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Picture Book Women in Science Captures Little-Known Stories of Pioneers

If you like science, or books, or art, or history, we’ve got a title for you: illustrator Rachel Ignotofsky’s picture book Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World. mental_floss talked to Ignotofsky about her history, her heroes, and her hopes for our planet’s future.

Have you always been passionate about science?

Pretty much. My dad has a master’s degree in biochemistry and my mom worked as a computer programmer, so there was always science going on in our house. My two favorite subjects in school were science and art.

How did you get started as an artist?

There’s also a reason my work is so heavily illustrated: I was a very weak reader at first. It was only through illustrated books that I really learned to read and gained my love of learning. I began to draw the information so I could actually understand it. Later on in college, I was learning so much about design and organizing information that, when I was left to my own devices, all I wanted to do was make diagrams of the things that interested me.

Women’s accomplishments have historically been overlooked or erased. Was it hard to find 50 women to feature in your book?

Not at all. It was actually hard to narrow them down! I could write a whole second book with 50 more women who made amazing discoveries. There’s this assumption that just because we don’t know their names, women have not been key players in the field. And that assumption is so detrimental. It gets into the hearts and minds of young boys and girls who want to get into STEM and it creates less opportunities for women.

Who do you think should read Women in Science?

This book is for people of all ages. There are adults who need to know this information just as much as kids do. But my dream is that a bunch of young girls will read this book, then grow up and cure cancer. That’s the fantasy.

If you could speak directly to STEM-loving* kids, what would you tell them?

Follow your passions. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re incapable of doing anything, and look at all these incredible role models who came before you. Feel empowered, take risks, and contribute. I think a lot of young girls feel shy about taking their place as leaders in STEM fields. My hope is that seeing these women who have led in the past will help girls feel more confident, like ‘Not only do I deserve this, but I’m going to take it.’

What would you tell their parents?

If your kid is digging in the dirt and looking at worms, encourage that. Send them to science camp. Buy them good books. No matter what your child’s passion is, whether they want to be a dancer or a scientist or an artist, it’s best to nurture what they want to do the most. That’ll make them proud and powerful. Don’t limit a child’s imagination with what you expect them to be.

In your opinion, what are the greatest obstacles facing women in STEM fields today?

There are so many. Just getting hired, for starters. Another challenge is that, in all fields, women are seen as only able to take on one role at a time. You’re a mother, you’re a star, you’re a smart girl, or you’re pretty. The truth is that you can be all of those things at the same time. Then there’s the lack of funding and opportunities for women due to the idea that science is not a place for women. But through these stories and all the women working there now, you can see that’s not true. Women have as much of a place in these fields as men do, and they succeed and soar in them.

Do you have a science hero?

One of my favorite stories is Katherine Johnson. She was an African-American woman growing up during the Civil Rights movement. She got a job at NASA, at a time when women were only seen as female computers, meaning that they just crunched the numbers for the engineers. But she just invited herself into meetings. They tried to keep her out, and she said, ‘Is it against the law for me to be in these meetings?’ and they were like, ‘Oh. No. I guess not.’ She got very involved and started educating herself and became a lead on solving equations to get the space shuttles from Earth to the Moon. She calculated the flight paths for one of the first manned missions into space, then the Apollo missions. Due to her, the astronauts were able to get to the moon and back safely.

It’s amazing how far she came just by not taking “no” for an answer and speaking her mind, and what an asset she was to such a pivotal moment in American history.

Why do you think it’s so important to talk about these women?

The most important way to fight gender bias is to share stories of amazing women with boys and girls. Statistics and just being told that things are unfair may not be enough; people need to feel an emotional connection and hear stories to realize that there are injustices in this world, and to stand up and do something about them.

Many of these women have changed the way that we understand our world forever, but we don’t know about them. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are more household names than Grace Hopper, who invented coding. When we don’t tell these stories, we allow these inequalities and stereotypes to continue.

Women have more power than we ever had in human history, but we still have a lot to fight for. We’re 50 percent of the population. This is brain power we can’t ignore.

*STEM stands for the academic disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics

All images reprinted with permission from Women in Science© 2016 by Rachel Ignotofsky. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

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NASA, JPL-Caltech
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Space
It's Official: Uranus Smells Like Farts
NASA, JPL-Caltech
NASA, JPL-Caltech

Poor Uranus: After years of being the butt of many schoolyard jokes, the planet's odor lives up to the unfortunate name. According to a new study by researchers at the University of Oxford and other institutions, published in the journal Nature Astronomy, the upper layer of Uranus's atmosphere consists largely of hydrogen sulfide—the same compound that gives farts their putrid stench.

Scientists have long suspected that the clouds floating over Uranus contained hydrogen sulfide, but the compound's presence wasn't confirmed until recently. Certain gases absorb infrared light from the Sun. By analyzing the infrared light patterns in the images they captured using the Gemini North telescope in Hawaii, astronomers were able to get a clearer picture of Uranus's atmospheric composition.

On top of making farts smelly, hydrogen sulfide is also responsible for giving sewers and rotten eggs their signature stink. But the gas's presence on Uranus has value beyond making scientists giggle: It could unlock secrets about the formation of the solar system. Unlike Uranus (and most likely its fellow ice giant Neptune), the gas giants Saturn and Jupiter show no evidence of hydrogen sulfide in their upper atmospheres. Instead they contain ammonia, the same toxic compound used in some heavy-duty cleaners.

"During our solar system's formation, the balance between nitrogen and sulfur (and hence ammonia and Uranus’s newly detected hydrogen sulfide) was determined by the temperature and location of planet’s formation," research team member Leigh Fletcher, of the University of Leicester, said in a press statement. In other words, the gases in Uranus's atmosphere may be able to tell us where in the solar system the planet formed before it migrated to its current spot.

From far away, Uranus's hydrogen sulfide content marks an exciting discovery, but up close it's a silent but deadly killer. In large enough concentrations, the compound is lethal to humans. But if someone were to walk on Uranus without a spacesuit, that would be the least of their problems: The -300°F temperatures and hydrogen, helium, and methane gases at ground level would be instantly fatal.

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Scott Butner, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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Look Up! The Lyrid Meteor Shower Arrives Saturday Night
Scott Butner, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Scott Butner, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

There is a thin line between Saturday night and Sunday morning, but this weekend, look up and you might see several of them. Between 11:59 p.m. on April 21 and dawn on Sunday, April 22, the Lyrid meteor shower will peak over the Northern Hemisphere. Make some time for the celestial show and you'll see a shooting star streaking across the night sky every few minutes. Here is everything you need to know.

WHAT IS THE LYRID METEOR SHOWER?

Every 415.5 years, the comet Thatcher circles the Sun in a highly eccentric orbit shaped almost like a cat's eye. At its farthest from the Sun, it's billions of miles from Pluto; at its nearest, it swings between the Earth and Mars. (The last time it was near the Earth was in 1861, and it won't be that close again until 2280.) That's quite a journey, and more pressingly, quite a variation in temperature. The closer it gets to the Sun, the more debris it sheds. That debris is what you're seeing when you see a meteor shower: dust-sized particles slamming into the Earth's atmosphere at tens of thousands of miles per hour. In a competition between the two, the Earth is going to win, and "shooting stars" are the result of energy released as the particles are vaporized.

The comet was spotted on April 4, 1861 by A.E. Thatcher, an amateur skywatcher in New York City, earning him kudos from the noted astronomer Sir John Herschel. Clues to the comet's discovery are in its astronomical designation, C/1861 G1. The "C" means it's a long-period comet with an orbit of more than 200 years; "G" stands for the first half of April, and the "1" indicates it was the first comet discovered in that timeframe.

Sightings of the Lyrid meteor shower—named after Lyra, the constellation it appears to originate from—are much older; the first record dates to 7th-century BCE China.

HOW CAN I SEE IT?

Saturday night marks a first quarter Moon (visually half the Moon), which by midnight will have set below the horizon, so it won't wash out the night sky. That's great news—you can expect to see 20 meteors per hour. You're going to need to get away from local light pollution and find truly dark skies, and to completely avoid smartphones, flashlights, car headlights, or dome lights. The goal is to let your eyes adjust totally to the darkness: Find your viewing area, lay out your blanket, lay down, look up, and wait. In an hour, you'll be able to see the night sky with great—and if you've never done this before, surprising—clarity. Don't touch the smartphone or you'll undo all your hard ocular work.

Where is the nearest dark sky to where you live? You can find out on the Dark Site Finder map. And because the shower peaks on a Saturday night, your local astronomy club is very likely going to have an event to celebrate the Lyrids. Looking for a local club? Sky & Telescope has you covered.

WHAT ELSE IS GOING ON UP THERE?

You don't need a telescope to see a meteor shower, but if you bring one, aim it south to find Jupiter. It's the bright, unblinking spot in the sky. With a telescope, you should be able to make out its stripes. Those five stars surrounding it are the constellation Libra. You'll notice also four tiny points of light nearby. Those are the Galilean moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. When Galileo discovered those moons in 1610, he was able to prove the Copernican model of heliocentricity: that the Earth goes around the Sun.

THERE'S BAD WEATHER HERE! WHAT DO I DO?

First: Don't panic. The shower peaks on the early morning of the 22nd. But it doesn't end that day. You can try again on the 23rd and 24th, though the numbers of meteors will likely diminish. The Lyrids will be back next year, and the year after, and so on. But if you are eager for another show, on May 6, the Eta Aquariids will be at their strongest. The night sky always delivers.

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