Posted in Book Reviews

Book Review: The Glass Universe

How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars
By Dava Sobel
2016. Hardcover. 320pp. Viking.

In a time when women were expected to do the work astronomers couldn’t be bothered to do, the women of Harvard Observatory took control of their own stargazing and worked their way into standing as women of science. After the death of her astronomer husband, Mrs. Anna Draper wanted to continue his legacy of stellar photography. She donated money to the Harvard Observatory, under the direction of Edward Charles Pickering, to continue research into the stars using stellar photography. The women working under Pickering started as the wives, sisters, and daughters of the astronomers, but slowly began to shift to women studying or recently graduated from the women’s colleges.
Over the span of the work, the Observatory amassed approximately half a million plates that captured the night sky for years. Using these plates, Williamina Fleming, Annie Jump Cannon, Dr. Cecilia Helena Payne-Gaposhkin, and the other women of the Observatory were able to revolutionize their roles as members of the Observatory.
Written by Dava Sobel, author of Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, the book spans from Mrs. Draper’s project’s beginning to Dr. Payne-Gaposhkin becoming the first female professor of Harvard. With Pickering’s ability to find funding, the women were able to work to shine in their field as much as the stars they studied, leaving behind legacies written about even now.

Looking at the space advancements and studies we have today, from the Apollo missions to the more recent Cassini, it’s hard to think back to this time period. Sobel’s goal, to bring to light the women who would otherwise remain in the dark observatory of the 1880s, is well-realized, although a lot of the focus seems to be on Pickering and less on the women themselves. The stories don’t get too caught up in being flowery, nor do they stray too far into the scientific, but I do wish there was more about the women and their lives in the book. Pickering was instrumental in their successes, however I frequently felt as though I knew more about Pickering than the women themselves.
Sobel’s focus on Annie Jump Cannon, however, was well-realized, even though I didn’t realize the extent of her contribution to modern science. As she continued to gain renown through the novel’s detailed events, I was amazed at how much she accomplished in her lifetime. The fact that we have had so many advancements in technology since she identified her classification system, from our increased ability to identify stars and record their data, and yet we continue to use the classification system she outlined in the late 1800s is astounding to me. It shows that our technological advancements didn’t make the older discoveries obsolete, as we often believe to be the case. It was especially inspiring to see the legacy these women left for others who wanted to be a part of astronomy, but would have been disregarded because of their gender.

If you like to learn about astronomy and its history, I highly recommend this book. It’s a bit dry and a slow read, but definitely worth it. I enjoy listening to Planetary Radio’s podcast and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk, so this was very much in line with those interests. Of course, if you enjoyed this book and want further material, I highly recommend both of those podcasts.

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