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

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Penguin, Dec 6, 2016 - Science - 336 pages
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 of 2017

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.
 

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

User Review  - Book Verdict

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 ... Read full review

The Glass Universe

User Review  - Publishers Weekly

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 ... Read full review

Contents

What Miss Maury Saw
21
Miss Bruces Largesse
40
Stella Nova
56
Baileys Pictures from Peru
71
Oh Be A Fine Girl Kiss
87
Lingua Franca
123
Miss Leavitts Relationship
141
The Pickering Fellows
159
Miss Paynes Thesis
196
The Observatory Pinafore
215
Miss Cannons Prize
232
The Lifetimes of Stars
249
Appreciation
267
the Harvard College Observatory
273
Glossary
281
Bibliography
299

In the Depths Above
177

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About the author (2016)

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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