Alma, a woman of science

I have just read a book that has gone straight into my top ten, but explaining why is difficult. My daughter, sending it to me for my birthday, wrote; I really hope you like this book – it’s lots of fun & a bit bonkers, but a very enjoyable story and a brilliant heroine.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things has, above all things, a brilliant heroine.

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I don’t remember a story  so straightforwardly told and yet in which I was continually taken aback by the next turn of the narrative. This sense of being caught in mid-arabesque and sent in another direction persisted to the end of the last printed page – the acknowledgements. This is a long book and I wondered as I started, if I would ever get to the end. There were even moments when I thought, I’m not sure I like this book, yet I kept turning the pages. The narrative style is dry, yet moving; the subject matter is sometimes alarmingly microscopic, yet captivating; the narration is eyebrow-raisingly frank, yet always believable.

It is really a story about human curiosity, it might even be a story about growing old, or it might be a story about all the things that interest the reader most. If I had my way, which of course I won’t, everyone would read it. Almost all women would find great enjoyment here. Women who work in the sciences should search it out and consume it.

Gilbert also wrote the best-selling autobiographical, Eat Pray Love, which seems to have divided readers into lovers and haters. I can’t tell which I will be, but I have a feeling that The Signature of All Things is a very different story. In this one Gilbert has slotted total fiction into a very real and fact-filled part of western history.

Oh, and it’s a garden lover’s paradise too. It more or less starts in Kew Garden and ends in… but I’d hate to be guilty of a spoiler.

Happy Winter Solstice, Christmas, New Year or whatever you are celebrating.

Here is a happy Garrya elliptica and some surprised daffodils. I saw winter aconites out in a nearby garden!DSCN8743 - Version 2


The Dark Lady of DNA

I have just finished reading Brenda Maddox’s autobiography of Rosalind Franklin. I have read it very slowly over several weeks, as it was my entertainment while I stood on a tilted platform for the supposed good of my Achilles tendons. Perhaps it was appropriate to read about her life while standing up. This story of a natural, dedicated, curious, passionate scientist working in a period and against a backdrop in which her sex, her religion, her family, her nationality all contributed to either hold her back, belittle or occasionally encourage her, is a story to stiffen the morale of any woman (and, I would hope, man).

This is not a hagiography; Rosalind could be abrupt, exacting and almost anti-social in some atmospheres, but when among people she respected and, more tellingly, who respected her, she was full of life and fun, much-loved and her company sought after. She was a passionate walker and climber, happily travelling in France (where she worked for several years after the war), Italy and America (where she attended conferences and toured the university labs).

She ended her life in charge of a devoted research team at Birkbeck. Dying of ovarian cancer at the age of 37 in 1958, she worked almost to the last moments, when most of us would have been curled up and nursing our pain. Although known now for her role in the discovery of DNA (not acknowledged in her lifetime), she published innumerable scientific papers, many on coal and graphite and on the tobacco mosaic virus. Obscure subjects but ones of great significance for all of us down the line.

The book is detailed, illustrated and brings this very complex and admirable woman vividly to life.