Science Book a Day Interviews Sharon Bertsch McGrayne


Special thanks to Sharon Bertsch McGrayne for answering 6 questions about her recently featured book – Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles, and Momentous Discoveries

Sharon Bertsch McGrayne is the author of highly-praised books about scientific discoveries and the scientists who make them. She is interested in exploring the cutting-edge connection between social issues and scientific progress – and in making the science clear and interesting to non-specialists. – From Sharon’s Homepage

Sharon’s Homepage:

#1 – What was the impetus for Nobel Prize Women in Science?

I was a newspaper reporter during a terrible recession caused by OPEC’s raising its oil prices and the public’s switching to small cars made in Japan. The media’s mantra at the time was that the United States was doomed because we didn’t have as many scientists and engineers as Japan did.

As a reporter, I already knew that very few girls were studying calculus in high school. So in my naïve little way, I thought we could double the number of engineers and scientists in the U.S. if the girls in families with male engineers and scientists would go into science too.

I decided to explore the issue by looking at some women scientists. Remember, I was doing this before the field of women in science had started so I did not know what I would find.

Asking around, though, I was told that the public did not know any women scientists (except possibly Marie Curie, and they thought she was boring). And if they did know any, they assumed the women had done second-class work. I decided to use the Nobel Prize for my own nefarious ends. By choosing women who’d won a Nobel in science – or who had contributed in a very important way to a Nobel won by someone else – readers would grant me that this group of women at least had done world-class research. Then we could simply look together at what had happened to them.

Long-winded story, and I’m sorry, but that’s how it happened. The point is that I had no idea or preconceived notions about what I would find. Fortunately, most of the women in the book were still alive so I could meet them personally. And for even the earliest women like Marie Curie I could talk in person with people who had known them.

I certainly didn’t know that all 15 of the women would turn out to be totally different from the others – but equally fabulous.

#2 – Biographies about female scientists are few and far between. Do you think things have improved?

A few but they’ve been mostly scholarly, academic biographies.

#3 – In the biographies you have written about, were there commonalities in these pre-eminent female scientists? Family support? Strong role models?

I was a bit afraid writing the book would be a downer. But I soon discovered that these women were madly in love with science and having a wonderful time. Their passion for discovery kept them going. They just leapt over the most remarkable succession of barriers you could ever imagine.

But to return to your question, all but one had someone they could rely on in times of trouble. Sometimes a husband, other times an aunt or a male colleague or a mentor.  And the only one who did not, the astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell, left research and became a teacher extraordinaire. So I think having someone to go to, someone for support, was crucial.

#4 – Reviews talk about the detail with which you write about your subjects. How did you go about your research? How long did the book take to put together?

I worked almost every day – even a few hours on Christmas days some years – for 3-1/2 years.  It took me much longer than I expected.

I’m not a scientist or mathematician; I come out of newspaper writing. So I started by reading secondary sources and everything I can find that the woman themselves wrote or said. I discovered archives (that’s where I found out that the foundation funding Gerty Cori’s research would pencil-out her name so only her husband’s name would show.)

Then, I’d begin interviewing everyone I could find who had known the woman: their graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, scientific collaborators, experts in their field, secretaries, family members, etc.

Once I’d “done my homework,” I’d ask the woman for a personal interview. I traveled a lot for that book: to Rome, Edinburgh, Oxford, Paris, Germany, and all over the U.S. Meeting the women or their close associates on their home turf was extremely helpful.

Then I passed each chapter around to gather comments and, where necessary, corrections.

#5 – Who was your favourite scientist?

Whoever I was working on at the time – because I was trying so hard to understand what they were like and what they’d experienced. As the years pass, though, I find that the woman I think about most is Barbara McClintock.

All the women in the book were fabulous, but she was the most fabulous of all. In fact, two male Nobel Prize winners phoned me while I was working on the book to ask, “Is Barbara McClintock going to be at such and such a meeting? If she is, I’ll go. I really want to meet her.” So she was the Nobel Prize winners’ heroine as well.

#6 – Are you working on any new projects/books you can tell us about?

Yes, absolutely. After Nobel Prize Women in Science I wrote books about a group of fascinating (male) industrial chemists and about the history of Bayesian probability. But now I’m returning to women scientists. I’m writing a book with a fabulous woman, a legendary ecologist, microbiologist, and activist named Rita Colwell. Most people don’t know her now but I hope our book will change that. One scientist told me that Rita Colwell has done more for science than any other person alive.

Our favorite working title for the book is something wonderful that Rita told her students.

She said, “Just Because You’re a Pawn Doesn’t Mean You Have to Lose the Game.”

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