This is a thoughtfully designed, informative, and inspiring tarot deck celebrating the history of science and its forgotten women.
The Women of Science Tarot deck by Massive Science, published by MIT Press, reimagines the traditional tarot to reflect scientific curiosity and creativity. It makes no pretence at being an effective instrument for divination: “The most transformative ways of thinking are not magic: they are real, rooted in STEM, and they can help us imagine a better future,” the booklet advises.
The Women of Science Tarot is made up of a Major Arcana depicting 22 concepts relating to science and a Minor Arcana depicting 56 women in science.
The deck is an aesthetic treat. It comes in a satin-finished box with an elegant foiled design featuring planets, a double-helix border, mermaids with scientific instruments, and a Venus of Willendorf-like figure. It immediately feels worth the $30 price tag. Matteo Farinella’s illustration style is simple and clean, but the designs are carefully considered and convey a lot of information. Like bank notes.
The Major Arcana is the more beautiful part of the deck, coming in full colour and with masses of detail. Each card’s traditional illustration is given a scientific reinvention. For instance, the wheel of fortune is represented by the Large Hadron Collider, the tower by an Ivory Tower, and Schrodinger’s Cat stands in for the hanged man.
The 96-page booklet – which is already well thumbed after a week of use – relates the traditional meaning of each of the Major Arcana cards to an important issue in science. For instance, the upright tower traditionally represents upheaval or chaos and here it signifies climate change. Death (illustrated by the great dinosaur extinction) traditionally represents change and new beginnings; in this deck it represents scientific paradigm shifts. It’s tremendous fun; clearly somebody has put a lot of love into this.
The Minor Arcana has a more limited colour palette of reds, but is still full of detail. Each card depicts a different woman in science. Instead of the traditional suits, we have the very broad fields of nano (cups), micro (wands), macro (discs), and astro (swords).
This deck does a good job of showing the diversity of women in science: not just women of all appearances but women from all over the world, women through all of recorded history, and women in every field of science (as well as some science-adjacent fields like social science and science-fiction writing). It’s easy to fall back on the same dozen or so usual suspects when talking about women in science, and as much as Marie Curie and Ada Lovelace deserve all the recognition they get, it is inspiring to see dozens of women celebrated here who remain largely unknown.
Every woman gets a short biography in the booklet, along with a moral we can take from her story. For instance, neurobiologist Rita Levi-Montalcini – who set up a secret lab in her bedroom while living with her Jewish family in fascist Italy, later winning a Nobel Prize for the research which began there – can teach us to “turn the obstacles you face into a training ground”. In true tarot fashion, these morals could be made relevant to almost any context.
So, does it work? Well, no, but that doesn’t make it worthless. This reviewer and a friend (equally allergic to superstition) had a few laughs pretending to tell fortunes with it, and there’s no reason why a person sincerely into fortune-telling wouldn’t enjoy it. There are some games that can be played with a tarot deck instead of a deck of playing cards. You will learn a lot about the forgotten women of science. And aside from anything else, it’s nice enough to be a collector’s item.
0/10 for clairvoyance, 10/10 for a joyous, unique celebration of women in science. May the stories of scientists and science continue to inform and inspire us.