Skip to main content

A Galaxy of Her Own - Libby Jackson ****

This is an interesting book, even if it probably tries to be too many things to too many people. I wondered from the cover design whether it was a children's book, but the publisher's website (and the back of the book) resolutely refuse to categorise it as such. The back copy doesn't help by saying that it will 'inspire trailblazers and pioneers of all ages.' As I belong to the set 'all ages' I thought I'd give it a go.

Inside are featured the 'stories of fifty inspirational women who have been fundamental to the story of humans in space.' So, in some ways, A Galaxy of Her Own presents the other side of the coin to Angela Saini's excellent Inferior. But, inevitably, given the format, it can hardly provide the same level of discourse.

Despite that 'all ages' comment and the lack of children's book labelling we get a bit of a hint when we get to a bookplate page in the form of a Galaxy Pioneers security pass (with the rather worryingly militaristic job title Commander) to fill in your name. Then, however, the opposing pages to a four page timeline of space travel is an introduction where Libby Jackson explains her own background and describes how, despite the UK not being hot on space travel, she still managed to become involved in the space business. This would work equally well for adults and echoes the underlying message, that you should aim for you dreams, however unlikely they may seem.

We then get 50 double page spreads with a page of text on the left and a whole page illustration of the woman in question on the right. For an adult audience it might have been better to dedicate the whole two pages with just a small illustration, but this format is quite popular even in adult gift book non-fiction, so I suppose we should go with the flow. The text, though does make it clear that Jackson is writing with a young audience in mind when we see opening sentences such as 'Valentina Tereshkova wanted to be a train driver.' and 'Jacqueline Cochran loved clothes and makeup, and dreamt of a glamorous lifestyle.'

Probably the weakest section is the first one where we get pre-1957 figures. I can see why this was done - but it does lead to some distinct exaggeration of the roles of the earliest women featured, because, of course, their main contributions had nothing to do with space travel. So, for instance, the opener is Émilie du Châtelet. It's all going well through the basic bio, but when we get the justification for her being here, we're told 'Émilie's heroic efforts laid the foundations of science and space for generations.' I think it's hard to justify that statement based on having written a translation of Newton's Principia into French as Jackson does - it's not that du Chatalet's work was insignificant, but this seems an exaggerated claim.

We then get the inevitable bugbear of historians of science, Ada Lovelace, labelled 'the first published computer programmer'. Again, most of the biographical description is fine, but the claims for the significance of what she did seem unnecessarily distorted. Surely the likes of Caroline Herschel and Henrietta Swan Leavitt would have been more appropriate than Lovelace? Once we get those two out of the way, though, I'm pleased to say that even the historical figures get a lot more interesting, partly because they aren't already over-hyped like Lovelace, but also because we're into the 20th century and their work starts to have a more direct relevance to space.

It's once we get into these section where an adult book particularly could do with more nuance. So, for example, when hearing the genuinely fascinating story of Mary Sherman Morgan's contribution to rocket science we just get a passing line that 'the American team led by Wernher von Braun developed a rocket to launch their own satellite' without pointing out that von Braun's technology was largely initially developed from the Nazi V weapons he had developed. Even in a children's book, perhaps there could be a little balance to the unrelenting positivism - but it the end, this is a book with a mission and it's a mission I wholeheartedly support.

The stories of often unfamiliar names keep on coming with some excellent stories. For every Valentia Tereshkova we've all heard of (I hope) there are several entries such as Jerrie Cobb, a female pilot who with a handful of other women was given the same tests as the recruits for the Mercury space programme. Reflecting the bias of the times, despite often doing better than the men, the testing regime never led to a woman having a role in space and was quietly dropped.

There is no doubt that we need more role model material for women in science to help girls at school make better decisions and boys to avoid thinking that STEM is just for them - I think this is an excellent book to do this. I just wish it had been more clearly aimed at a particular age group, as this isn't a genre where crossover works as well as it can with, for example, in fantasy fiction. The fourth star I've given it is provisional on limiting it to a 10-16 audience.



Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Conjuring the Universe - Peter Atkins *****

It's rare that I'd use the term 'tour de force' when describing a popular science book, but it sprang to mind when I read Conjuring the Universe. It's not that the book's without flaws, but it does something truly original in a delightful way. What's more, the very British Peter Atkins hasn't fallen into the trap that particularly seems to influence US scientists when writing science books for the public of assuming that more is better. Instead of being an unwieldy brick of a book, this is a compact 168 pages that delivers splendidly on the question of where the natural laws came from.

The most obvious comparison is Richard Feynman's (equally compact) The Character of Physical Law - but despite being a great fan of Feynman's, this is the better book. Atkins begins by envisaging a universe emerging from absolutely nothing. While admitting he can't explain how that happened, his newly created universe still bears many resemblances to  nothing a…

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Big Bang (Ladybird Expert) - Marcus Chown ****

As a starting point in assessing this book it's essential to know the cultural background of Ladybird books in the UK. These were a series of cheap, highly illustrated, very thin hardbacks for children, ranging from storybooks to educational non-fiction. They had become very old-fashioned, until new owners Penguin brought back the format with a series of ironic humorous books for adults, inspired by the idea created by the artist Miriam Elia. Now, the 'Ladybird Expert' series are taking on serious non-fiction topics for an adult audience.

Marcus Chown does a remarkable job at packing in information on the big bang, given only around 25 sides of small format paper to work with. He gives us the concepts, plenty about the cosmic microwave background, plus the likes of dark energy, dark matter, inflation and the multiverse. To be honest, the illustrations were largely pointless, apart from maintaining the format, and it might have been better to have had more text - but I felt …