Miss Leavitt’s Stars by George Johnson 

I saw this book at the library back in March when I was participating in Doing Dewey’s Women in Science Event. Since I already had a reading plan I put this book to the back of my mind for a later time. When I read The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel I was introduced to Henrietta Swan Leavitt and her period- luminosity relation: Leavitt’s Law. I knew then that once I finished reading The Glass Universe that I wanted to read this book and learn more about Henrietta Swan Leavitt.


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However, Miss Leavitt’s Stars by George Johnson is not a detailed biography. But, this is not the author’s fault. He tells us immediately in the preface that, although she deserves a “proper biography”, she will most likely not get one because of the “faint trail she left behind”. I wasn’t sure that I would like this book because, really, I wanted a “proper biography”. In the end, I’m so glad that I read it because I really enjoyed it.

This book was published in 2005, so it’s not a new book. However, the first half of this book had a familiar cast of characters from the Harvard Observatory that I immediately recognized from The Glass Universe: Edward Pickering, Harlow Shapley, and briefly, Annie Canon Jump and Cecelia Payne. The first half of the book focuses on Henrietta Swan Leavitt, while the second half focuses on Edwin Hubble and how he used her findings of the Cepheid variable to make his own discovery: we are not the only galaxy in the Universe. In fact, not only are there are numerous galaxies out there, but the Universe is expanding! To me, this part of the book was fascinating! Reading about how they realized that there were other galaxies out there was actually pretty thrilling. And, it seems the more they study the Universe, the bigger it gets. I could keep on reading this kind of stuff for another 100 pages!

Miss Leavitt was a human computer, much like the ladies at NASA in Hidden Figures. However, her work consisted of studying variable stars on photographic plates. Through her study she discovered a relationship “…between the brightness of these variables and the length of their periods…”P 43.  What does this mean? What exactly did she discover? A new law known as the Cepheid yardstick, which was  ” …a way to measure through great stretches of space” P 44.  Of course, a lot of work was involved before her “…stars could be turned into true yardsticks…” p 53,  but it is this work that others would build on to reveal a Universe vastly larger than anyone could have fathomed.

 She certainly did a lot of painstaking work and George Johnson makes an interesting point that women were valued “…for being good at detail work…but deeper matters were still reserved for the men”. This book made me see Edward Pickering in a less favorable light. There were a few negative quotes and comments about Edward Pickering that surprised me. Dava Sobel’ s The Glass Universe really painted him in a positive way. Yes, she mentioned some criticism from Williamina Fleming, his maid who became an astronomer,  in her journal about his demanding too much from her, but overall she seemed to view him favorably. This book added some contrast to that picture. In general, he was probably a well liked Director who treated the women at the Harvard Observatory with respect, and gave them an opportunity to work in science, a limited field of study for women at that time, but he also may have either limited their options or asked for more than he should have from them. I got the impression that he asked too much of Henrietta Swan Leavitt. I think it’s worth mentioning that Johnson tells us that her findings were  “… a work to take pride in.  Ph.D.s have been awarded for less.” (P. 58)  It sounds like she was doing much more than “detail work”.

This book is part of the “Great Discoveries” series published by W.W. Norton; there are 14 books in this series which highlight discoveries in math and science. This is the first book in this series that I have read so I can’t compare it to any of the other books. It’s a short book of only 132 pages, it’s easy to read and the author covers a lot of material and time in a short space. He doesn’t shy away from the science, but he doesn’t get so deep with science either that he looses me. I think he did a very good job of educating me on the science involved and really helped me to understand her discovery and it’s significance.

I believe George Johnson wrote this book out of a real respect for Henrietta Swan Leavitt and wanted to give her due credit for her contribution to science. I think he succeeded because he gave me a closer look at what she did and helped me to understand her work and how it was used by others to measure distance in space. When I hear or read about Edwin Hubble, and his very significant and fascinating contribution to astronomy, I will also remember Henrietta Swan Leavitt and her work with Cepheid variables.

 This book may not appeal to everyone, but if your interested in science and want to understand Miss Leavitt’s work, how others added to it and what they discovered in the process, then you may find this book to be an interesting read.  



Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

Well, I’m working my way through my TBR pile. My most recent read was:


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And it did not disappoint.

In this story, the new owner of the Panama Hotel has found the belongings of several Japanese-American families in the basement. These items were put there for safe keeping before the families were sent off to internment camps during WW II.  The owners never went back for their things and now it is like discovering and opening a time capsule. As our protagonist, Henry Lee, opens this time capsule we are transported back in time, to the 1940’s, to learn about his story and to find out what happened at that time.

This is a work  of historical fiction that calls attention to the treatment of Japanese-Americans during WW II on the West coast. 

 In many ways this story reminded me of the book I just finished reading: Orphan Train.  Much like Orphan Train, this is another story with a dual timeline. Also, similar to Orphan Train, we find the protagonist going through old boxes and once precious possessions in the present that trigger memories of the past. This time, the past is what happened to the Japanese-Americans in Seattle during WW II and a special relationship that blossomed in the midst of that chaos.

Once again, for me, it was the story that took place in the past that was the most interesting. I saw how anti-Japanese sentiment grew into racism and hatred. The author also shows the evacuation at Bainbridge Island, which, I learned, was the first place on the West coast where Japanese-Americans had to leave their homes and were then forced into camps. It seemed to mark the beginning of a sad course of events in American History.

There were some really heartbreaking scenes in this novel that I won’t forget- and don’t want to -that illustrated the lengths people went to to show that they were loyal Americans: they were burning treasured family possessions to prove that they were not a threat. This was the most heart-wrenching scene for me. However, the scene depicting the Bainbridge Island evacuation was also heartbreaking. 

Despite the serious subject matter of the internment of Japanese-Americans during WW II, this is actually a sweet story of friendship in the most unlikely of places. In a way it reminded me of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (although a very different format) because of the sweet romance that develops despite the devastating events of WWII.

If I had a complaint about this book it would be that I wanted more details about how Japanese-Americans were forced to register, the various evacuations and camp life. But, that is not the primary focus of the book. However, to the author’s credit, he made me want to learn more about this period in American History.

This is primarily a story about relationships; a story about finding something beautiful and precious in the midst of pain and suffering.  I’m glad that I finally read this book. It was indeed bittersweet, however,  I would definitely recommend this book to others.

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

This book has been on my TBR for a while now and I’m glad that I finally read it. I enjoyed this book but it was very sad. It made me aware of what was, to me, an unknown page in American history: orphan trains. I don’t think that I will forget this book, or the protagonist, Niamh Power, anytime soon.


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The story is about Niamh and her family, who emigrate from Ireland and come to America to start a new life in New York. This could have been another story of what life in the tenements was like, but it went in a different direction. Sadly, Niamh is orphaned and placed on an “orphan train” to find a home in the Midwest. This is her story.

From 1854 to 1929 orphan trains brought children from the East coast to the Midwest to find homes and I’m sure it started as a good idea. Some children  found loving families this way, but others did not.

This book is really sad, and yet, it was hard for me to put it down. It has a dual timeline: the present in 2011 with Molly, a foster girl who has been bounced around, never really fitting in, who is sent to do community service by helping a widow, Vivian Daly, clean out her attic. As they go through Vivian’s boxes we go back in time, starting in the 1920’s, and learn about Vivian’s story.

And, Vivian’s story is so sad. No child deserves a childhood like that. There were strict rules on the train, very little comfort, and constant stress on the importance of finding a family. These children lost just about everything and you get a sense of the fear they felt.  You also get an idea of what it must have been like for these children to be inspected like cattle to see if they could be of use in a home or on a farm. 

But, I kept wondering, “How can this be legal?” The hope was that the children on the “orphan train” would be adopted by families, but what was promised was that if a family took them in and fed them, clothed them and sent them to school, then the kids would help them around the house or farm. However, it seems that there was no protection for the children or any follow ups to ensure they were treated well. Anything could happen and it probably did.

It was distressing when Vivian, who was named Dorothy earlier in the novel, reported abuse, and the children’s aid worker did not believe her. Worse, since he didn’t have a place for her, he was going to send her back! As an orphan, she had few, if any, rights. How many children experienced something similar during that period? 

Also, a quick note on identity. When we meet our young protagonist her name is Niamh. But her name was changed by the first family who took her in. And, with each change of her name, she sheds more of her past. There is very little she has to connect her to her past or her family. These kids have lost so much in their young lives, their culture and beliefs may be all they have left. It was just heartbreaking.

The book is well written and descriptive. The story is engaging but I was definitely more drawn into the storyline about Vivian’s past. I appreciate that this story shed light on this situation. I had never heard of an “orphan train” prior to this book and it’s a subject worth reading more about. 

The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel

Dava Sobel has done it again! She beautifully weaves together history, biography and science in her newest book, The Glass Universe. Once again, she has opened my eyes to the world of science and discovery, the people involved and the conventions they defied. This time, I learned about the women of the Harvard Observatory and the discoveries and contributions they made to science.


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Summary from goodreads:

In the mid-nineteenth century, the Harvard College Observatory began employing women as calculators, or “human computers,” to interpret the observations made via telescope by their male counterparts each night. At the outset this group included the wives, sisters, and daughters of the resident astronomers, but by the 1880s the female corps included graduates of the new women’s colleges—Vassar, Wellesley, and Smith. As photography transformed the practice of astronomy, the ladies turned to studying the stars captured nightly on glass photographic plates. The “glass universe” of half a million plates that Harvard amassed in this period—thanks in part to the early financial support of another woman, Mrs. Anna Draper, whose late husband pioneered the technique of stellar photography—enabled the women to make extraordinary discoveries that attracted worldwide acclaim. They helped discern what stars were made of, divided the stars into meaningful categories for further research, and found a way to measure distances across space by starlight. 

Their ranks included Williamina Fleming, a Scottish woman originally hired as a maid who went on to identify ten novae and more than three hundred variable stars, Annie Jump Cannon, who designed a stellar classification system that was adopted by astronomers the world over and is still in use, and Dr. Cecilia Helena Payne-Gaposchkin, who in 1956 became the first ever woman professor of astronomy at Harvard—and Harvard’s first female department chair. 

Elegantly written and enriched by excerpts from letters, diaries, and memoirs, The Glass Universe is the hidden history of a group of remarkable women who, through their hard work and groundbreaking discoveries, disproved the commonly held belief that the gentler sex had little to contribute to human knowledge.

There is a lot going on in this book. It starts out in the 1880’s and runs through the 1940’s and we read how the Harvard Observatory, the ladies involved and the science developed over time. It was a project that began as a way for a widow, Anna Palmer Draper, to continue her husband’s work in the field of stellar photography. She generously funded the Henry Draper Memorial to carry on his name and work, and the research was carried out at the Harvard Observatory.  Many of the women working on this project were recent graduates from some of the women’s colleges like Radcliffe and Wellesley.  One noteable exception is Williamina Fleming.  She was originally the  Pickering’s maid, but went on to become an invaluable presence at the Harvard Observatory and would go on to make her own contributions to science. 

The fascinating thing is how this project evolved into so much more. Not only was a highly developed classification system created, but, by studying variable stars, scientific discoveries were made. It was through variable stars that Henrietta Swan Leavitt discovered a “period-luminosity relation”, which is hard to wrap my brain around, but it is still used today “…to measure the current expansion rate of the universe” P. 262. Later, Cecelia Payne would be the first to realize that the chemical make up of stars consisted of an abundance of hydrogen and helium. They went from classifying stars to making scientific discoveries.

One thing that really struck me was how unique the Harvard Observatory was. By all accounts, it was a positive work environment;  these ladies may have been paid less, but their work was truly valued.  Another interesting point is that the work was funded by 2 women: Anna Palmer Draper and Catherine Wolfe Bruce. These two wealthy women provided the financial support necessary that would allow pictures to be taken across both the Northern and Southern hemisphere. 

It was nice to read how a bastion of learning, like Harvard, welcomed and respected these women. At that time, there were very few places where women had the opportunity to work in science and make lasting contributions in this field.  They seemed to really enjoy their work and the people they worked with. And the directors, Edward Pickering and later Harlow Shapley, respected and supported them.

The book covers a good 80 years of history. There are a lot of people involved and a lot of changes and growth happens during that time. If your already a fan of Dava Sobel, like me, you will find this to be yet another wonderful story combining history and science. A worthy and inspiring read. Pick it up today!

Modern Girls by Jennifer S. Brown 

Modern Girls. Isn’t every generation modern when compared to the previous one? Isn’t this the goal? We move forward through hard work, education and often with the support of our family. 

The concept of what it means to be “modern”-of old world vs. new world customs- lies at the heart of Jennifer S. Brown’s debut novel. It looks at a mother/daughter relationship and how each is modern in her own eyes and reveals a history of sacrifice and love that made their lives possible.


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The story is told as a dual narrative alternating between Rose and her daughter, Dottie. Rose is a Russian-Jewish Immigrant who stood who up to the Czar’s Army and then fled to America to start a new life. She is now raising a family with her husband in New York’s Lower East Side, but longs to return to political activism.  Her daughter Dottie is 19 years old and just became head bookkeeper at work; she is smart- a whiz with numbers- and also has an eye for fashion. She has a boyfriend and is patiently waiting for him to propose. Both women consider themselves to be modern and they both have a problem: they are pregnant and don’t want to be.

Rose is ready to get her life back as her youngest is about to start heder.  Dottie is in the awkward position of having to explain that she is pregnant…and the father isn’t her boyfriend, Abe.  This story takes place in New York in 1935 when women had few choices available to them, but Rose and Dottie will make their own choices with the limited options available at that time.

The book deals with several issues: immigration, education, poverty, abortion and women’s rights, but at the center of the novel is a story that focuses on a mother/daughter relationship and the changes that take place in these two women as they both deal with their pregnancies and life’s unexpected changes.

For most of the story I liked Rose more than Dottie, but Dottie is young and finding her own way. I enjoyed the political conversations that took place and wished there were more of them. Rose’s story stresses the role religion played in her life and how it differed from the rest of her family. Her story also has more history and political discussion than Dottie’s and I found this more interesting. Throughout the book, Rose is worried about her brother, Yussel, who is stuck in Europe-Poland to be more precise – and can’t get a Visa to enter the US. She encourages her friends to write letters opposing The Johnson-Reed Act which put a quota on Jewish immigrants. This was a reminder that there were limits on the number of people who could come into the country. Although there were many who came to America to start new lives, there were many more who were turned away. Yussel, who is Jewish, is in Poland with his family in 1935. This is not good and we know from history that he has to get out of there ASAP!!  On a different political note, there is a memorable scene in the novel where Rose takes her youngest son to a political rally, when things start to heat up she realizes that she has to choose: political activism or motherhood. It was sad because there was a part of herself that she couldn’t fully express.  Rose’s story also cast a light on the Immigrant experience at the time. I enjoyed learning more about Rose’s childhood and saw how her extreme poverty led to her political convictions, but I also saw how her mother’s love gave her the freedom to escape to America and create a new life for herself. Her mother wanted more for Rose than she could have in Russia.

For most of the story Dottie just wasn’t as interesting. What was interesting was that Rose never taught Dottie to sew so she would never have to work with her hands. Rose wanted her to use her brain and sacrificed to make a way for her to go to college. Dottie was intelligent, and had a job in Manhattan as head bookkeeper, so she was already headed in a good direction. With the finances available, college would have been an option. However, given Dottie’s situation, she was advised to have an abortion. In 1935 this was illegal and the book provides a glimpse of the whispers, secrecy and medical problems that so many experienced. Dottie, however, wants to keep her baby and is desperately thinking of ways to get this accomplished. I came to really like and respect her as she tried everything she could to keep her baby. She ends up creating a new life for herself which made for an emotional read and at the end I couldn’t put the book down. 

This story is engaging and I enjoy dual narratives so this format worked well for me. This is more fiction than historical fiction, but it was the historical aspect that I found the most interesting. I would have enjoyed just reading about Rose’s story and getting a better look at her political activism in Russia, and then her experience in coming to America, raising a family and creating a life here. There is so much to Rose and her story that draws me in.

But again, it is the mother/daughter relationship between Rose and Dottie that lies at the heart of this story. It is an interesting story and if Jennifer S. Brown decides to writes a sequel, I will definitely pick it up!

Happy Earth Day!

Happy Earth Day!

Forest Habitat

By Jon Sullivan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I wanted to share a nature poem with you on this Earth Day and Emily Dickinson just seemed to capture the beauty and inspiration found in nature’s simplicity so well.

Isn’t it nature’s seeming simplicity that beckons us to draw near? The squirrels-whom I adore- the bees, crickets, thunder…rainbows, lakes, butterflies. They bring peace and joy to my heart…well, except for the bees which I keep a close eye on when they too close for comfort.  The truth is, though, that the natural world is complex. There are vital ecosystems at work keeping everything in much needed balance and “harmony”. Nature teaches us how everything is connected and that we are part of a much larger community that we call home.  Let’s appreciate nature and learn from her, and make wise choices to protect her in the process.

None of Emily Dickinson’s poems are titled. This poem is number 668 from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson Edited by Thomas H. Johnson, which happens to be the collection of Emily Dickinson’s poetry that I own and love.

“Nature” is what we see-

The Hill-the Afternoon-

Squirrel-Eclipse- the Bumble bee-

Nay-Nature is Heaven-

Nature is what we hear-

The Bobolink- the Sea-

Thunder- the Cricket-

Nay- Nature is Harmony-

Nature is what we know-

Yet have no art to say-

So impotent Our Wisdom is

To her Simplicity.

The Stargazer’s Sister by Carrie Brown 

This has been a great reading month!  I have had a wonderful time learning more about women in science. And, I especially enjoyed reading about, astronomer, Caroline Herschel in the  The Stargazer’s Sister by Carrie Brown. I am so glad Doing Dewey hosted this wonderful event during the month of March. I had a blast with the reading and plan to continue reading more about women in science.

The story follows Caroline Herschel’s life from her unhappy, hopeless childhood in Hanover to her life in England where she worked alongside   her brother William as an invaluable assistant. She eventually became an astronomer in her own right, but before this she endured  a difficult childhood and then devoted service to her brother.

She loved her brother, but she was also grateful to him. During the 18th century, women had no independence or freedom; a girl went from her father’s house to her husband’s house. For Caroline, there would be no husband and she knew it. As a young girl she contracted typhus, which left her face scarred and stunted her growth. William Herschel brought her to England to live with him; he educated her to work with and support him. This may sound selfish, but in a very real way, he gave  her a life of her own; a life filled with wonder and discovery, joy and passion. Together, they studied the skies and made discoveries that proved to the world that the universe was much bigger than anyone realized.  It was William who inspired her to look to the skies when she was a little girl and both of them would go on to make history in the world of astronomy.

Caroline and William worked together and their personal and professional lives were intertwined. William’s discoveries and contributions to astronomy are detailed in the book as part of Caroline’s story. I must say that he was very interesting! Among other things, he was the man who created the 20 and 40 foot telescopes of the 18th century in order to see further into the cosmos-and he succeeded: he discovered Uranus. But, Caroline was his rock of strength and support; she was the woman behind the man. She worked from sunrise to sunset with little sleep. During the day she kept house: she cooked, cleaned and entertained guests and at night, she was by his side at the telescope, often in the freezing cold, providing assistance and support. When she learned not to waste time sleeping she copied his notes, wrote letters, learned the necessary mathematical skills in order to help him with his work and as a woman, she kept house.

The writing is beautiful and the author draws me into Caroline’s world. I really got a sense of how much Caroline sacrificed to support her brother, but it was a labor of love. She was grateful to him for taking her away from her mother in Hanover; she also recognized his brilliance and wanted to be a part of history by supporting him. For me, one of the most memorable scenes in the book is when William expects her to pound and sift dung to make molds for the mirrors. She is shocked that he is asking her to do more and that. But she agrees because she wants to be a part “…in the great work of their life, even if it means sifting dung” (p 191).

Carrie Brown  shows us how indispensable Caroline Herschel  was to her brother and I thought a real turning point came when Caroline realized that it was “more engaging…to be the stargazer than to be the stargazer’s assistant” (p 199).  This comes at a time when William is often away from home (he just discovered a planet and had the attention of the  King of England). As a result, she becomes more and more independent. It is during this time that she makes her first discovery: a comet!

This is a wonderful work of historical fiction! The author makes a few departures from historical facts in the novel, but she explains the changes at the end of the book. Some changes, like Caroline’s love interest later in life, really added to the story.  This book provides a glimpse of life during the 18th century and allows the reader to see the strong gender bias of that time. William and Caroline simply did not have the same choices and you really get a good sense of just how limited the options were for women: marriage or keeping house for a family member. Caroline lived by these rules, but found freedom within them. I was glad when Caroline left Hanover and I enjoyed reading about how she grew as an individual and achieved success and respect of her own. 

How about you? What have you read during Women’s History Month?