I Died For Beauty


From the book jacket:

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 storyof 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 yound disciple of Bertrand Russell while at Cambridge, the first woman 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, seh 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.

“I love this book, which manages to be, all at once, a perceptive biography of a brilliant, difficult person; a penetrating investigation of the experiences of women in mathematics and the physical sciences through the 20th century; and a dazzlingly clear discussion of crucial problems in the philosophy and history of science. Personal, lively, and endlessly interesting, Senechal’s account of Dorothy Wrinch’s life and work is a model of what writing about science can be at its very best.” -Andrea Barrett, National Book Award-winning author of Ship Fever and The Air We Breathe

“A Compelling and empathic account of one of the most controversial figures of 20th century science. Senechal knows her subject, and it shows: she writes not only from scholarly authority, but also from the intimacy of kindred dreams and struggles.” -Evelyn Fox Keller, Professor, Emeritus, MIT, and author of A Feeling for the Organism and Making Sense of Life

“This life of Dorothy Wrinch is both elegant and utterly engaging. The scope of Wrinch’s interests and contributions will surprise those who know her only because of her long-running feud with Linus Pauling over protein structure. Mathematician, occasional philosopher, and theoretician of molecular form, Wrinch took her cues from some of the best minds of her era, including Bertrand Russell, D’Arcy Thompson, and Irving Langmuir, and argued with many others. Brilliant when right and wrong, she inspired, charmed, and exasperated interlocutors from the parlors of Edwardian Oxbridge and London to the leafy streets of Eisenhower-era Amherst and Smith. Marjorie Senechal’s book, part history and part personal memoir, is as multi-faceted as its subject and succeeds in conveying a sense not only of Wrinch’s remarkable character and professional life as a woman in an overwhelmingly male world, but also an appreciation of her intellectual curiosities and passion for geometrical form. Wrinch, often star-crossed in life, has had the good fortune to find the ideal biographer.” -John Servos, Anson D. Morse Professor of History at Amherst College and author of Physical Chemistry from Ostwald to Pauling: The Making of a Science in Modern America

“The story of Dorothy Wrinch is not an easy story to tell, but Marjorie Senechal, who not only knew Wrinch personally but also knows her science, tells it beautifully and lucidly. This is a captivating account of the intellectual and cultural world in which Wrinch lived, one that brings to life many of the people who inhabited it. This is not exactly a conventional biography but Wrinch was not exactly a conventional person, and Senechal’s approach fits her subject perfectly. Senechal hopes she has written a ‘kaleidoscope’ of a book. I can confirm that she has.” -June Barrow-Green, The Open University, and editor of Historica Mathematica

Reviews, Interviews and Press for I Died for Beauty

New Scientist, December 2012

Nature, 6 December 2012

Interview with Marjorie Senechal on NPR’s All Things Considered – January 13, 2013

How Lantern Slides Revolutionized Education: A Protein Story – January 21, 2013

Book Bag, Daily Hampshire Gazette – February 1, 2013

Bookslut.com, 3 April 2013

American Crystallographic Association Review Spring, 2013

Association for Women and Mathematics Newsletter 2013

Los Angeles Review of Books
Marjorie Senechal responds to the LARB review
The LARB reviewer’s factual errors

Mathematical Association of America

Crystallography News June, 2013

Logic and Beauty


Dorothy Wrinch’s Publications

Dorothy Wrinch Papers in the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College