Jeannine Atkins is the author of Grasping Mysteries: Girls Who Loved Math, a new book for older kids. Her many other books include Stone Mirrors and Finding Wonders. She lives in Western Massachusetts.
Q: Why did you decide to write Grasping Mysteries?
A: The book naturally followed Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science, which features women who made marks in biology, paleontology, and astronomy before the 20th century, when scientists could focus on observation.
Researching that book I learned how girls today are sadly often held back from pursuing passions for insects, fossils, or stars in college because of a lack of confidence in their abilities in math. I wrote Grasping Mysteries to show some of what math can touch, which isn’t always articulated in math classes.
Q: How did you select the seven women you write about?
A: When I learned that Caroline Herschel was the first woman to earn a gold medal from the Royal Astronomical Society and, more than 150 years later, Vera Rubin became the second to win that medal, I decided to use that as a frame.
Caroline Herschel had to stop school when young, but taught herself calculus in order to understand the movements of stars and planets. It was great to end with Dr. Vera Rubin because she not only established some proof of dark matter, but dedicated herself to helping other women move ahead in science, which touched on the sorts of discrimination women face today.
I try to have a mix of women who might be familiar and those less known. Florence Nightingale is known as a pioneering nurse, but I stressed the way she used statistics. As a link with the way she used charts for social change, I included the first Native American to work in the U.S. Census Bureau, Edna Lee Paisano.
Sorry, I’m going on. I love these women! Katherine Johnson’s story shows a triumph over racial discrimination to succeed at NASA. Marie Tharp, who helped map the ocean, shows some of the math involved in maps and charts. And Hertha Ayrton used math for inventions and working with electricity.
Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that particularly surprised you?
A: So often one woman’s story leads to another’s, and I’m lucky to live in the Five College area of western Massachusetts, where there are great libraries. The patterns are always interesting to see emerge. Most of the women had a deeply supportive father, husband, or brother. The faith of even one person clearly counts for a lot, which moved me.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
A: I hope the joy these women found through math and following their dreams, even through hardships.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on another book in verse about a 20th century physicist. I wouldn’t have had the courage to take on nuclear physics, albeit in simplified form, if I hadn’t spent years trying to better understand math. And Lise Meitner is someone more people need to meet.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Jeannine Atkins.