Shares the story of the scientific contributions of a group of women working at the Harvard College Observatory from the late 1800s through the mid-twentieth century, tracing their collection of star observations captured nightly on glass photographic plates. - (Baker & Taylor)
Shares the lesser-known story of the scientific contributions of a group of women working at the Harvard College Observatory from the late 1800s through the mid-20th century, tracing their collection of star observations captured nightly on glass photographic plates that enabled extraordinary discoveries. - (Baker & Taylor)
The little-known true story of the unexpected and remarkable contributions to astronomy made by a group of women working in the Harvard College Observatory from the late 1800s through the mid-1900s. -- - (Baker & Taylor)
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. - (Penguin Putnam)
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.”
*Starred Review* Sobel (A More Perfect Heaven, 2011) continues her streak of luminous science writing with this fascinating, witty, and most elegant history of the women who worked in critical positions at the Harvard Observatory. Diving deep into the field of astronomy, Sobel shares the stories of the educated, talented, and determined women who sought careers studying the stars in the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. With her trademark research of countless diaries, letters, and more, Sobel has gleaned intriguing personal aspects of her subjects' lives, weaving them into the narrative alongside detailed passages describing the work they did studying glass photographic plates of the stars and cataloging thousands of discoveries. Readers with only the most cursory of interest in the night sky will find themselves beguiled by Sobel's prose and invigorated by this long-overlooked history of those whose resolute ambition paved the way for women scientists who followed. With the inclusion of the equally impressive female benefactors who made much of the observatory's work possible, The Glass Universe is a feast for those eager to absorb forgotten stories of resolute American women who expanded human knowledge. Learn these names and celebrate their greatness: Draper, Bruce, Fleming, Maury, Leavitt, Payne, Cannon. And Sobel, who soars higher than ever before.HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Best-selling popular-science luminary Sobel is a reader magnet, and her latest will get an extra lift as it rides the wave of Hidden Figures and its movie incarnation. Copyright 2016 Booklist Reviews.
Library Journal Reviews
Sobel first came to our attention with Longitude, the 1997 British Book of the Year, and achieved No. 1 New York Times best seller status a few years later with Galileo's Daughter. Here she chronicles the contributions made by women at the Harvard College Observatory from the late 1800s, with the hire of recent graduates from the new women's colleges like Wellesley and Vassar, through the 1956 appointment of Dr. Cecelia Helena Payne to the astronomy department as the first ever female professor at Harvard. Their work largely entailed examination of the glass photographic plates that captured the stars each night (hence the title) and totaled a half million plates in the era Sobel studies.
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Library Journal Reviews
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. Copyright 2016 Library Journal.