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The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars

The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars

by Dava Sobel

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New from #1 New York Times bestselling author Dava Sobel, the "inspiring" (People), little-known true story of women's landmark contributions to astronomy

"A joy to read.” —The Wall Street Journal

Named one of the best books of the year by NPR, The Economist, Smithsonian, Nature


New from #1 New York Times bestselling author Dava Sobel, the "inspiring" (People), little-known true story of women's landmark contributions to astronomy

"A joy to read.” —The Wall Street Journal

Named one of the best books of the year by NPR, The Economist, Smithsonian, Nature, and NPR's Science Friday

Nominated for the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award

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.

Elegantly written and enriched by excerpts from letters, diaries, and memoirs, The Glass Universe is the hidden history of the women whose contributions to the burgeoning field of astronomy forever changed our understanding of the stars and our place in the universe.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Janna Levin
In the historically accurate version Dava Sobel tells in her careful and detailed style, the past is neither sanitized nor embellished. Guided by a historian's sacred principles, she lets the story emerge from the thorough research she documents. Sobel does not condemn or excuse or flatter or even analyze the characters. She does not interpret the past through the lens of the present. She barely interprets the past at all. Even her language emulates the phrasing of the sources, as though modernizing her account would distract readers, reminding them of the interloper who stands between them and sheer documentation. The result is a far more accurate telling, of course, and a much subtler one.
Publishers Weekly
★ 10/03/2016
Acclaimed science writer Sobel (A More Perfect Heaven) casts much-needed light on the brilliant and determined women behind two historic revolutions in astronomy: one scientific, one professional. In the mid-18th century, astronomers employed human “computers” to scan glass photographic plates and perform calculations. Only the Harvard College Observatory, directed by professor Edward Pickering, hired both men and women as computers. The women there—including Williamina Fleming, Antonia Maury, Henrietta Leavitt, Annie Jump Cannon, and Cecilia Payne—earned far less than their male counterparts but were eager for the work. As Sobel explains, it was the only way they could do science. Their research led to both the creation of a catalogue of stars still in use today and groundbreaking discoveries in stellar composition, motion, evolution, and a reliable way to calculate interstellar distances. Sobel knows how to tell an engaging story, and this one flows smoothly, with just enough explication of the science. She also reveals the long hours the women worked and their constant search for funding as well as their triumphs of discovery and the eventual acknowledgment of their achievements by their peers and public. With grace, clarity, and a flair for characterization, Sobel places these early women astronomers in the wider historical context of their field for the very first time. Agent: Michael Carlisle, InkWell. (Dec.)
From the Publisher
Named one of the best books of the month by Flavorwire, Bustle, Harper’s Bazaar, Real Simple, Refinery29, Men’s Journal, BBCand The National Book Review

“Ms. Sobel writes with an eye for a telling detail and an ear for an elegant turn of phrase. . . . [The Glass Universe is] a joy to read.” —The Wall Street Journal

“Sobel makes hard science palatable for the general audience. . . . [She] lucidly captures the intricate, interdependent constellation of people it took to unlock mysteries of the stars . . . The Glass Universe positively glows.” —NPR

"A peerless intellectual biography. The Glass Universe shines and twinkles as brightly as the stars themselves. –The Economist

“At once an exhaustive and detailed account of a breakthrough moment in the world of science, as well as a compelling portrait of pioneering women who contributed as much to the progress of female empowerment as they did to the global understanding of both astronomy and photography.” —Harper’s Bazaar

“An elegant historical tale…[from] the master storyteller of astronomy.” –The Boston Globe
"[Sobel] traces a remarkable line in American female achievement…[and] captures the stalwart spirit of Pickering’s female finds." —USA Today

“Sobel has distinguished herself with lucid books about scientists and their discoveries . . . [She] vividly captures how her brilliant and ambitious protagonists charted the skies, and found personal fulfillment in triumphant discovery.” —The National Book Review

“A fascinating and inspiring tale of . . . female pioneers who have been shamefully overlooked.” —Real Simple

"Sobel shines a light on seven 19th- and 20th-century women astronomers who began as 'human computers,' interpreting data at Harvard Observatory, then went on to dazzle...An inspiring look at celestial pioneers." —People

"An astronomically large topic generously explored." —O, The Oprah Magazine

"It takes a talented writer to interweave professional achievement with personal insight. By the time I finished The Glass Universe, Dava Sobel's wonderful, meticulous account, it had moved me to tears...Unforgettable." —Sue Nelson, Nature

"A compelling read and a welcome reminder that Ameri­can women have long desired to reach for the stars.” —Bookpage

"Sensitive, exacting, and lit with the wonder of discovery." —Elizabeth Kolbert, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sixth Extinction

"This is intellectual history at its finest. Dava Sobel is extraordinarily accomplished at uncovering the hidden stories of science." —Geraldine Brooks, New York Times bestselling author of The Secret Chord and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of March

“[Sobel] soars higher than ever before...[continuing] her streak of luminous science writing with this fascinating, witty, and most elegant history...The Glass Universe is a feast for those eager to absorb forgotten stories of resolute American women who expanded human knowledge." —Booklist, Starred Review

"Sobel knows how to tell an engaging story...With grace, clarity, and a flair for characterization, [she] places these early women astronomers in the wider historical context of their field for the very first time." —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review

Praise for The Planets

"[The Planets] lets us fall in love with the heavens all over again." —The New York Times Book Review 

"[Sobel] has outdone her extraordinary talent for keeping readers enthralled. . . . A splendid and enticing book." —San Francisco Chronicle

"An incantatory serenade to the Solar System." —Entertainment Weekly

Praise for Galileo's Daughter

"Sobel is a master storyteller. . . . She brings a great scientist to life." —The New York Times Book Review

Praise for Longitude

"This is a gem of a book." —The New York Times

"A simple tale, brilliantly told." —The Washington Post 

Praise for A More Perfect Heaven

"Ms. Sobel is an elegant stylist, a riveting and efficient storyteller, a writer who can bring the dustiest of subjects to full-blooded life." —The New York Times

"Lively, inventive . . . a masterly specimen of close-range cultural history."—The Wall Street Journal

Library Journal
When we think of computers, we usually think of devices that perform processes to store and process data. In the mid-19th century, the Harvard College Observatory began employing women as computers to calculate distances and interpret spatial data. Award-winning science journalist Sobel (Longitude; Galileo's Daughter) tells their story. Relying on letters, memoirs, and diaries, she describes their significant contributions to the emerging discipline of astronomy at a time when stellar photography had begun to have a tremendous impact on how data was gathered and interpreted. Sobel provides details of the persistent work inequities these women confronted. They earned less pay than their male counterparts and were not properly acknowledged through membership in professional societies or with available awards. Sobel's book records the impact of women such as Annie Jump Cannon, who designed a stellar classification system adopted by astronomers across the globe. Though this title isn't intended as a discipline-specific monograph, at times, it bogs readers down in scientific minutiae. VERDICT Readers who enjoyed Sobel's previous work will welcome this new title. It is a terrific catalog to match the exceptional work these women created in the course of their careers.—Faye Chadwell, Oregon State Univ., Corvallis
Kirkus Reviews
Popular science writer Sobel (And the Sun Stood Still, 2016, etc.) continues her project of heralding the many contributions of women to science.If you took an astronomy course in college, you learned a still-current classification system for the stars whose origins stretch back to the 1880s as well as a geography in which a star such as HD 209458—which “made news when modern detection methods located a planet in orbit around it”—finds its place in the star charts. Though the Henry Draper Catalogue bears a man’s name, it was the work of the women he hired as “computers” who did most of the analysis that fueled it. Draper, an astronomer and technologist, funded that work, overseen by a Harvard scientist named Edward Charles Pickering, who thought it ungallant to have women scrambling about in the cold and dark with the telescopes but thought that “women with a knack for figures could be accommodated in the computing room, where they did credit for the profession.” So they did, and Sobel’s heroines, at 25 cents per hour, made signal contributions to observational astronomy. Henrietta Swan Leavitt, for instance, took on the Great Nebula in Orion, discovering hundreds of variables, while the indomitable Williamina Paton Stevens Fleming ran an efficient shop while making enough advances on her own that, largely overlooked in her own country, she was made an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1906. Often, even as they made major discoveries, the “computers” of Harvard College Observatory left it to the males who ruled science to bask in their glory. More than recounting and celebrating the lives and work of these distinguished and decidedly unsung women, Sobel also provides insight into how basic science research is now supported, thanks to lessons learned in the military and commercial applications of once-arcane technologies—though, even after World War II and their contributions to it, women found it as difficult as ever to find scientific work. A welcome and engaging work that does honor to Sobel’s subjects.

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Penguin Publishing Group
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6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.40(d)

Read an Excerpt

Miss Cannon had classified one hundred thousand stars when she set the work aside to spend the summer of 1913 in Europe with her sister, Mrs. Marshall. They planned to attend three major astronomy meetings on the continent, plus all the banquets, garden parties, excursions, and entertainments that such international congresses entailed. On her previous trip to Europe, with her friend and Wellesley classmate Sarah Potter in 1892, Miss Cannon had made the grand tour of popular tourist destinations, camera in hand. This time she would go as a respected astronomer and the only female officer in her professional organization. At the 1912 meeting of the Astronomical and Astrophysical Society of America, the members had voted to change their name to the American Astronomical Society and to make her their treasurer. Now she would seek out her foreign colleagues, many of whom she knew only by reputation or correspondence, in their native settings.
“There are no women assistants,” Miss Cannon noted of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. Travel broadened her appreciation for the singularity of Harvard’s large female staff, although she easily befriended men wherever she went. At Greenwich, “Without the slightest feeling of being out of place, without the smallest tinge of embarrassment, I discussed absorbing work with one and another.” That evening the astronomer royal, Frank Dyson, called for Miss Cannon and Mrs. Marshall at their London hotel and escorted them to a soiree at Burlington House, the headquarters of the Royal Astronomical Society and four other scientific fraternities. “Never has it been my good fortune to have such a kindly greeting, such hearty good will, such wonderful feeling of equality in the great world of research as among these great Englishmen.” At the society’s meeting a few days later, she gave a formal presentation about her recent investigation into the spectra of gaseous nebulae.
Mrs. Marshall understandably avoided the scientific sessions, at which Miss Cannon inured herself to being the sole woman in a roomful of as many as ninety men. In Germany, she reported, “Not a single German woman attended these Hamburg meetings” of the Astronomische Gesellschaft. “Once or twice, two or three would come in for a few minutes but I was generally the only woman to sit through a session. This was not so pleasant but at the recesses the men were so kind that nothing seemed to matter, and at the luncheon women appeared in great numbers.”
In Bonn, where the Solar Union gathered from July 30 to August 5, the astronomers were treated to a flyby visit of a military zeppelin, a side trip to the Gothic cathedral at Cologne, a riverboat ride up the Rhine, and a gala night in the Bonn observatory that prompted the English-speaking delegates to sing “They Are Jolly Good Fellows” to Director Friedrich Küstner and his wife and daughters. “Luncheon and indeed all meals in Germany,” observed Canadian astrophysicist John Stanley Plaskett, “are a much more important and solemn function than with us and take at least twice the time.”
Pickering, an elder statesman in this community, spoke at several banquets during the week. He shared impressions of his previous stays in Bonn, a city he had long regarded as the world capital of photometry. It was here that the legendary Friedrich Wilhelm Argelander assembled the Bonner Durchmusterung star catalogue and perfected the Argelander method of studying variables by comparing them to their steady neighbors. Argelander’s own small telescope, still mounted at the Bonn observatory, proved an object of veneration for the visiting astronomers.
Only about half the members of Pickering’s Committee on Spectral Classification, first convened at Mount Wilson, had come to the Bonn meeting. Those present included Henry Norris Russell, Karl Schwarzschild, Herbert Hall Turner, and of course Küstner, of the local observatory. They met Thursday afternoon, July 31, to polish their report before Friday’s discussion and vote. The group had considered incorporating some symbols into the Draper classification that would account for the widths of spectral lines, but ultimately rejected the idea. Rather than retrofit the Draper system, they preferred to look forward and explore the possibility of an entirely new design for stellar taxonomy.
On Friday morning Chairman Pickering read the committee’s recommendation to the full assembly at the Physical Institute. He proposed postponing “the permanent and universal adoption” of any system until the committee could formulate a suitable revision. In the interim, however, everyone should foster the well-known and widely praised Draper classification. Approval of the resolution was swift and unanimous. Ditto the subresolution regarding a refinement originally suggested by Ejnar Hertzsprung and already practiced by Miss Cannon. It consisted of a zero subscript for lone letters. Going forward, A0 would denote a star of purely A‑category attributes, showing no B tendencies whatever. The new A0 reduced plain A to a “rough” categorization.
At the final session on August 5, the Solar Union dissolved its old committees and regrouped into new ones for the work to be done over the next three years, before they would all meet again in Rome. “When the names of committees were read,” wrote Miss Cannon, “I was very much surprised to find that I was put on the Committee on Classification of Stellar Spectra—and one of the novel experiences of the summer was to meet with this Committee. They sat at a long table, these men of many nations, and I was the only woman. Since I have done almost all the world’s work in this one branch, it was necessary for me to do most of the talking.”

Meet the Author

DAVA SOBEL is the author of five books, including the New York Times bestsellers Longitude, Galileo’s Daughter, The Planets, and The Glass Universe. A former New York Times science reporter and longtime contributor to The New Yorker, AudubonDiscover, and Harvard Magazine, she is the recipient of the National Science Board’s Individual Public Service Award and the Boston Museum of Science’s Bradford Washburn Award, among others.

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