From the time my children were very young to when they were well into middle school, we traveled to London every summer to visit my parents for a few weeks. There was always much to see and do, but we never failed to stop into the Natural History Museum to pay our respects to Mary Anning and the otherworldly fossils she had unearthed so many years ago in the English seaside resort town of Lyme Regis. There was something so improbable and yet magical about her story, not the least of which was the force of her determination to look for what she knew was hidden, waiting to be discovered and understood. What an amazing story! No wonder that we traipsed back time and time again to stand before Miss. Anning and her “curiosities”:
Jeannine Atkins once wrote a fabulous picture book about Mary Anning, Mary Anning and the Sea Dragon, but, as a middle school teacher wanting my students to read about women who pursued their passion for science long before society deemed it right and proper for them to do so, I longed for another book that would bring her story into their world. Happily, Atkins has written a better book than the one I had envisioned: Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science. Here, in lyrical yet informative free verse, we learn the forgotten stories of three girls who forged the way forward both for science and for women.
Maria Sibylla Merian was an artist’s daughter, gifted at mixing paint colors and fascinated by caterpillars and their metamorphosis. In the Germany of the 1660’s such fascination bordered on witchcraft, and was punishable by death. But Maria was not deterred, as Atkins writes:
Perhaps Papa won’t listen, but would her dear teacher
see what she sees if she puts it on paper?
She must show life circling from egg to caterpillar
to cocoon to moth-mother, who may lay more eggs.
She means to honor her father
but also the mysteries of the world.
Merian’s discoveries help shape our understanding of metamorphosis and the life cycles of even the tiniest of creatures.
Mary Anning was born in 1799, to a carpenter who spent more time wandering the beaches of their sea side village of Lyme Regis in search of “curiosities”, than building furniture to support his family. These curiosities were, of course, fossils – they were evidence of creatures who had inhabited our planet from its very first days, and science was just becoming alert to their existence and significance. Girls her age were interested in ribbons and fancy shoes, but Mary thought otherwise:
She looks towards the sea’s horizon,
which reminds her of the limits of sight.
Another country lies beyond, or so she’s been told.
Some things must be believed without seeing.
And other truths, barely imagined, found.
Mary Anning’s patient and dedicated interest in uncovering fossils is inspiring, given that she did not have any formal learning in either biology or geology.
Sea faring was the heart and soul of Maria Mitchell’s Nantucket, even so, it was unusual for a Quaker girl of the time (the 1830’s) to have such abiding and knowledgeable interest in navigational star charts and the mathematics of astronomy.
She loves the elegance and economy of mathematics,
which can pry open the view of the heavens,
splinter ideas that have been held for thousands of years.
She’s fond of formulas that mirror
nature’s love of curving lines,
seen in seashells, plants that rise and end back,
birds building nests, orbits of planets,
even truth, which spirals out of sight.
Maria taught herself enough to be able to repair complicated navigational equipment as a girl, and then to be able to teach at Vassar College when she was a young woman, enormous achievements, both.
Atkins brings each of these brilliant young women to life in elegant and evocative verse. We come to understand their fierce longing for knowledge, we come to appreciate their single minded persistence, and we come to recognize their contributions to science. All three girls also had families, especially fathers – unusual for their times – who supported their interests, and believed in their gifts.
Girls need such support even today, and books such as Finding Wonders are must-read inspirations for our budding scientists, engineers and mathematicians. This would be a wonderful book club book, both for discussion and to serve as springboards for further research and writing.