Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Q&A with Jan Lower




Jan Lower is the author of the new children's picture book biography The Brilliant Calculator: How Mathematician Edith Clarke Helped Electrify America. She also has written the picture book A Song for the Cosmos. She lives in Bethesda, Maryland.


Q: What inspired you to write this picture book biography of mathematician Edith Clarke?


A: I saw a short article on her in a publication by the National Women’s History Museum, identifying her as the first female electrical engineer—she was fascinated with the problems of sending electricity over long distances and became a pioneer in that field beginning in the 1920s.


Before I became a writer I practiced law, and I had worked with electrical engineers on cases involving the regulation of electric transmission—but I had never heard of Edith Clarke. When I learned that she revolutionized the field of electric power delivery with a complicated tool she invented on her own, I wanted to share her story of persistence and ingenuity with young readers.

Q: The Kirkus review of the book says, in part, “This one will inspire and validate any readers who love mathematics and calculations, especially anyone who has felt marginalized within STEM fields.” What do you think of that description, and what do you hope kids take away from Clarke’s story?


A: I’m delighted with that description because I think it reflects our intent for this book. Edith’s work grew out of her own love of math and puzzle-solving, and she certainly was marginalized—initially no one would hire her as an engineer because she was a woman. Anyone who has a strong interest and a desire to contribute will feel encouraged by Edith’s story to keep at it until their work is recognized.


Q: What do you think Susan Reagan’s illustrations add to the book?


A: Everything! Susan’s illustrations are both beautiful and clever. She created word puzzles and math puzzles, and incorporated math on almost every page, even in unexpected places. She drew by hand some of the complex formulas from Edith’s patent application. The cover itself blooms with equations and symbols!


As an author, I know I tell only part of the story—the illustrator tells the other half, or more. In this book, Edith’s brilliance and love of math truly come alive through Susan’s art.


Q: What do you see as Edith Clarke’s legacy today?


A: Her legacy in her field is enormous. After she was hired by the General Electric Company (GE) in 1922, she taught mathematical concepts and applications to other electrical engineers in classes there for over 20 years.


She collected her lectures into a book, published in 1943, which became the primary electrical engineering textbook and the main reference book for working engineers for decades. She also wrote or co-authored 18 research papers which were published in engineering journals.


For years, Edith headed a group at GE which advised and problem-solved for other companies building transmission lines around the country.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: A picture book biography of a fascinating early colonial immigrant who worked in and around my hometown, Philadelphia. The research has been intriguing—I love primary sources!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: As much as I love researching and writing nonfiction, I also love writing stories of my own. Among my next projects is a plan for a book from my imagination rather than from history. I’m looking forward to it.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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