The Women Scientists of Wishful Thinking

I was first struck with the inspiration for Wishful Thinking when reading the Harry Potter series with my older son. Wouldn’t it be great if there were a book like this for moms, I thought, and obviously the power a mom would need would be the ability to be everywhere for everybody all of the time! From the beginning, however, I wanted my tale to be sparked by science, not magic. This was partly because I have always been an amateur lover of physics, from avidly following the hunt for Higgs boson to snuggling up with my kids on the couch to watch Cosmos. It was also because I thought that the woman who inspired the voice, attitude and singularity of the character Dr. Diane Sexton—Diane Middlebrook, my mentor and friend—would have preferred her namesake to be a brilliant physicist rather than a fairy.

Researching the women scientists an inventor like Dr. Sexton would admire was one of the things I loved most about writing this book. In what seemed like an omen, just weeks after starting work on the novel I was riding the subway and opened the Science section of The New York Times to an article about Charles Babbage, believed by some to have invented the first computer (he called it an Analytical Engine). With computing and its power very much on my mind, I read on, and could hardly contain my pleasure at discovering that Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace and daughter of the poet Lord Byron, is considered by many to be the world’s first computer programmer. Augusta did not end up in Wishful Thinking, but, as with Mary Somerville, I am including her here in my gallery of the women scientists of Wishful Thinking as additional sources of indispensable inspiration. The descriptions of these women and their accomplishments are just brief thumbnails–I encourage you to dive deeper and read more about each of them!

The daughter of famed poet Lord Byron, Augusta Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace—better known as “Ada Lovelace”—was born in London on December 10, 1815. Ada showed her gift for mathematics at an early age. She translated an article on an invention by Charles Babbage, and added her own comments. Because she introduced many computer concepts, Ada is considered the first computer programmer. Ada died on November 27, 1852. (Source:
Mary Fairfax Somerville (December 26, 1780 – November, 28 1872) was a Scottish science writer and polymath, at a time when women’s participation in science was discouraged. She studied mathematics and astronomy, and was nominated to be jointly the first female member of the Royal Astronomical Society at the same time as Caroline Herschel. (Source: Wikipedia
Florence Nightingale; (May 12, 1820 – August, 13 1910), as most know, was a celebrated English social reformer and statistician, and the founder of modern nursing. She came to prominence while serving as a nurse during the Crimean War, where she tended to wounded soldiers. What few people know, however, is that she was “an innovator in the collection, tabulation, interpretation, and graphical display of descriptive statistics.” The rose diagrams Nightingale created to visually illustrate the correlation between mortality and hygiene in the Crimean War are widely viewed as the first infographics. (Source: Wikipedia and Biographies of Women Mathematicians.)
Maria Goeppert Mayer (June 28, 1906 – February 20, 1972) was a German-born American theoretical physicist, and Nobel laureate in Physics for proposing the nuclear shell model of the atomic nucleus. She was the second female Nobel Laureate in Physics, after Marie Curie. That was fifty years ago, and there hasn’t been another one since. (Source: Wikipedia and
Maria Sibylla Merian (April 2, 1647 – January 13, 1717) was a German-born naturalist and scientific illustrator. At the age of fifty-two, Merian and her youngest daughter embarked on a dangerous trip to the Dutch colony of Surinam, in South America. Merian had seen some of the dried specimens of animals and plants that were popular with European collectors, and she wanted to study them within their natural habitats. She spent the next two years studying and drawing the indigenous flora and fauna. (Source: National Museum of Women in the Arts.)
Although better known for her silver-screen exploits, Austrian actress Hedy Lamarr (born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler) also became a pioneer in the field of wireless communications following her immigration to the United States. The international beauty icon, along with co-inventor George Antheil, developed a “secret communications system” called spread spectrum to help combat the Nazis in World War II. This system, also called frequency hopping, is now used by cell phones, bar code scanners, and many other things we use in daily modern life. (Source: Famous Women Inventors. CBS Sunday Morning. Photo: