Monday, February 18, 2019

The Rise of the Rocket Girls by Nathalia Holt (2016, Little, Brown & Co)

In the late-1930s a trio of young scientists were playing around with rockets on the Caltech campus in Pasadena. As the Second World War began in Europe, they received funding to explore the military uses of rockets, setting up the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. One of their first recruits was their friend, Barby Canright, a gifted mathematician. Her role was a computer, calculating the trajectories of missiles with varying characteristics (speed, weight, etc). She was joined by a handful of other women and over time the computing department became an all-female domain. Over time, the work shifted from hand-calculation to using a digital computer to computer programming. While the women conducted vital work, and they often contributed key ideas rather than simply undertaking calculations, their role was generally under-valued, though by the 1960s they were starting to break through the glass ceiling and taking on the role of engineers.

Nathalia Holt tells the story of the role played by women calculators/engineers in JPL from the 1930s through to the present, including their contributions to missile research and to space exploration. In particular, she follows the lives and contributions to a selection of these women, with the narrative being based on a series of personal interviews, as well as documentary sources. While the topic is fascinating, the telling is somewhat weak. Holt opts for a style that is almost purely descriptive and a voice that seems aimed at young adults. The result is a narrative that provides a potted history of the women’s lives and the development of JPL, but pretty much outside of any social or political framing. And the extended timespan thins the description. As a consequence, while revealing the important work of the women, the telling lacked depth, analysis and critical commentary on institutional and gender politics and the wider social and political climate, and women in scientific careers in the second half of the twentieth century. Which was a shame, as JPL is clearly a very interesting site of basic and applied scientific activity, where women have and continue to play a vital role.

1 comment:

Rob Kitchin said...

I should have posted this review back in October, but somehow failed to do so. I only discovered this when creating a new 'non-fiction reviews' page. Makes me wonder what other reviews I've written and not posted!