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Women of Science Tarot - Massive Science **

The Tarot is a fascinating and often beautiful thing. A variant of the traditional card pack dating back to the fifteenth century, the four suits have an extra face card, while there's effectively a fifth suit of 21 permanent trumps and a joker or fool. There are a number of ways to play Tarot, but primarily it's a game similar to whist. A couple of hundred years ago it began to be used for cartomancy (fortune telling with cards) and this use has come to dominate popular knowledge of the card pack, including the renaming of the suits and trumps plus fool to be the minor and major arcana.

The somewhat bizarre attempt to use the Tarot to educate in this popular science pack replaces the major arcana with 'powerful ideas in science' and the minor arcana with 'important women in science.' The suits (in many traditional packs swords, batons, cups and coins) become 'nano, micro, macro and astro' to divide up the fields in which those women worked.

The cards themselves are really just an ordinary Tarot pack - despite the claim for the major arcana to be ideas in science, the pack itself just has a conventional set of Tarot trump cards, while the minor arcana cards have a picture and name, but give no information about the women featured. The cards themselves are a good size (Tarot cards are often larger than a traditional card pack) and are reasonably well illustrated, though they could have done with more colour. The only information, though, is in a pocket-sized guide. This starts with instructions on 'how to play'. Sadly these don't describe how to play the genuinely entertaining Tarot games, just how to use some of the approaches to woo-based 'readings'.

The guide then goes on to give one-page descriptions (and these are distinctly small pages) of each card. For the major arcana, we get very woffly and highly political interpretations attempting to link the traditional Tarot trumps' images to aspects of science - so, for example, 'the devil' represents corruption in the form of 'ownership, patents and corporate greed'. These cards aren't really about science at all.

The minor arcana definitions at least give us pocket bios of some great women in science, though the choices can be odd and some of the historical detail is dubious - for example the authors wheel out the old chestnut that Ada, Countess of Lovelace 'went on to write the first computer program', which isn't historically correct. The information provided is often so shallow as to be totally useless. For example, when describing the towering mathematical genius Emmy Noether, there is no mention of either symmetry or conservation laws, which are at the heart of her greatest achievement. Inevitably with such a list it's also easy to argue that there are some surprising omissions - to include Ursula K. LeGuin (great science fiction writer though she was) as a woman of science but not Jocelyn Bell Burnell, for example, seems shortsighted at best.

In the end, it's difficult to see what this pack of cards is for. A decent book on these individuals would have given room for far more information and insight than a flimsy pamphlet. The Tarot pack itself adds nothing to our understanding.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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