Holt to share story of 'Rocket Girls'
Science writer Nathalia Holt made a fateful discovery in 2010, when she and her husband were choosing a name for their soon-to-be-born daughter.
Holt's husband suggested Eleanor, which she immediately rejected as being too old-fashioned. But the name grew on her, and so the couple started thinking of middle names to go with it.
Holt suggested Frances as a tribute to her husband's mother, who had died seven years earlier, and she began to research the name Eleanor Frances on the internet. And that's when she stumbled upon Eleanor Francis Helin, who was born on Nov. 12, 1932.
It was a discovery that would lead to a best-selling book in 2016 — and to the auditorium at Lake Oswego High School next week, where Holt will talk about "Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars."
"(Helin) was a scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory," Holt writes in the preface of the book. "During her time at NASA, she discovered an impressive number of asteroids and comets — more than 800. This was the kind of woman I wanted my daughter to share her name with.
"When my daughter was born, in the last hours of Dec. 14, 2010, we named her Eleanor Frances," Holt writes, "in part for a woman I had never met but whose story I couldn't stop thinking about."
Holt's latest work, which is the featured selection for the 11th annual Lake Oswego Reads program, tells the true story of the women — called "human computers" — who helped launched America into space, breaking the boundaries of both gender and science along the way.
Her presentation is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. on Feb. 8; it's free, but seating is limited and tickets are required. Unclaimed seats will be offered to those without tickets at 6:45 p.m.
Holt, who has a Ph.D in microbiology, spent a decade in laboratories before writing her first book, "Cure: The People who Defeated HIV." Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic, Slate, Popular Science and Time.
Her fascination with Helin's story led her to the "rocket girls," women employed at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif., in the 1940s and '50s. The women were responsible for the critical calculations at JPL that powered early rockets, propelled heavy bombers over the Pacific, launched America's first satellite, guided lunar missiles and planetary explorations, and even continue to navigate Mars rovers today.
Opportunities for women were mostly limited at the time to jobs such as school teachers, secretaries and nurses. When they became pregnant, it was expected they would quit their jobs and stay home to raise their families. But Holt discovered that the "human computers" were able to juggle career and family roles, and she says her own struggles and triumphs as a microbiologist caused her to wonder about these women and how they dealt with similar situations 50 years ago.
"How did they handle the sometimes awkward, sometimes wonderful challenges of being a woman, a mother and a scientist all at once?" Holt writes. "There was only one way to find out: I'd have to ask them."
She conducted interviews with all living members of the JPL team, and published "Rocket Girls" in 2016. The work has been praised as "an immersive, evocative narrative that effectively brings an all-too-forgotten history to life."
It has appeared on the best-seller lists of both The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, was an Amazon Best Book of April 2016 and one of Entertainment Weekly's "10 Best Books You Have to Read in April."
"The response to the book," Holt says, "has been wonderful."
IF YOU GO
What: Science writer Nathalia Holt discusses her latest work, "Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars."
When: 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 8
Where: Lake Oswego High School auditorium, 2501 Country Club Road
Note: Free, but seating is limited and tickets are required. Unclaimed seats will be offered to those without tickets at 6:45