The tarot world is getting a scientific makeover with the Women of Science Tarot, a new deck out September 8th from Massive Science and MIT Press that honors inspiring women scientists, physicians, mathematicians, and programmers, and their contributions to the scientific fields.
Women of Science Tarot
Massive Science & Matteo Farinella (illustrator)
September 8, 2020
Every time I talk about a new tarot deck, I mention how popular indie decks have become in the past few years, and I feel like MIT Press putting out their own tarot is the conclusive proof. MIT, which was recently ranked the best university in the world, is famous for its engineering and science programs. It’s not the first place I’d expect to dip into the esoteric arts. This is addressed on the very first page of the accompanying guidebook, which notes that the deck is meant to reflect “curiosity about how the world works.”
And that’s why this deck makes me so happy. I’m in the computer science field and for a long time, I felt very self conscious about my interest in tarot. I feared that people would take me less seriously as a professional in STEM—which is often already a challenge for me as someone of a marginalized gender—if they knew I was so serious about something that’s widely considered so unscientific. Eventually I got past this fear; I’ve found that most of my colleagues actually think it’s pretty interesting and I’ve discovered that some of them are even tarot enthusiasts themselves! But I truly believe science and magic can—and should!—coexist. Magic, historically, has also been rooted in deep curiosity about how the world works, and archaic magical disciplines like alchemy were the early stepping stones towards real scientific disciplines like chemistry. The very existence of this deck supports that coexistence, and I love that about it.
In fact, science and tarot coexist beautifully throughout the Women of Science deck. The major arcana honors the field of science as a whole, with each card representing a fundamental scientific concept, such as gravity or evolution. Then the minor arcana specifically celebrates the contributions to the field from inspiring women throughout history. Each of the 56 minor arcana cards highlights a particular woman who changed the course of STEM as we know it today, and the accompanying guidebook gives a bit of background on each of their histories and how they influenced modern science, mathematics and programming. (This is a must, because even for someone like me who comes from a STEM background, I had never heard of the vast majority of these women—which is sad, but also makes me happy this deck exists and is bringing them to my attention!)
Because the major and minor arcana are so different, I want to discuss them separately. The science concepts represented in the major arcana are inspired. They use the traditional names of the cards and you have to look in the guidebook for what scientific idea they’re meant to evoke, it’s not explicit on the cards themselves. That said, it’s immediately obvious on nearly all of them, which is honestly pretty impressive because some represent pretty theoretical concepts, like “the strictures of academia.” Serious thought was clearly put into which idea should be depicted on each card, by someone who understands the nuance of meaning in the traditional tarot. Some of the art in the major arcana directly references the art and symbolism in the classic Rider-Waite-Smith deck, but the meanings for all the cards bring a fresh perspective and many are extremely clever or profound.
Some cards map pretty easily to their traditional interpretations—using the first fish to evolve to walk on land as the Fool makes perfect sense, and the depiction of Robert Oppenheimer and the trinity site as the Emperor is inspired. The Devil takes on the very idea doing science in the world of capitalism, navigating patents and paywalls and corporate greed, which works perfectly. Others are a little more abstract, but very insightful once you think about it. The Hermit uses the concept of brain imaging to reflect introspection and looking within for answers. The Wheel of Fortune depicts the Large Hadron Collider as a symbol of entropy, and the Hanged Man uses Schrödinger’s cat to represent paradox and suspension in time. Gravity is the concept behind the Lovers, which eluded me at first, but it’s all about scientific collaboration, research teams, and building off the knowledge of those who have come before, which I think is pretty beautiful actually. Not all valuable partnerships are romantic! (Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein are depicted as the Lovers themselves.)
As cool as the major arcana is, the minor arcana is really the meat of the Women of Science deck. Like a traditional deck, it’s broken up into four suits, but they’ve been renamed: micro (wands), nano (cups), astro (swords) and macro (pentacles). The theming is pretty neat, as each suit features women from different disciplines of science: astro is mostly astronomers, micro is mainly different types of chemists, nano is mathematicians, physicists and programmers, and macro deals with earth-themed disciplines like geology, archeology and botany. The name and discipline of each woman is featured prominently on the card, and you can look them up in the guidebook for more information about their lives and careers, as well as a sentence that sums up what you should take away from their story when you draw that card. I love this, because they’re insightful and it’s super helpful when you’re trying to actually read from the deck. As an example, Ada Lovelace pioneered the field of computer science and wrote the first computer program, even though a computer that could run it didn’t exist yet and wasn’t built in her lifetime—her sentence reads, “Your vision of the future could change the world, even if you don’t implement it yourself.”
It’s particularly helpful because the minor arcana cards just don’t map in a meaningful way with the traditional minor arcana like the major arcana cards do. Even the suits, while clever, don’t really reflect the themes of the classic suits in an intuitive way. This is an understandable decision, because I honestly don’t know how they would have achieved that within this concept. And I can definitely see the effort! In addition to the pithy insights they pull out of these women’s lives, I also love the aces, which are clearly meant to honor pioneers in each of their disciplines. Three are ancient women—astronomer Hypatia, chemist Tapputi and physician Merit-Ptah. (Ada Lovelace as the ace of nano is the exception, which makes sense as her discipline simply isn’t that old!)
Even the art style is notably different between the major and minor arcana. The major arcana uses a stylized limited color palette, but the minor arcana is two-tone black and shades of pink. I’d worry that 56 portraits of women, drawn in the same style, in the same two-tone colors, would become visually boring, but they don’t. The art style is simple and uncomplicated, but it really expresses something about each woman as an individual, both in their likeness and in the symbolism depicted around them, which relates to their life and work. (Marie Curie, for instance, is shown holding up the two elements she discovered, radium and polonium.) Both arcanas are illustrated by Matteo Farinella, who has a PhD in neuroscience from University College London but has made a career as an artist, doing educational comics and illustrations to make science more accessible to everyone. I love that this deck was drawn by someone who really understands and appreciates the science behind it, in addition to being a talented illustrator, and I think that comes through in the art.
I was afraid that the nature of the minor arcana would make this deck difficult to do actual readings from and, well… it’s a little true. It’s definitely not immediately intuitive as a seasoned tarot reader, since there isn’t a strong correlation between the art of this deck, at least the minor arcana, and the symbology of classic tarot, which is the library of understanding an experienced reader draws from. (The guidebook seems to understand this challenge and suggests several times that doing a reading using just the major arcana is allowed.) I chose to read from the full deck anyway; the book included instructions for the Motherpeace feminist tarot deck layout, which I wanted to try, and doing an 11 card reading from only the 22 major arcana seemed silly. I found the layout pleasantly insightful, and while I had to consult the guidebook a lot more than I’m used to, I was definitely still able to glean meaning from the cards I drew—my reading suggested that I’m driven by meaningful collaborative partnerships and that I’ll perform acts of secret heroism in my future, which all resonates with me. Still, ultimately, I think I’m going to end up using this deck for daily single-card draws. I like drawing a single card to set the tone for my day, and the insightful one-sentence descriptions of the cards lend themselves to that particularly well.
Overall, I’m deeply happy that a deck like this was able to spring into existence. It might not ever become my go-to deck for readings, but as someone who really values both science and tarot, I’m touched by this intersection of my interests. It makes me joyful to think that this deck may introduce scientists to the tarot and tarot readers to some incredible scientists that they may never have heard of otherwise. In my eyes, anything that bridges the gap between different groups of people in this way, which the Women of Science Tarot certainly does, is a truly beautiful thing.