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
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 202…

Episode 202

Aha, you doubters! Last week’s increase was a temporary blip! This week the TBR is back down – by 2 to 222. Cause for celebration…

Here are a few more that will be sashaying off the list soon…

Factual

Courtesy of Oxford University Press. A nicely quirky way to tell the story of some of the women recognised by scientists but often not well known to us lesser mortals. I had a quick look at the list of names and am ashamed to admit to only recognising about five of them, so I’m looking forward to learning more about them all…

The Blurb says: Philosophers and poets in times past tried to figure out why the stainless moon “smoothly polished, like a diamond” in Dante’s words, had stains. The agreed solution was that, like a mirror, it reflected the imperfect Earth. Today we smile, but it was a clever way to understand the Moon in a manner that was consistent with the beliefs of their age. The Moon is no longer the “in” thing. We see it as often as the Sun and give it little thought ― we’ve become indifferent. However, the Moon does reflect more than just sunlight. The Moon, or more precisely the nomenclature of lunar craters, still holds up a mirror to an important aspect of human history. Of the 1586 craters that have been named honoring philosophers and scientists, only 28 honor a woman. These 28 women of the Moon present us with an opportunity to meditate on this gap, but perhaps more significantly, they offer us an opportunity to talk about their lives, mostly unknown today.

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Fiction

The book that’s been lingering on my TBR longest, since 20/6/2011, it seems about time I should actually read this one! It’s one of my 20 Books of Summer

The Blurb says: Scotland, 1863. In an attempt to escape her not-so-innocent past in Glasgow, Bessy Buckley – the wide-eyed Irish heroine of The Observations – takes a job as a maid in a big house outside Edinburgh working for the beautiful Arabella. Bessy is intrigued by her new employer, but puzzled by her increasingly strange requests and her insistence that Bessy keep a journal of her most intimate thoughts. And it seems that Arabella has a few secrets of her own – including her near-obsessive affection for Nora, a former maid who died in mysterious circumstances.

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Classic Adventure

Another of my 20 Books and also one from my Classics Club list. I love Rider Haggard but have read surprisingly few of his books, tending to re-read the same ones again and again. So I’m looking forward to this one, which will be new to me…

The Blurb says: “Nada the Lily” is the thrilling story of the brave Zulu warrior Umslopogaas and his love for the most beautiful of Zulu women, Nada the Lily. Young Umslopogaas, son of the bloodthirsty Zulu king Chaka, is forced to flee when Chaka orders his death. In the adventures that ensue, Umslopogaas is carried away by a lion and then rescued by Galazi, king of an army of ghost-wolves.

Together, Umslopogaas and Galazi fight for glory and honour and to avenge their wrongs. With their fabled weapons, an axe called Groan-Maker and the club Watcher of the Woods, the two men become legendary warriors. But even these two unstoppable heroes may finally have met their match when the Zulu king sends his army of slayers to destroy them!

Although he is more famous for his romances “King Solomon’s Mines” (1885) and “She” (1887), the unjustly neglected “Nada the Lily” (1892) is one of H. Rider Haggard’s finest achievements. “Nada the Lily” is a dazzling blend of adventure, romance, fantasy, and the Gothic, brilliantly weaving fiction and history into an unforgettable tale.

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Vintage Crime

Courtesy of the British Library. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the other books of Bellairs the BL has already published, so am looking forward to meeting Inspector Littlejohn again…

The Blurb says: Following a mysterious explosion, the offices of Excelsior Joinery Company are no more; the 3 directors are killed and the peace of a quiet town in Surrey lies in ruins. When the supposed cause of ignited gas leak is dismissed and the presence of dynamite revealed, Superintendent Littlejohn of Scotland Yard is summoned to the scene.

But beneath the sleepy veneer of Evingden lies a hotbed of deep-seated grievances. Confounding Littlejohn’s investigation is an impressive cast of suspicious persons, each concealing their own axe to grind.

Bellairs’ novel of small-town grudges with calamitous consequences revels in the abundant possible solutions to the central crime as a masterpiece of misdirection.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?