of some sort. I particularly enjoyed reading the story of Alice Ball, the scientist who developed the chaulmoogra oil treatment for leprosy. I just recently read Moloka’i by Alan Brennert for the second time, so I was able to place her discoveries in context. Now I want to go read it for a third time to see if Alice gets a mention in the novel!

Do you think something should be done today about the many female scientists who are known not to have received the credit they were due in their time, from paper authorships to Nobel prizes?

That is a complicated question! I don’t think they should be awarded a Nobel prize, at least none of the women mentioned in this book, because Nobel prizes are not awarded posthumously. Beyond that, it is hard to say what kind of recognition they should get. Truthfully, male or female, there are very few scientists I could name and tell you what they did. I personally always got a little annoyed in my science classes when more emphasis was placed on who made a discovery than the discovery and its implications. I also think that there will always be scientists that don’t get the credit they deserve, or think they deserve. When new discoveries depend so much on what was known before, there are often disagreements over who did what when. So I don’t really think these women will ever get the credit they may deserve. But it might be nice if PBS did some sort of series on scientific discoveries and recognized these women and the contributions they made to science.

That’s it for now. Next we will be reading and discussing scientists who worked in Physics, Earth and Stars, Math and Technology, and Invention. Are you participating in the Read-Along? How do your answers compare with mine? Be sure to visit the discussion page on Katie’s blog to learn what other readers think of the book!
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  1. I feel the same way about the short summaries of each woman - they're really interesting, but there's no way I'm going to remember most of them. I think it's the kind of book that should be dipped into over time. Your idea of writing a whole book for each category is a god one. Then there would only be 5-10 women in each book, and we would get more details. I could probably read whole books about some of these women!
    Also, good point about the fact that there are always going to be scientists who do not get recognition for their work, and disputes over who did what and what came first.

  2. It's interesting that your experience reading this book sounds very similar to mine listening (forgetting the people). I figured it was a listening problem, and that I wouldn't be able to answer the discussion questions properly if I continued reading, so I returned it. (I love the return option at Audible!)

  3. I love your answers on this one! I agree that the Times obituary becomes more problematic if she was included because of her contributions to the science. No reason to bury the lead!

    And, unfortunately, I also agree with you that the women in this book aren't (all) going to be memorable for me. I think there are a few who did things that are related to my field or whose names I'd at least heard before and they might stick with me. For the most part, though, I think I'll forget the women in this book quickly, because we learned so little about each of them and about so many different people. I think I need to buy a copy of this so I can revisit it and start looking for more detailed biographies on each of the women!

    Reading this made me realize how few individual scientists I'm aware of, male and female, and I'd really like to learn more.