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!