New book celebrates trailblazing MIT physicist Mildred Dresselhaus
“Carbon Queen” explores how the Institute Professor transformed our understanding of the physical world and made science and engineering more accessible to all.
As a girl in New York City in the 1940s, Mildred “Millie” Dresselhaus was taught that there were only three career options open to women: secretary, nurse, or teacher. But sneaking into museums, purchasing three-cent copies of National Geographic, and devouring books on the history of science ignited in Dresselhaus a passion for inquiry.
In “Carbon Queen: The Remarkable Life of Nanoscience Pioneer Mildred Dresselhaus,” science writer Maia Weinstock, who is also the deputy editorial director in the MIT News Office, describes how, with curiosity and drive, Dresselhaus defied expectations and forged a career as a pioneering scientist and engineer. Dresselhaus made highly influential discoveries about the properties of carbon and other materials and helped reshape our world in countless ways — from electronics to aviation to medicine to energy. She was also a trailblazer for women in STEM and a beloved educator, mentor, and colleague.
“Millie was nothing less than a hero to many, in her home country and around the world,” Weinstock writes in “Carbon Queen.” “The story of her life provides insights into the workings of an ever-expanding mind, the ongoing evolution of societal attitudes toward women and people of color in science and engineering, and the unique power of kindness.”
Her path wasn’t easy. Dresselhaus’s Bronx childhood was impoverished. Her graduate advisor felt educating women was a waste of time. But Dresselhaus persisted, finding mentors in Nobel Prize-winning physicists Rosalyn Yalow and Enrico Fermi. Eventually, Dresselhaus became one of the first female professors at MIT, where she would spend nearly six decades. Weinstock explores the basics of Dresselhaus’s work in carbon nanoscience, describing how she identified key properties of carbon forms, including graphite, buckyballs, nanotubes, and graphene, leading to applications that range from lighter, stronger aircraft to more energy-efficient and flexible electronics.
Kate Silverman Wilson | MIT Press
This article first appeared in MIT News on March 2, 2022.