The XY Factor: 13 True Tales of Women Who Changed Science

Every year in classrooms across the country, students learn the names Einstein, Bell, Turing, Oppenheimer, and Salk. The list is important, but it’s also incomplete. Behind every great scientific development, there was likely a woman crunching the numbers, searching the details, and finding the key that solved everything. We managed to find some incredible books about these women and their achievements. Here are the ones we think you should check out first.

Ada’s Algorithm
by James Essinger

Though she was born to a famous father—the romantic poet Lord Byron—Ada Lovelace made a name for herself in her lifetime as one of the pioneers of computer technology. Overcoming numerous obstacles and receiving a level of education nearly unthinkable for a woman of her time, Lovelace joined forces with Charles Babbage (considered the father of the computer, though she wrote the program that made the whole thing possible).

Lab Girl
by Hope Jahren

While other books on this list showcase historic moments in science history, this is a memoir by a woman working in science today. Acclaimed scientist Hope Jahren has built three laboratories around the study of trees, flowers, seeds, and soil, but this book is also a meditation on work, love, and passion.

Headstrong
by Rachel Swaby

This fascinating collection of 52 women highlights some of history’s brightest and most inspiring female scientists, from Nobel winners to lesser-known names who made equally important strides. Whether you don a lab coat yourself or are just hoping to learn more, this is a great place to find some new heroes—or rather, heroines.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
by Rebecca Skloot

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cancerous cells, taken by scientists without her permission, became one of the most important tools in medicine. Rebecca Skloot tells not only Henrietta’s story but also the story of her family, her legacy, and the tangled web of ethics, discovery, and race in the science world.

The Girls of Atomic City
by Denise Kiernan

This book chronicles a largely forgotten moment in history about the small town of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which was home to 75,000 residents at the height of World War II—but they were just about the only people who knew it existed. Many of the civilians there were women recruited to work on a secret military mission that would change the world forever—the creation of the atomic bomb.

Hidden Figures
by Margot Lee Shetterly

Recently adapted for the big screen (starring Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer), this is the remarkable true story of the team of black female mathematicians at NASA who, while segregated from their white counterparts, contributed to some of our greatest advancements in space, including the first orbits and landings on the moon.

The Fossil Hunter
by Shelley Emling

Mary Anning was only twelve when she found the first dinosaur skeleton in 1811. The discovery inspired Anning, the child of a poor family, to become a lifelong fossil hunter, changing how the world viewed and accepted the notions of animal extinction and evolution. Shelley Emling’s chronicle of this forgotten life and moment restores it to its rightful place in history.

Obsessive Genius
by Barbara Goldsmith

The name Marie Curie is familiar to people all over the world, but it’s in this book that her full story is told for the first time. Through family interviews, diaries, letters, and rarely seen workbooks, Barbara Goldsmith reveals the woman behind the mythical figure, exploring the struggles she faced while making amazing scientific discoveries.

Rise of the Rocket Girls
by Nathalia Holt

When the Jet Propulsion Laboratory was created in 1943, quick-thinking and hard-working mathematicians were needed to get the project off the ground—and so they turned to an elite group of young women. Extensively researched and full of interviews with members of this incredible group, Nathalia Holt’s book is a must-read for the STEM generation.

Soundings
by Hali Felt

This is the untold story of Marie Tharp, the geologist and draftsperson who mapped the ocean floor in a way that no one had before achieved. She revealed mountains and ridges, volcanoes and rifts below the depths that changed the world’s understanding of our planet and its origins.

Sally Ride
by Lynn Sherr

Sally Ride made history as the first woman in space, an iconic and inspirational figure who shattered the celestial glass ceiling through her work in and out of the space shuttle. With new information and insights from Ride’s family and friends, Lynn Sherr’s portrait of this amazing woman brings a new level of intimacy to the icon.

The Mercury 13
by Martha Ackmann

In 1961, as NASA launched its first team of men into space, a group of women were brought in to undergo secret testing to become America’s first female astronauts. Though they proved themselves to be capable, they were ultimately dismissed by the organization and the government. Martha Ackmann’s interviews with the women and surviving members of the program to tell their story for the first time.

The Glass Universe
by Dava Sobel

In the mid-nineteenth century, the Harvard College Observatory began employing women as "human computers" to interpret the stellar observations made by their male counterparts. The “glass universe” that the group amassed over the following decades enabled the women to make extraordinary discoveries, and change the face of astronomy forever.