Sunday, June 06, 2021

Grasping Mysteries: Girls Who Loved Math, by Jeannine Atkins

Continuing a model Atkins used successfully in Finding Wonders, this book explores the lives of seven women who made a difference through math:  Caroline Herschel, Florence Nightingale, Hertha Marks Ayrton, Marie Tharp, Katherine Johnson, Edna Lee Paisano, and Vera Rubin.  Though the book's primary intent is to encourage girls to study math through the inspirational stories, Atkins focus on their childhood and the early challenges each remarkable woman faced make each story a pleasure to read.

Written entirely in verse, the stories could easily have been trite, but in most cases the opposite is the case.  Verse allows Atkins to focus on specific formative anecdotes without having to tie them all together, relying on the reader to connect the dots.  Subtle cross referencing between the stories intimates the way that science itself (and the growing role of women in science) builds off of the efforts of those that came before.

Each story, while calling out each woman' accomplishments, also notes external obstacles (which range from family commitments to institutional sexism) as well as personal challenges (failing grades, research setbacks) making it clear that success did not come without effort.   And in each story, a personal connection is found, whether it be a favorite dress, a marriage proposal, or a first child, showing that these women's lives were more than just professional accomplishments.  The overall theme is that girls may have to struggle harder to realize their dreams, but those dreams are still attainable.

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