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

A New York Times Book Review Notable Book

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

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

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143111344
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/31/2017
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 142,992
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)
Lexile: 1330L (what's this?)

About 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.

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.

Excerpted from "The Glass Universe"
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Copyright © 2017 Dava Sobel.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface xi

Part 1 The Colors of Starlight

Chapter 1 Mrs. Draper's Intent 3

Chapter 2 What Miss Maury Saw 21

Chapter 3 Miss Bruce's Largesse 40

Chapter 4 Stella Nova 56

Chapter 5 Bailey's Pictures from Peru 71

Part 2 Oh, Be A Fine Girl, Kiss Me!

Chapter 6 Mrs. Fleming's Title 89

Chapter 7 Pickering's "Harem" 105

Chapter 8 Lingua Franca 123

Chapter 9 Miss Leavitt's Relationship 141

Chapter 10 The Pickering Fellows 159

Part 3 In the Depths Above

Chapter 11 Shapley's "Kilo-Girl" Hours 179

Chapter 12 Miss Payne's Thesis 196

Chapter 13 The Observatory Pinafore 215

Chapter 14 Miss Cannon's Prize 232

Chapter 15 The Lifetimes of Stars 249

Appreciation 267

Sources 269

Some Highlights in the History of the Harvard College Observatory 273

Glossary 281

A Catalogue of Harvard Astronomers, Assistants, and Associates 285

Remarks 293

Bibliography 299

Index 307

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The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
ThoughtsFromaPage More than 1 year ago
The Glass Universe meticulously delineates the previously little-known story about the contributions of a group of women hired by the Harvard College Observatory as “human computers” beginning in the mid-1800’s. While Dava Sobel at times employs incredible scientific detail while relaying these women’s stories, overall The Glass Universe is a fascinating tale of the impact of a multitude of female astronomers on the field of astronomy. As the story develops, photography begins revolutionizing the field of astronomy creating a new field called spectrophotography. Accordingly, a number of these women begin studying the thousands of glass photographic plates created nightly at the observatory in Cambridge and at times from other areas including Peru and South Africa. The images created via photography magnified the views of the cosmos to degrees far beyond what the naked eye could see even with a telescope. As a result, the women (and some men too) discovered thousands of new stars, learned what stars are composed of, and characterized stars into groupings with similar traits. Sobel also pays tribute to the individuals who funded much of this research including Anna Draper whose husband was on the forefront of spectrophotography and sadly died young, Andrew Carnegie and Catherine Bruce, a wealthy New York socialite who came to love astronomy late in life. Because so many women participated in the development of a new understanding of the cosmos, there are a tremendous number of characters in The Glass Universe. Repeatedly while reading, I kept wishing that there was a character listing at the front of the book to help me keep track of them all. When I finished the book, I was happy to ascertain that Sovel had compiled a lengthy Catalogue of Harvard Astronomers, Assistants, and Associates at the end of the book. While it was helpful to peruse this after finishing The Glass Universe, I feel it would have been more useful at the front of the book instead of after I was finished reading. At the end of the book, Sobel also includes a timeline with the highlights of the Harvard College Observatory which places many of the developments and discoveries into a coherent, satisfying format. Sobel’s story is uplifting, and I loved reading about the recognition these women received at a time when women working was highly uncommon. Not only did their fellow workers at Harvard Observatory acknowledge the success and importance of these individuals, but astronomers worldwide respected and recognized the contributions made by them. I highly recommend The Glass Universe. Thanks to Viking Books and NetGalley for the chance to read this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
PierresFamily More than 1 year ago
The Glass Universe, by Dava Sobel, is the inspiring story about women who were pioneers in the field of astronomy, yet who most of us had never learned about in science class. Anyone who enjoys learning about the little-known but important contributions of women, will enjoy this book. It is the story of the human "computers" of Harvard University, who studied photographic plates to count stars. Sometimes the work was tedious, but they excelled at it. Some of the women were citizen scientists, some were college graduates who taught sciencd classes, and one was the first woman to earn a PH. D in the field. Just to give you one example, Williamina Fleming was credited with classifying over 10,000 stars and actually being the first person to discover 10 novas and over 200 variable stars. Today's classification system is still related to the one she helped to craft. It may sound like a dry story, but Sobel fills out the scientific history with the very human stories of the men and women whose work still is used today.I admit to being a science nerd, but I think that anyone should find the story inspiring.