Carbon Queen: The Remarkable Life of Nanoscience Pioneer Mildred Dresselhaus
“Dresselhaus was clearly an important scientist, both in her chosen field and as a role model and support to women coming after her. She is someone who deserves to be widely known . . .”
Mildred Dresselhaus is a wonderful subject for a biography. From a childhood mired in poverty, Dresselhaus rose to become an eminent scientist at a time when girls weren't encouraged to do anything beyond teaching, nursing, or secretarial work. Weinstock captures well the barriers Dresselhaus faced and her indomitable spirit and energy. She also works hard to make complex scientific issues clear as she describes Dresselhaus's many achievements.
Clearly well-researched, the book is packed with information. It's less successful in building a narrative and giving Dresselhaus the kind of character development that would happen in a novel. It's the tricky thing about biography. A life story has to be turned into a story, with all of those essential narrative elements, girded by facts, however, not the imagination.
The book isn't an easy read precisely because the "story" element is more of a background component than the motor driving the reader through the pages. The opening, with the attempt to make Dresselhaus into a celebrity with scenes such as imagining a girl excited to get a "Dresselhaus Barbie doll" are almost painful to read. Yes, this campaign may have happened, driven by GE as an attempt to spark interest in STEM among young girls, but it belongs at the end of the book, where it's repeated. As an introduction, it feels too much like a caricature, an attempt to make an older woman "cute." Would anyone think of packaging Einstein or Newton in such a way? There's a respect granted to male scientists that Dresselhaus had to fight for all her life. The prologue reads like a losing battle in this war, despite how the rest of the book roots for her and showcases her many achievements. Instead of making the reader root for Dresselhaus, it elicits a cringing reaction.
Skip the prologue then, and begin where Dresselhaus herself began, the child of poor Jewish immigrants fleeing antisemitism in Eastern Europe. Living in a tough neighborhood, Dresselhaus dodged gangs and learned how to be tough. Of all the hardships she faced during her life, she considered her childhood the worst, even tougher than trying to make it as a woman scientist in a man's world. She may have often been the only woman in the class, she may have been passed over for teaching positions that went to men instead, but she could always do her research. Dresselhaus knew how to focus on the positive in any situation.
She was also grateful for the opportunities she did get and once she had a position at MIT, made sure she used her status to help those who came after her. Dresselhaus focused on women and other minorities, students who had difficulties feeling supported at the school. Throughout her long career, she reached out to students and helped in any way she could, all too aware of what a difference those gestures had made in her own struggles.
Weinstock conveys well Dresselhaus' drive, though it's not always clear what exactly she was looking for scientifically. Perhaps that's due to the nature of the physics she did, difficult for the lay reader to understand. Here's a typical description of the work:
"Among their most significant insights, Millie and her group also determined that stage 1 compounds —single layers of graphene with atoms of an intercalate on either side—are unique in their electricity-conducting properties, unlike anything seen in higher stages. But studies of individual compounds also gave rise to novel findings, like the fact that certain compounds behave like catalysts, which serve to jump-start chemical reactions, while other materials exhibit what Millie called 'quasi-two-dimensional' structures and properties—functionally two-dimensional surfaces, considering their infinitesimally small cross sections."
That's a mouthful to grasp, but the book makes clear that Dresselhaus' research continues to have far-reaching implications, even if the exact roles remain unknown. Dresselhaus was clearly an important scientist, both in her chosen field and as a role model and support to women coming after her. She is someone who deserves to be widely known; not as a Barbie doll model, but for the impressive scientist she so clearly was.