Historic Women in Math and Science

Is there a young woman in your life that is excited by science or math, or perhaps obsessed with a particular field? Well my six year old daughter is currently planning on being a scientist that studies and cares for wild animals. Meanwhile my eight year old son is loving a special science class that lets him try a number of science experiments each week. To encourage both in all their interests I offer books, movies, and stories about people in those fields. Like many parents I find it frustrating that I have to search a little harder to find women pursuing the Sciences.

Here are a selection of children’s books about female pioneers and contributors to the fields of math and science. Hopefully they will help keep interested girls and young women interested in the fields, and perhaps get a few new interested parties.

A fascinating collection celebrates the clever and creative inventions of women from candles, helmets, and baby carriers to cancer-fighting drugs and details their fierce determination to overcome many hurdles to make their dreams come true.

Women Astronomers: Reaching for the Stars by Mabel Armstrong
Presents information about the achievements of women in the field of astronomy throughout history, from women astronomers in the ancient and medieval world to prominent women in the profession today.

A picture book biography tells the story of Sylvia Earle’s growing passion for the wonders of the sea and how her ocean exploration and advocacy have made her known around the world.
An authorized portrait about Grandin’s life with autism and her groundbreaking work as a scientist and designer of cruelty-free livestock facilities describes how she overcame key disabilities through education and the support of her mother.
Profiles the extraordinary lives of twenty-six women who, through their acts and deeds, helped shape and change the world during their lifetime, including pilot Amelia Earhart and anthropologist Zora Neal Hurston.
More great resources about women in math, science, and technology include: Super Women in Science by Kelly Di Domenico, Dian Fossey: Primatologist by Lois P. Nicholson, The Triumph of Discovery: Women Scientists Who Won the Nobel Prize by Joan Dash, Jane Goodall by Lisa Kozleski, Marvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight Became an Inventor by Emily Arnold McCully, The Elephant Scientist by CaitlinO’Connell and Donna M. Jackson, Sally Ride: Life on a Mission by Sue Macy, Mae Jemison: the First African American Woman in Space by Magdalena Alagna, Marie Curie by Kathleen Krull, Look Up!: Henrietta Leavitt, Pioneering Woman Astronomer by Robert Burleigh, Margaret Mead: Coming of Age in America by Joan Mark, Women Mathematicians by Padma Venkatraman, Women in Space: 23 Stories of First Flights, Scientific Missions, and Gravity-breaking Adventures by Karen Bush Gibson, Rachel Carson: Extraordinary Environmentalist by Jill C. Wheeler, and Women and Numbers: Lives of Women Mathematicians Plus Discovery Activities by Teri Perl.

Susan Reads: The Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit Fox

Every now and then a book comes along and all you can say is, “WOW!”

That’s my reaction to The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code, by Margalit Fox.

Ever hear of the minotaur, the half-man, half bull that lived in the center of the labyrinth, built by King Minos on ancient Crete?  As with most myths, this was one of those partly based on fact.  There was a palace of Knossos, on ancient Crete (which lies in the middle of the Mediterranean), and there was a King Minos, although the name seems to have been a general title, not a specific person. His palace was huge, hundreds of rooms built, well, in a maze-like fashion. For reasons unknown, the palace burned down sometime between 1450 and 1400 BCE, or about 3400 years ago, and that marked the end of the great Minoan civilization. And this we know for fact because Arthur Evans dug up the palace in Heraklion, Crete, in 1900.

And he found a storeroom.

With more than 2000 written clay tablets, baked by fire, still sitting there.

But what script was it? It wasn’t Egyptian hieroglyphics. It wasn’t Phoenician. It was too old for Ancient Greek. Unraveling the mystery would shed light on Bronze-age European civilization.  Scholars worked on it for years, including one Antiquities professor of Brooklyn College, Alice Kober. Kober, with incredible intelligence, scientific method, and a knack for languages that was almost frightening, through extreme perseverance managed to work out the basics, realizing that the mysterious language – known as Linear B – was written left to right, had different endings for masculine and feminine, and was a syllabary – a language where each symbol (read ‘letter’, if you wish) stood for a syllable of a word, not an individual letter, much like Japanese kana does. Kober poured her life into decoding the script. She came very close, but died before she could finish it.

Enter Michael Ventris, a quirky little upstart twenty years younger, a lonely child prodigy who, like Kober, mastered languages the way a sponge absorbs water (because everyone should know ancient Hittite and Etruscan). Ventris had been intrigued by Linear B since he was 14, if not outright obsessed.  Untrained (he went to a trade school to become an architect, but never took a college class at all), he corresponded with some of the greatest scholars of ancient civilizations, read Kober’s papers, put ideas together, sometimes wrong but sometimes right, and just 18 months – 18 heartbreaking months after Kober’s death, broke through the code of Linear B – a writing system native to Crete, but bent to write an ancient Greek dialect 400 years older than Greek was thought to be. The discoveries of other, similar tablets also written in Linear B on the mainland of Greece and surrounding territories corroborated the information. A whole new era in historical understanding was broken open, and the timeline for civilization had to be pushed back to accommodate it.

This book reads like a fascinating detective novel.  I could not put it down.  It’s like watching the film of Titanic – you know the ending, but you’re gripping your seat the entire time anyway. Fox’s style is extremely easy to follow and to read – she drops little hints about what’s to come and then speeds ahead, and you can’t stop reading.  If you love ancient history, if you love languages, cryptology, biographies of women in science or just a really good story, then read this book. It was truly a pleasure to read it.