Girls are often told that they are not as good at math and science as boys and this is just absurd. There is no connection between gender and an aptitude for STEM subjects (that stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, if you aren’t up on the lingo). Yet girls are often not encouraged to pursue these subjects, and men vastly outnumber women working in STEM fields.
Hidden Figures, the movie based on the book about the African American female computers whose math helped John Glenn orbit the earth, has earned several Oscar nods, including nominations for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actress for Octavia Spencer. (Tangent: These, and other nominations for Moonlight, Fences, Lion, and others, are a welcome bit of diversity in an awards ceremony that has been criticized for its lack thereof, spawning the social media hashtag #oscarssowhite.) I loved Hidden Figures, and I cried probably half a dozen times while watching it. It was incredibly inspiring to see these women pushing back against the racial and gender discrimination that told them they couldn’t be mathematicians, advance at NASA, or even use the bathroom that was nearest their work station.
I grew up in the 1980s, and I remember a commercial for Barbie dolls with a jingle that went, “We girls can do anything, right Barbie?” All arguments about whether Barbie is a suitable role model for young girls aside, this jingle really resonated with me. Due to a combination of good parents, good teachers, and my own stubbornness, I always believed that I could do anything I put my mind to. I wish this belief were more widespread.
Here is a list of science and math books meant to inspire girls and women. Some are about women, some are written by women, and some are just meant to spark curiosity:
The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Mukherjee’s second book—after his wildly successful history of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies—is about genetics. Part history, part science, and part personal story, Mukerjee blends the different elements into a book that is as fascinating as it is readable. There were a lot of pioneering women scientists in the field of genetics. Rosalind Franklin was on the cusp of discovering the structure of DNA when her rival and lab partner showed her work to Watson and Crick, who were credited with the discovery and later received the Nobel Prize for it. Okay, I didn’t say they were happy stories of female scientists…
Packing for Mars: the Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach
Science writer Mary Roach’s books are always two things, informative and hilarious. Sometimes gross. In this one, she examines the science of space travel, covering both the history of humans in space and what would have to become possible to facilitate a future manned mission to Mars. She covers such topics as what to do about vomit in zero gravity, what happens to your skin when you can’t change out of your space suit during the mission, and how they use human cadavers to crash test space capsules. Those with strong stomachs will find it all endlessly fascinating.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
In the 1950s, doctors took cancerous cells from the cervix of a poor black woman seeking treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital. She died and was buried in an unmarked grave. Her cells live on to this day, however, and have helped develop the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Neither she nor her descendants were ever told, nor have they seen a dime from it. Part history and part detective story, writer Skloot uncovers the mysteries of the HeLa cells, sheds light on the shameful history of experimentation on African Americans, and examines the ethics of what happens to the parts of us that doctors cut away.
The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua
You may have learned in school that Charles Babbage invented the first computer and Ada Lovelace wrote the first programs for it, but did you know that Lovelace was the daughter of the poet Lord Byron? And that her mother was so disgusted by his romantic excesses that she had her daughter tutored in science and math to curb the poetic tendencies she might have inherited from him? These are just a few of the exciting tidbits that I learned from this web comic turned graphic novel. The real-life Ada Lovelace died young of cancer, but in Padua’s alternate history, she lives and has adventures with Babbage, who called her “The Enchantress of Number.”
The Martian by Andy Weir
If fiction is more your thing than non-fiction, and you don’t mind liberal use of the f-word, The Martian is where it’s at for top-notch science. Mark Watney gets left on the surface of Mars when his expedition is evacuated during a sudden storm. No one knows he’s alive, and he has no way to communicate with NASA. From Watney growing food and making water, to the logistics of travel across the surface of Mars and through outer space, this book spares no detail. I also learned a lot about the inner workings of NASA. Plus, the main character is snarky and funny, and there are several strong, smart female astronauts and NASA analysts. The movie was a pretty good adaptation, but for the real science, you’ve got to read the book.