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.