The Women Writing Pop-Science!

2nd Jul 2014

The Women Writing Pop-Science!
In light of this year's rather unbalanced longlist for the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books (2 out of 12 writers were women) we decided it was time for us to do our research and present you with our findings...

So… here are five women writing pop-science that you need to be reading. And don’t forget to leave us a comment with your recommendations!

I like science. But I really didn’t at school and it has taken me a good chunk of my adult life to lose the fear of it being boring and discover that it’s actually pretty exciting.

It helps that a lot of my friends are scientists/engineers/tech-type people, but that also makes me aware of how much I lost out on by turning my back on science when I was 16. So last year, I decided to start educating myself using my favourite method: reading good books.

I know I’m not the only non-scientist who is interested in science. Pop-science books are big business. There’s always a display or two of them in the bookshops I visit but, from those displays, you’d be forgiven for thinking that all science authors are male.

And yet I’ve found from my admittedly limited toe-dipping into the genre, there are not only many women writing pop-science, but that I tend to like them better!

It’s still early days for me and popular science, and I’ve so far abandoned almost as many books as I’ve loved. It turns out the genre includes a pretty wide range, from what I consider dry and dull to some of the best, most fascinating books I have ever read. Here are a few of the latter!

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

This really is a remarkable book. Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman in Baltimore who died aged 31 of cervical cancer. Cancer cells taken from her during her treatment were used in an ongoing project to grow human cells in the lab and her cells were the ones that did the trick, multiplying without end.

Named HeLa, they became an ubiquitous tool in biology labs worldwide. They have enabled countless drugs to be developed, diseases to be understood, were even the origin of genome-mapping.

Yet for 20 years her family had no idea about this, and even once they did, they continue to hover on the poverty line, often without medical insurance. Rebecca Skloot didn’t just write a brilliant book about the person, the science and medical ethics, she also took the time to help Lacks’s family finally understand their own story and donated a portion of the proceeds from this book to help the family with medical and education expenses.

Henrietta Lacks was just one of those many cancer patients but her extremely aggressive cancer created cells that not only survived being grown in the lab, but proved immortal.


Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

Arguably at the opposite end of the worthy spectrum, this book is a lot of fun, while still being educational. Mary Roach investigates human space travel from day one up to research into possible future projects such as flying to Mars. She has a gift for identifying just the right tidbits of information so that every page is fascinating, and most of them are funny too.

One thing Roach is known for is asking the awkward or embarrassing questions no-one else would, as a result of which this book includes whole chapters on sex in space, toilets (or, often, the lack thereof) in space and vomit in space. Admit it, that got you interested!

Snowball Earth by Gabrielle Walker

If you want to learn how modern science tends to work, through the lens of the development of one particular theory, then this is the book for you.

Gabrielle Walker follows the idea of the Snowball Earth – the theory that about 650 million years ago the Earth froze completely over, even at the equator, sparking the evolution of life from simple single-celled slime to complex multicellular beings – from its tentative beginnings in the 1960s to the current day, when it is widely accepted but by no means a done deal. She makes geology and the people who do it sound fascinating, painting romantic portraits of remote deserts and amusing scenes of bickering scientists.


In the Shadow of Man by Jane Goodall

Jane Goodall took an alternative route to her scientific career but through sheer determination became practically a legend, achieving great advances in human knowledge of chimpanzees.

Her passion shines through in her writing. Goodall worked as a waitress to earn money to visit a friend in Africa and once there wrangled an invite to meet the great naturalist Louis Leakey. He saw her passion and gave her the job of studying chimpanzees in Tanzania – a solitary and very long-term project.

This book charts the first 10 years of her study, from shaky beginnings where civil war in Congo delayed the set-up of the camp to the establishment of her research centre (which is still going today).

But most of all it is a book about the chimpanzees themselves and about how Goodall learned first how to gain the trust of and interact with the animals, and then how she learned to stop interacting so much so that she could study them more naturally.

Longitude by Dava Sobel

This was my introduction to popular science, and if all non-fiction was this well written I would be so much more knowledgeable! It is the story of John Harrison, who in the 18th century determined to help sailors navigate by inventing a reliable timepiece that would work at sea.

It was a simple solution to an age-old problem – the Sun and the stars tell you your latitude but not your longitude; for that you need to accurately chart movement over time – but one that nevertheless required some ingenuity to get it working.

Dava Sobel tells this story deftly, bringing to life the 18th century, life at sea and the science behind the problem and the solution.

One final note: a bias I have found and am struggling to rectify is that the most popular of the popular science is written by Americans. Perhaps this just signifies that US publishers are more on the ball than their international counterparts. If anyone has any recommendations for a more international flavour to my popular-science reading, I’m all ears!

So how about it? Are there any pop-science writers we should be giving some praise on For Books’ Sake? Leave us a comment or tweet us!


[Image source: NASA via Wikimedia Commons, uploaded by MissChrisParker]