I Died for Beauty: Dorothy Wrinch and the Cultures of Science

I Died for Beauty: Dorothy Wrinch and the Cultures of Science

by Marjorie Senechal
     
 

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In the vein of A Beautiful Mind, The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, and Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA, this volume tells the poignant story of the brilliant, colorful, controversial mathematician named Dorothy Wrinch.

Drawing on her own personal and professional relationship with Wrinch and archives in the United States, Canada, and England, Marjorie

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Overview

In the vein of A Beautiful Mind, The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, and Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA, this volume tells the poignant story of the brilliant, colorful, controversial mathematician named Dorothy Wrinch.

Drawing on her own personal and professional relationship with Wrinch and archives in the United States, Canada, and England, Marjorie Senechal explores the life and work of this provocative, scintillating mind. Senechal portrays a woman who was learned, restless, imperious, exacting, critical, witty, and kind. A young disciple of Bertrand Russell while at Cambridge, the first women to receive a doctor of science degree from Oxford University, Wrinch's contributions to mathematical physics, philosophy, probability theory, genetics, protein structure, and crystallography were anything but inconsequential. But Wrinch, a complicated and ultimately tragic figure, is remembered today for her much publicized feud with Linus Pauling over the molecular architecture of proteins. Pauling ultimately won that bitter battle. Yet, Senechal reminds us, some of the giants of mid-century science—including Niels Bohr, Irving Langmuir, D'Arcy Thompson, Harold Urey, and David Harker—took Wrinch's side in the feud. What accounts for her vast if now-forgotten influence? What did these renowned thinkers, in such different fields, hope her model might explain?

Senechal presents a sympathetic portrait of the life and work of a luminous but tragically flawed character. At the same time, she illuminates the subtler prejudices Wrinch faced as a feisty woman, profound culture clashes between scientific disciplines, ever-changing notions of symmetry and pattern in science, and the puzzling roles of beauty and truth.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Senechal (The Mathematical Intelligencer, co-editor), professor emerita at Smith College, draws from scholarly archives and her own experience working with Wrinch to draw a portrait of this complicated, intriguing, and frequently overlooked polymath. Born in Argentina in 1894 to English parents, Wrinch and her family returned to England, where the burgeoning scholar struggled to overcome numerous roadblocks faced by women in academia. Senechal explores how Wrinch’s curiosity prompted her to tackle problems in many fields—from probability theory and morphology to topology, biology, and biochemistry—which, while intellectually enriching, added to her professional troubles. Wrinch’s success was also hampered in other ways: noted chemist Linus Pauling lambasted her groundbreaking “model of protein architecture,” and her bizarre personality was off-putting to many. Taken together, these were enough to relegate Wrinch to “a footnote in the history of science.” Readers with no background in the sciences may have trouble following some of Senechal’s discussions, but those who persevere will discover a “scary smart” scientist, mother, teacher, and feminist whose “life was her work, her work her life.” Photos & illus. Agent: Regula Nötzli. (Dec.)
From the Publisher
"Senechal draws from scholarly archives and her own experience working with Wrinch to draw a portrait of this complicated, intriguing, and frequently overlooked polymath. [Readers] who persevere will discover a 'scary smart' scientist, mother, teacher, and feminist whose 'life was her work, [and] her work her life.'" — Publisher's Weekly

"It is tremendous that Senechal has excavated this story. She offers a gripping portrait of an era and of a scientist whose complications acquire a tragic glamour. It is a cautionary tale for which we must supply the moral ourselves." — Nature

"Ever heard of Dorothy Wrinch? Me neither. But Marjorie Senechal will change that in her biography I Died for Beauty (named after a poem by Emily Dickinson).. . . Senechal sensitively documents Wrinch's later life - the few flashes of brilliance illuminating career marginalisation; and the tragedy of her daughter's death. But it is with the big ideas from early on that Senechal argues Wrinch should join the ranks of great names we should remember." —New Scientist

"[An] altogether excellent biography . . . I Died for Beauty: Dorothy Wrinch and the Cultures of Science is absolutely fantastic in its entirety—poignant, rigorously researched, absorbingly narrated, impossible to put down. Do pick it up." —Brainpickings

Library Journal
Senechal (mathematics, emerita, Smith Coll.; coeditor, The Mathematical Intelligencer) brings intrigue and pathos to her biography of Dorothy Wrinch (1894–1976), a trailblazer in mathematics and science of the early and mid-20th century. Her struggles in the academy and her feud with chemist Linus Pauling are well documented here, as are her turbulent personal life and her work at Smith College and Cold Spring Harbor. Senechal's personal connection to Wrinch shows in her sympathetic portrait, providing insights into Wrinch's intellectual brilliance and contributions to protein structure theory and crystallography. The layperson not familiar with Wrinch's work may be confused at times, as Senechal assumes the reader is aware of many of the book's events. VERDICT This book complements similar biographies of lesser-known and overlooked scientists, such as Brenda Maddox's Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA and Paul Hoffman's The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: The Story of Paul Erdos and the Search for Mathematical Truth. For those who wish to hear Pauling's side of the story there is Thomas Hager's Force of Nature: The Life of Linus Pauling. Strongly recommended for all readers interested in mathematics and science history.—Elizabeth Brown, Binghamton Univ. Libs., NY

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780199732593
Publisher:
Oxford University Press, USA
Publication date:
12/03/2012
Pages:
312
Sales rank:
1,095,002
Product dimensions:
6.50(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.10(d)

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