Review by Win Wiacek
Comics and graphic novels have an inconceivable power to deliver information in readily accessible form, and – like all the best teachers – can do so in ways that are fascinating, fun and therefore unforgettable. Here’s a fresh entrant in a wave of historical and biographical visual celebrations seeking to redress centuries of gender injustice while providing true life role models for the coming generations.
Crafted by writer, editor and journalist Marie Moinard and elegantly illustrated by artist Christelle Pécout, Women Discoverers is a cheery hardback – or digital – compendium translated into English by those fine folk at NBM.
As the name suggests, Women Discoverers focuses on twenty female scientists who generally changed the world, without fanfare or even fair credit. Some are still doing so. A combination of comics vignettes and short illustrated data epigrams is preceded by an impassioned introduction from Marie-Sophie Pawlak (President of Elles Bougent scientific society). The revelations begin with an extended strip history of the achievements of the peerless Marie Curie whose discoveries in chemistry and physics practically reinvented the planet. She is followed by brief vignettes of French biologist Françoise Barre-Sinoussi (discoverer of the HIV retrovirus), Canadian physicist Donna Théo Strickland (laser amplification) and African-American Dorothy Vaughan whose mathematical and computing skills served the world at NASA.
It’s back to comics for Ada Lovelace who revolutionized mathematics by inventing computer programming, after which single page biographies describe the achievements of lengths undertaken by French mathematician Émilie du Châtelet to attend men-only institutions in the days of the Enlightenment. Although separated by centuries, mathematicians Emmy Noether (Germany 1882-1935) and Grace Alele-Williams (born in Niger in 1932) both excelled and triumphed despite male opposition, but their stories pale beside the strip-delivered hardships of actress, engineer and mobile phone pioneer Hedy Lamarr.
Another NASA stalwart, mathematician/astrophysicist Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson, famously calculated Apollo 11’s life-saving orbit, while paediatrician Marthe Gautier discovered the origins of Downs’ Syndrome and Iranian mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani’s geometry discoveries were tragically cut short by illness. The shameful treatment and fate of British researcher Rosalind Franklin also ended in a cruelly early death and belated fame, unlike French mathematician, philosopher and physicist Sophie Germain whose many (posthumous) triumphs never brought her inclusion in the numerous scientific organisations barring female membership during her lifetime.
Whereas Marie Curie’s daughter Irène Joliot-Curie won similar accolades to her mother, astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered pulsars only to have her (male) supervisor steal the credit. At least she’s still alive to see the record set straight.
In pictorial form, astronaut Mae Jemison reveals her life and medical successes on Earth, before this potent paean closes with a trio of one-page wonders: Kevlar inventor Stephanie Kwolek, Navy mathematician Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper (writer of the COBOL programming language) and Chinese chemist Xie Yi. Her advances in nanotechnology have made the world a very different place.
Sure, you could Google them, but Women Discoverers is a far more satisfying and charming alternative and the very fact that you probably haven’t heard of most of these astounding innovators – or even a few of the more ancient ones – only proves, without doubt, that you need this book.