Radioactive Conkling October 20


Small Stories, Big Impact by Loree Griffin Burns

When I was in my mid-twenties, working on a PhD in biochemistry and completely immersed in the world of scientific research, I read an article about women in science and “the hole in the pipeline.” I clearly remember saying to myself what hole? what pipeline? I was, at the time, in the pipeline.  I was also less than two years from falling through one of its holes. Twenty years later, the only thing more surprising to me than my own naiveté is the fact that the pipeline—the path from a young woman’s interest in STEM subjects to a professional career in the STEM fields—is still leaking so badly.

The good news is that there are ways that you and I—writers, readers, and nerdybookclubbers—can help. Simple ways like, for example, sharing books that tell the stories of women in science. I’ve recently read two books in this category, and I can’t recommend them strongly enough. Winifred Conkling’s Radioactive! How Irène Curie & Lise Meitner Revolutionized Science and Changed the World (Algonquin, 2016) and Sy Montgomery’s The Octopus Scientists: Exploring the Mind of a Mollusk (Houghton, 2015) should be available to all young readers, but most especially to girls with an interest in math, science, and discovery.

The cover of Radioactive! doesn’t do the book any favors. But beyond that simple design misstep lays the fascinating story of two complicated women, scientists who lived and worked in a dangerous world. Irène Curie and Lise Meitner were physicists in a world on the brink of a second world war, at a time when advances in physics were coming at a furious pace. Our idea of what an individual atom looked like was changing rapidly—the long-held vision of raisins (electrons) gelling in a vast bowl of plum pudding (the rest of the atom) was giving way to a tidy nucleus with moveable parts surrounded by a cloudy field of electrons. Curie and Meitner peered into this subatomic world, manipulated the moveable parts, and came up with theories to explain the changes they had wrought. Their individual a-ha moments are the stuff of legend, and Conkling shares the science of these moments in simple, accurate terms. Where the book shines for me, however, is the layering of these individual scientific dramas with a personal rivalry (Curie and Meitner may have been colleagues, but they were definitely not friends) and a world on the edge of catastrophe. An intriguing way to look at Radioactive!—and surely a great way to pitch it to readers—is as a prequel to Steve Sheinkin’s masterpiece, Bomb. Before the three-way race to build an atomic bomb, before the spies who tried to steal it and the saboteurs who tried to stop it, there were two women scientists whose insight and understanding helped to make the bomb itself a possibility. Who wouldn’t want to read their story?

Radioactive Conkling

It’s hard to read Radioactive! and not marvel at the strangeness of a time when women were not only discouraged from studying science, but often actively forbidden. Max Planck, one of history’s most famous physicists, conceded that a few women did have a special gift for subjects like theoretical physics, but he warned his colleagues at the time “that such a case must always be regarded just as an exception.” Holes in the pipeline? Curie and Meitner stood on the lip of grand pipeline canyons … and stepped over them.

In Sy Montgomery’s The Octopus Scientists: Exploring the Mind of a Mollusk (Houghton Mifflin, 2015), we meet a more modern scientist, a woman who came of age two to three decades after the heydays of Meitner and Curie. Even here, though, readers will hear echoes of the same, tired story: young Jennifer Mather was told that women should stick to the “helping professions” like nursing or teaching. But Mather wasn’t interested in these careers. She wanted to understand how minds work. And not just human minds, either. She pursued a degree in science, became the first woman professor in her university’s Psychology Department and now, at nearly seventy years of age, leads teams of researchers to oceanic study sites all over the world. Montgomery’s gripping narrative and Ellenbogen’s stunning photographs bring us inside the life of this working scientist, and into the equally riveting life of the octopus, “an animal with a baggy, boneless body, eight sucker-laden arms attached to its head, a beak like a parrot, and venom like a snake.” Who wouldn’t want to read their story?

octopus sci

Montgomery is an absolute master at encouraging readers to contemplate the lives of animals they have probably never contemplated before. It would be hard to finish this book and not wonder what other animals we’ve overlooked. What other strange, new-to-us creatures are out there? What parts of their mysterious lives are waiting to be understood? Can you think of a better way to support a kid with an interest in science than inspiring them with an alluring true story of science, leaving them room to formulate their own questions, and then inviting them to look for answers? I can’t. It’s one of the reasons I read (and write!) ‘Scientists in the Field’ books.

Stories of science are a very small part of the larger genre of nonfiction for children. The shelves for science books that specifically speak to women and girls are smaller still. Supporting these books—writing them, reading them, reviewing them, booktalking them, adding them to your classroom or library collection, putting them into the hands of readers—is a small but truly important way to encourage the world’s future scientists. Think of it as popping a finger into one hole in that leaky pipeline. You might just help a girl stay the course.

Loree Griffin Burns is an award-winning writer whose books for young people have won many accolades, including ALA Notable designations, a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Book Award, an IRA Children’s Book Award, a Green Earth Book Award and two Science Books & Films (SB&F) Prizes. She holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry and her books draw heavily on both her passion for science and nature and her experiences as a working scientist.You can learn more about Loree and her work on her website at or follow her on Twitter @LoreeGBurns