Women who did amazing science, then wrote books about it

My appetite for popular science-tied-with-memoir books has grown and grown over the last few years. Thankfully (but also painfully) scientists are writing more of these books than I can keep up with.

There’s a fairly even balance of gender among the authors I’ve read. Yet in most cases, my most memorable books have been written by women. So here’s a blog post to celebrate and promote them! From glaciers to caves, to palm trees to elephants, I hope you’ll be inspired to buy or borrow the five titles featured here.

The Arbonaut by Meg Lowman

The world would undoubtedly be a poorer place without Meg Lowman in it. The oldest author in this list, Dr Lowman became a scientist in the 1970s. The amount of misogyny she had to battle in the lab (and at home, when she married into an Australian farming family) genuinely made me swear out loud at times. But she overcame these obstacles again and again thanks to her love for the natural world and, most of all, trees.

An “arbonaut” is someone who climbs into trees, the canopies of which are called “the eighth continent” by Lowman and others. It’s thought that millions of species live in tree canopies that are not yet known to science. I vicariously experienced the author’s joy of discovery and her fascination with this aerial world. I also loved reading about her journey from child naturalist to fully-fledged scientist, and it made me appreciate anew how lucky students are these days to have the internet at our fingertips – no trawling through heaps of dusty journals for us.

Although it’s fairly long, there was not a boring moment in this book. Lowman has been all over the world for her work, taking us from her birthplace on the eastern coast of the USA, to the Scottish Highlands, to Ethiopian “church forests”, to rainforests in Australia, Malaysia, India, and Central and South America. A fair portion of the book also recounts her work to engage the public in citizen science and to involve more underrepresented groups in science, including young people in wheelchairs, and women in more culturally-conservative countries. I read pretty much the whole book in a state of awe at what a powerhouse Lowman is – but of course, she couldn’t finish the book without delivering stark warnings about the future of the Earth if we continue to destroy the forests that help to sustain our world.

(The Arbonaut is published 10 August 2021 – with thanks to the publisher for providing an advance e-book)

Ice Rivers by Jemma Wadham

Weirdly, I was nervous going into this book – I’ve previously read a book about ice by a male author that proved to be a heavy read, and I don’t think I’ve retained any information from it. Ice Rivers works far better, in my view, because of the way it so elegantly interwove the science of glaciers with the author’s sensory experiences of fieldwork and emotional events in her life. There was something powerfully feminine about this book, an essence that I can’t attribute to any one particular passage or element. I felt both moved and enlightened. Glaciology is unexpectedly beautiful, and I keep turning over the new things I’ve learned as if they were treasured stones picked up on a beach; like the “glacial flour” that issues from glaciers, the result of the ice grinding up the rocks it flows over, and which fertilises both land and sea.

Ice Rivers is a fairly short read, so it would make an excellent first foray for any reader who doesn’t usually read titles by scientists. It will likely depress you even more about climate change, but that’s to be expected in a book about glaciers…

(Ice Rivers is published 6 May 2021 – with thanks to the publisher for providing an advance reader copy)

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

I read this book some time ago, so it isn’t as fresh in my head as the other books reviewed here; however, it has remained stuck there. Lab Girl was one of the first books I read that examines the scientific process in such painstaking detail, including the hard graft involved in gaining funding. It opened my eyes to the struggles that scientists often face, and how much of their resources have to be diverted away from actual research.

This book is particularly “flinty”, emotionally-speaking; the author is frank about her familial struggles, as well as the misogyny she encountered (noticing a theme here?). But the science always remains the star. As someone who usually finds animals more exciting to read about than plants, Jahren kept me fascinated throughout. Did you know that palm trees are basically giant grass?

Elephants: Birth, Life, and Death in the World of the Giants by Hannah Mumby

I picked this book up because I can never get enough of elephants. This one is a little different though, as it focuses on the scientific process around elephant study as much as it does on the elephants themselves. I loved reading about how to weigh an Asian elephant! Mumby writes beautifully about the friendships between her research elephants and their mahouts in Asia. In Africa, she shines light on the dynamics of male elephant society, of which much less is known compared to the matriarchal herds.

Mumby’s book also feels personally important to me because of her disability (something she frequently writes about on Twitter too). Although my disability is quite different, I found it incredibly moving and inspiring to read about how Mumby navigates fieldwork and her professional life despite the rebellion of her body. I hold her story close whenever I find myself panicking about the doors I imagine my arthritis is closing to me.

Into the Planet: My Life as a Cave Diver by Jill Heinerth

Heinerth is not a scientist, but her book gets an honorary mention because of her contributions to science.

Before I started reading this book I had no desire to ever cave dive – the wisdom of which has now been confirmed. I can’t imagine what it takes to have the guts to become a cave diver, let alone a female cave diver. The cave diving world is overwhelmingly male and Heinerth frequently had to fight against forces that sought to exclude her.

The world that Heinerth takes us into is alien, terrifying, and beautiful. She’s dived in cenotes in Mexico, cave systems under Floridian conurbations, and even had a brush with death beneath an iceberg in the Antarctic. Put simply, I raced through this book. A perfect choice for anyone with any sense of adventure.

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