Thursday, December 15, 2016

Glass Universe

The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars- Dava Sobel
Release Date: December 6, 2016

Rating (out of 5):

Synopsis: In the mid-nineteenth century, the Harvard College Observatory began employing women as calculators, or “human computers,” to interpret the observations their male counterparts made via telescope each night. At the outset this group included the wives, sisters, and daughters of the resident astronomers, but soon 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 from computation to studying the stars captured nightly on glass photographic plates. 

The “glass universe” of half a million plates that Harvard amassed over the ensuing decades—through the generous support of Mrs. Anna Palmer Draper, the widow of a pioneer in 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, who in 1956 became the first ever woman professor of astronomy at Harvard—and Harvard’s first female department chair. 


The Glass Universe is a new look behind the scenes of some of the most influential, ground breaking discoveries of the Harvard College Observatory and the women who helped make them.  Beginning in the late nineteenth century, Harvard University began hiring women to assist with astronomical computing.  Thanks to Harvard's Professor Pickering and donors Mrs Anna Palmer Draper and Catherine Wolfe Bruce, women received job opportunities considered unusual at the time.  Astronomy enthusiasts and mathematicians, amateurs and college graduates, they were paid less than their male counterparts but generally treated as equals in the workplace- even publishing work under their own names before women in America had the right to vote.  

I have virtually no knowledge of astronomy, Harvard, or the history associated with either, but I found The Glass Universe to be both easily understandable and very interesting.  It is the story of the development of astronomy in the late nineteenth-early twentieth century as much as it is the women of Harvard.  The story of one cannot be told without the other, and without following the advancements in photography that made so many of the discoveries possible.  I loved learning about Harvard's "glass universe" of glass negatives- photographs taken by telescopes to track stars and their movement.  Before electronic computers there were "human computers"- in Harvard's case largely women- who measured distances and movements, light and speed, of various stars in what I would imagine were mind-boggling calculations.  Eventually they began using the plates for their own research and their work helped to define the universe as we know it today.

This is not a book filled with equations and charts.  It is the human story behind the science. The Glass Universe is a perfect example of how all history can be told through the stories of people and how these stories can make any subject both interesting and relatable.  It is also the story of how Harvard's glass universe helped (perhaps accidentally) break many of the glass ceilings faced by women at the turn of the century.  

I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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