The Women of the Moon by Daniel R. Altschuler & Fernando J. Ballesteros

Twenty-eight…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Since the 16th century, with the development of the first telescopes, scientists have been naming craters on the moon after other scientists and philosophers. When this book was first published in 2014, there were 1586 named craters, of which 28 were named for women. Twenty-eight. Over five centuries. In this book, the authors (both scientists and, ironically, both men) tell us who these women were and what they did to achieve such an honour (did I mention there are only 28 of them?), and through their stories show how hard it has been over the centuries for women to break into a field for which most men (and, yes, many women too) felt they were unsuited, intellectually and emotionally. They also show that happily things have improved, in some parts of the world at least, though the battle for access to and recognition in the field of science is by no means won.

When I looked at the index of names, I was appalled that even out of this tiny number of women, I had only heard of a handful of them. (Mind you, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have heard of most of the 1558 men either. It occurred to me that, since this book runs to 290 pages, if a similar book was to be written about The Men of the Moon, it would come in at approximately 16,000 pages. Whew! I’m glad I wasn’t reading that one!)

Mary Somerville 1780-1872
Scottish science writer and polymath. Amongst other achievements, she inspired the research which led to the discovery of Neptune.

The entries are in chronological order, starting with the mathematician Hypatia of Alexandria in the 4th century and ending with Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to go into space, and the only one who’s still alive. Hypatia is an outlier – most of the women are from what we think of as the modern era, from the eighteenth century on. The cumulative effect is to give a broad outline of the history of women in science and education generally, from the days when they weren’t allowed into universities and couldn’t get paid positions even after they had self-educated themselves, through to now, when at last women are being actively encouraged to enter scientific careers.

As well as gender, there is also a major geographical disparity in the namings. While I’m proud that a couple of the women were Scots, by birth at least, and there are other Brits, Irish, Europeans and Russians, the majority are either American or carried out much of their work in America. There are obvious reasons for this in the past, both in that, hard though it was for women to participate in science in those regions, it was still easier than in much of the world, and, of course, Americans and Europeans controlled the naming conventions for most of the period. Hopefully, now that the science community values international co-operation more and as more of the world allows women to participate fully in science, this will be reflected in future namings.

Williamina Paton Fleming 1857-1911
Scottish astronomer who worked as a “computer” at Harvard Observatory. Amongst other achievements, her work led to the discovery of white dwarf stars.

The authors give each woman an individual chapter, and these vary in length depending on the extent of the woman’s scientific contribution and/or on how much is known of her personal circumstances. They write extremely well, explaining the science parts with enough simplicity and clarity for a non-scientist to grasp at least the relevance and importance of it, and recounting the life stories of these remarkable women with warmth and admiration, not just for their work but for the obstacles they had to overcome to be taken seriously in this male dominated field. Not all of them were practical scientists, indeed; some were communicators, who took academic science papers and turned them into books and lectures that could be understood by and inspire the layperson (think Neil deGrasse Tyson or Brian Cox – tragically I can’t think of a modern woman who’s at the forefront in that role…?), while others “bought” their craters by providing much-needed funding for scientific projects or institutions.

Several of the women worked with their husbands or in partnership with male scientists, and the authors point out that, in many cases, the men would win prestigious prizes while the women barely got a mention even when the woman was clearly the more brilliant of the two. But they also tell of some of the men who did recognise the worth of women in the scientific world, though often in the tedious jobs men didn’t want to do, or because women could be paid considerably less, if at all. Nonetheless, intentionally or otherwise, these men provided a narrow gateway that some women were able to push wide open by their own efforts.

Christa McAuliffe 1948-1986
First teacher in space, killed in the Challenger disaster. Her story continues to inspire new generations.

The convention is that craters are only named for people after their deaths (Tereshkova is an exception). This has the effect that amongst the most recent women are those astronauts who died in the Challenger and Columbia disasters. These chapters are sensitively handled, never veering into the sensationalist or the mawkish. Of course, I knew these stories already in their broad outlines, but I found learning about the individual women – their enthusiasm, their courage, their dreams – a moving and fitting way to bring the book to its conclusion.

An excellent book that I heartily recommend to all, but think would be especially great to give as a gift to a teenage girl who’s interested in a career in science – she’ll find it inspirational, I’m certain. Alternatively, the next time you meet someone who says science isn’t really a suitable career for a woman, you could use it to bash him over the head with… ah! Now I wish I had that 16,000-page men’s book after all.

The authors: Daniel R. Altschuler and Fernando J. Ballesteros

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford University Press.

Amazon UK Link
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28 thoughts on “The Women of the Moon by Daniel R. Altschuler & Fernando J. Ballesteros

  1. Just saw the outraged comments today after the R4 interview with the only woman in the mission control room: ‘What has that got to do with the Moon Landings? Political correctness gone mad etc. etc.’ So hmmm, still a way to go educating people. Of course, you can write these books, but you can’t make them read or actually accept them.

    • Yes, it’s still one of the areas where women are most undervalued, I think. I was sad that I couldn’t actually think of a female scientist today who’s in the role of communicator since they tend to be the face of science for the layperson. But it was good to read about the few men over the centuries who recognised the worth of these women and gave them opportunities, and in some cases fought for them to be recognised. Maybe this century will be better…

  2. This book sounds really interesting. I’m definitely surprised that there aren’t more women involved but maybe it’s more that they are swept under the carpet so to speak. Great review, thanks for bringing this book to my attention!

  3. We still have a ways to go, FIctionFan, but it’s so good to have books like this, that highlight some of the accomplishments that women in science have made. It makes me think of an incident that happened when my daughter was in school. She had a school project featuring Sally Ride, the US astronaut. She wrote a letter to Dr. Ride, and was thrilled to get a very nice letter back. I think she still has that letter. And what a clever way to structure the book, too, by using the crater names. It sounds as though the book is written in an accessible style, too, which is all the better. Definitely goes on my wish list!

    • What a lovely story! It’s great that she took the time to reply – things like that at a formative age can be so inspirational. This one is very well written and gets a great balance – just enough about the difficulties the women had to overcome without it beginning to read like a political manifesto. And I forgot to say it has maps showing the locations of the craters for anyone with the enthusiasm and a telescope… 😀

  4. Time to rename some of those craters. . . .

    Sounds like a great book, though like you I’d probably want to hit someone over the head with something heavy.

  5. I think I’d enjoy that book, FF. It sounds as if you did. What a shame, after all these years, for there not being more women involved in the exploration of space. I don’t imagine there have been many African- or Asian-Americans involved either. Why do only white guys think this is their domain?! Argh. Now I’ll quietly back off the soapbox and go have a piece of chocolate to ease my frayed nerves!

    • I did – they got a great balance between the story of the science and the personal stories of the women, which were equally interesting. Only one Asian, I’m afraid, and all the Americans and Europeans were strictly white. It would be great to still be around a hundred years from now and see how that picture changes this century – hopefully! I liked that the authors got their point across without becoming too political about it too.

        • I was interested in Mary Somerville, partly because she’s Scottish (and I’d actually heard of her!) and partly because she seemed to have to fight hard, first father then husband, to be allowed to educate herself. Apparently there’s a full bio of her out there which I’ve made a note to acquire. I also made a note to see if I could find a full bio of Sofia Vasilyevna Kovalevskaya, not so much for her contributions to mathematics which will be way over my head, but because her life was so interesting – marriage of convenience, much travel around Europe in pursuit of education, bit of scandal, etc. The chapters in this book were just long enough to give a feeling for which of the women led the most interesting lives.

  6. I think this book sounds great! Appropriate week to post it, too, considering all the current Apollo 11 reminiscence.

    I remember learning of Hypatia of Alexandria when I watched the film Agora (2009) starring Rachel Weisz!

    • I’ve been thinking about women science writers…. what about Mary Roach? She’s written some hilarious, but very informative books.

      • Oh yes – good pick! I’ve heard of her but never read her, but her books do seem to reach a wide audience. My pop science reading always tends to be space-related, so it’s always the physics communicators I know best. I’m hoping one day one of them will be able to make me understand the Theory of Relativity… 😉

        • I read Stiff years ago and absolutely loved it. I gave my daughter Bonk, but don’t know if she ever got around to reading it. I’d like to read all her books, eventually. (but you know, so many books, so little time…)

          • Oh, I didn’t recognise her name but when I checked I see she’s the one who wrote Longitude which I’ve been meaning to read for years. Her other books do look interesting too – very much my kind of thing, so thanks for that recommendation. And thanks for popping in and commenting! 😀

    • Yes, I’d actually forgotten this was the anniversary till I’d scheduled the post, but obviously that will be why the book has been republished this month. A great way to mark it!

      Oh, I remember someone mentioning that film to me when Hypatia came up in another book a couple of years ago, I really must try to watch it sometime – her life sounds like a movie script!

  7. Never heard of this book, how did you come across it? Would love to read about these women.

    Women in science is an interesting topic, which I could go on about for hours (don’t worry I won’t 😉). Historically, conditions have been horrible, but the women I know in science today don’t see being female as a hindrance for their careers. It would be nice to see more women in male-dominated fields, but only if the women want it. Similarly for women as CEOs/top leaders. I have so many super intelligent, strong, capable women amongst my friends, but none of them are interested in a top job. Should they be forced to? Of course there are many nuances to this discussion.

    Obviously, I saw your comment about ‘a female Brian Cox’ as a challenge. 🙂 I couldn’t come up with anyone who has been writing best-selling popular science books, but women often appear in science shows (Carolyn Porco springs to mind).

    Despite my best efforts, this turned into a very long comment, sorry about that. But this was a great post and I will definitely try to get hold of the book.

    • I seem to have got on the list for the OUP’s catalogue, They produce so many interesting factual books, and I usually find the quality of them excellent. And happily for me, they often let me have review copies of the ones that take my fancy. 😀

      I totally agree. For me feminism has always been about equality of opportunity and I regret that it seems to have become about women having to strive to be at the top of every field. Fine, if that’s what they want to do and have the talent, but it’s also fine to stay at lower or middle levels in the workforce, or to stay within traditionally female careers, or to put motherhood and homemaking first. I get furious with the strands of feminism that are as dictatorial about what women *should* do as the patriarchy ever was! And not every man wants to be a CEO either…

      I don’t know Carolyn Porco at all but checking her out she seems like a perfect example of the kind of woman that would be a great inspiration for girls (and boys) to get into science! I shall look out for her in future.

      Haha – please don’t apologise! I appreciate the comment – it’s the chit-chat that makes blogging worthwhile… 😀

    • She was a bit too late to be an inspiration for me, but I remember the excitement at the idea of the first women to go into space. Obviously there were some women scientists in my generation, but it was still very much considered a male career. So glad it’s changing – and this book is a great way to pay tribute to some of the pioneers!

  8. This sounds very interesting and timely with the anniversary of the moon landing approaching. When I was around 4 years old I wanted to be an astronaut. Even for my generation, science has often not been seen as a place for women and it seems like change is still being made slowly so it’s good to celebrate the women who have been at the forefront of our scientific explorations.

    • I’d forgotten it was the anniversary when I scheduled the post, but of course that’ll be why the OUP has reissued the book this month! Yes, it’s one of the fields that still seems very male dominated and I guess that must come from school education and family. Lots of women in medicine now though, and hopefully more will go into physics from the current generation of teenagers – especially if they get inspired by books like this!

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