Miss Leavitt's Stars: The Untold Story of the Woman Who Discovered How to Measure the Universe (Great Discoveries Series)

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Overview

"Nearly a century ago, in a cramped room at the Harvard Observatory, a brilliant woman, now almost forgotten, found the key to the vastness of the universe." "Her name was Henrietta Swan Leavitt, and in the days when women were barred from scientific careers she was what was known as a "computer" - a human number cruncher, hired to calculate the positions and luminosities of stars in astronomical photographs. Fighting ill health and progressive hearing loss, straining over nearly indistinguishable specks on photographic plates, she discovered a new law, one that would transform the field of cosmology." "Because of Leavitt's discovery, astronomers could use a kind of star known as a "variable" - one whose brightness waxes and wanes in a regular cycle - as a cosmic yardstick. Her law was immediately enlisted to settle a question that was then dividing astronomers: how big is the universe? One side argued that the Milky Way galaxy was the extent of the universe. Using Leavitt's law, however, the legendary astronomer Edwin Hubble was able to prove that there were stars - indeed, whole galaxies - beyond the Milky Way, and that the universe, as we know now, is almost unfathomably large." George Johnson contrasts the magnitude of Leavitt's discovery to the quiet near-obscurity of her short life. Miss Leavitt's Stars is both an account of how we measure the universe and the story of a neglected genius.
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Editorial Reviews

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In the early 20th century, scientists battled over the cosmos. One camp, led by astronomer Harlow Shapley, insisted that the entire universe is contained in the Milky Way galaxy. Other, more radical theorists posited that the universe is so vast that the Milky Way is just one galaxy among billions, a view eventually (and famously) validated by the research Edwin Hubble. Previous histories of the great galaxy controversy have ignored the central role of Henrietta Swan Leavitt, the Radcliffe-educated astronomer who discovered how to calculate the distance to galaxies. New York Times science reporter George Johnson rectifies that omission with this touching human portrait of a forgotten heroine.
Simon Singh
Johnson, who is the author of a number of books and contributes science articles to The New York Times, was obviously drawn to Leavitt and her work many years ago, and he has written about it with penetrating intelligence. His book appears in a year when a debate about biases and barriers against women in science has generated enormous public interest, and the argument has spread far beyond the United States. Johnson's book is eloquent evidence in this discussion. He makes clear what Leavitt and her associates accomplished, given a meager opportunity. That says it all. No polemics needed.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
In the early 1900s the "computers" at the Harvard University Observatory were women, paid 25 cents an hour to pore over photographic plates taken with the university's telescope and to catalogue changes in the sizes and locations of stars. Henrietta Leavitt was an unmarried clergyman's daughter who began working at the observatory soon after graduating from Radcliffe. The director quickly recognized her skill and made generous allowances for the long absences occasioned by her apparently delicate health and family problems. New York Times science writer Johnson (Strange Beauty) relates that Leavitt's singular contribution to astronomy came when she recognized that cyclical changes in the size of Cepheids, giant variable stars, could be correlated with their luminosity. Once luminosity was known, a star's distance from Earth could be calculated. Leavitt wasn't interested in pushing her discovery to its logical conclusion, but other astronomers quickly grasped the ramifications for calculating the size of the Milky Way and the universe. In recent years, Leavitt has joined Rosalind Franklin in receiving long overdue recognition. Scant documentation exists for Leavitt's life aside from correspondence with the observatory, so readers shouldn't be surprised to discover that this excellent book is more about the search to measure the universe than about Leavitt's life. Nevertheless, it's a fine tribute to a remarkable woman of science. 10 illus. not seen by PW. Agent, Esther Newberg. (June) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
It's about time! Finally, the life and work of Henrietta Swan Leavitt is given more than the usual paragraph or two provided in a few encyclopedias and textbooks. It is unfortunate that circumstances were such that we have only the barest artifacts of her personal life, but luckily what has remained is her work, which this book does an outstanding job of describing in terminology and metaphor understandable to a wide audience. New York Times science reporter Johnson (Strange Beauty: Murray Gell-Mann and the Revolution of Twentieth-Century Physics) brings us into the world of the Harvard College Observatory from the 1870s to the 1930s, in which Leavitt, though deaf, joined other women "computers" hired to measure, categorize, and analyze stellar images on thousands of astronomical photographic plates. It was her work and insight on a specific kind of star that led to the method by which the universe could be measured. Johnson's elegantly written tribute to a pioneering astronomer is highly recommended for school, public, and general academic collections.-Margaret F. Dominy, Drexel Univ. Lib., Philadelphia Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Richard Panek - New York Times
“Illuminating. . . . This book . . . honors the memory of the lowly observatory assistant—no, make that astronomer—who taught us how to get from here to the farthest there there is.”
Rebecca Maksel - Booklist
“Spellbinding.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393051285
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 6/17/2005
  • Series: Great Discoveries Series
  • Pages: 162
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

George Johnson, an award-winning New York Times science reporter, is the author of several books, most recently A Shortcut Through Time and StrangeBeauty.He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 13, 2010

    Recommended Book

    For an independent reading assignment in my science class, I chose to read Miss Leavitt's Stars. We did a unit about space and astronomy, so I chose this book. I would recommend it to anyone mature enough to understand the serious notes in this novel or to anyone who is an avid reader about astronomy. This book was a biography written by the talented George Johnson, an award-winning science reporter for the New York Times. The idea for Miss Leavitt's Stars started when the author wanted to learn about how people learned that there was more to the universe than just the Milky Way Galaxy. He never planned to write a full biography about Henrietta Leavitt, but eventually, he decided to, after he "couldn't get [her] out of [his] mind." The book mainly focuses on Henrietta Swan Leavitt's life and works, but also includes other astronomers and important figures like Edward Pickering, Harlow Shapley, and Edwin Hubble. Miss Leavitt's Stars finally credited Henrietta Leavitt on her work with astronomy clearly. She's done so much to the astronomical field by figuring out how to measure the distance between galaxies using Cepheids. Without her, Edwin Hubble and Harlow Shapley probably wouldn't have been able to make their own discoveries. This biography really brings light to her "till-now obscured brilliance." In greater detail, Miss Leavitt's Stars is a page-by-page account of Henrietta Leavitt's life and major discoveries. As stated above, George Johnson also devotes some of the novel to Harlow Shapley and Edwin Hubble, but it's mostly how Miss Leavitt influenced Mr. Shapley and Mr. Hubble's own discoveries. After reading this novel, I know much more about astronomy and Henrietta Swan Leavitt's important discoveries in the field. That is why I recommend it. I've learned about the tiny things, like her family and life before becoming a "computer" at Harvard University, but her major discovery of the distance between galaxies as well. With Henrietta's Law, we can now measure great distances in the universe. My personal opinion of this book is that it is a lovely informative novel. George Johnson did a great job with that. However, it is slightly boring as it pulls out all those amazing big words that I don't understand and such. The dull parts are made up for, however, by the way Mr. Johnson makes Miss Leavitt seem so important, perhaps more important than Edwin Hubble and Harlow Shapley. Her credit, though a hundred years late, has finally brimmed through. When Henrietta Leavitt made her discovery, the fact that she was a girl tainted the magnitude of her findings. She did not get the credit she deserved at the time. Even now, we are only starting to recognize the importance of her discovery. Miss Leavitt influenced many other astronomers with her law. Without her figuring out how to measure the distance between galaxies, we probably wouldn't know until much later. By then, Edwin Hubble would probably be dead; there'd be no Hubble Telescope, et cetera. So Henrietta Leavitt's discovery was, suffice to say, a great one. With Henrietta's Law, Edwin Hubble was able to prove that there were whole galaxies beyond the Milky Way, and the universe is larger than a human mind could possibly imagine. Miss Leavitt's Stars is a great book overall. I was fascinated by her discovery and it's importance. I never fathomed how vast the universe was. People young and old should devote some of their time to reading this biography.

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