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The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the…

The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the… (2016)

by Dava Sobel

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This non-fiction account, subtitled “How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars,” is a history of the Harvard College Observatory and the women who both funded the scientific program there and performed a great deal of the research.

The women workers functioned as “computers” at a time when the machines we today call computers were not yet in existence. Many of the women came to the observatory when young and spent the rest of their lives doing astronomical work. There were six of them at first, later expanding to 14. They toiled for hours over glass plates of the stars made by astronomers in both the northern hemisphere at Harvard, and at Harvard's southern outpost in Arequipa, Peru.

The women subdivided the sky and examined the plates from each stellar region. They analyzed and recorded the brightness of each star with respect to the others on the plates, and looked for oddities - especially new and/or variable stars. They also identified the spectra of all of the stars. (Prisms inside the telescopes split the light of each star, revealing barcode-like lines indicating properties of stars such as chemical composition and temperature.)

The glass universe that grew in size year by year paralleled the one revealed above astronomers' heads with ever stronger telescopes.

Right from the outset, the author tries to disabuse readers of the commonly held notion that the female workers at the Harvard Observatory were underpaid and undervalued because they were women. Yes, they were paid pittance wages, but so was everyone else at the observatory; money for research was scarce. And they were far from undervalued. In fact, Edward Pickering, head of the Harvard Observatory for over 40 years - from 1877 to 1919, did all that he could to give credit to the women’s findings and to advance their positions. His successor, Harlow Shapley (Director from 1921 to 1952), did even more.

The most significant finding derived from the glass plates, one in some ways as earth-shaking as the findings of Galileo, was made by Henrietta Swan Leavitt, one of the “computers” at the observatory. She discovered that a certain type of pulsating star, called a Cepheid Variable, always exhibited a direct relationship between brightness and its period of alterations in brightness. The brighter the magnitude, the longer the period - always. So if one Cepheid Variable was not as bright as another but had the same period, it must be farther away, and that distance could be calculated mathematically. Cepheid variables became the markers of distance in space. Her discovery not only enabled astronomers to calculate distances in space, but showed that the Milky War was not the only galaxy in the universe, a truly revolutionary finding. Later, it helped demonstrate that the universe was expanding.

As a Nasa website points out,

"This method works up to 13 million light-years when Earth-bound telescopes are used. . . . Recently, space-based telescopes such as the Hubble Telescope, have used these stars to much farther distances. Looking at a galaxy in the Virgo cluster called M100, astronomers used the Cepheid variables observed there to determine its distance - 56 million light-years."

Although one purpose of this history is to highlight the achievements of the women at the observatory, Pickering plays a central role. He worked tirelessly to get whatever funds he could to operate the observatory and to reward budding astronomers. He helped usher in a new era that employed photography and spectroscopy to take astronomical findings to the next level. He ensured that the library of the glass plate universe was expanded, protected, and made available to any wishing to study the stars.

Astronomers no longer use glass plates, since everything is done digitally. But this does not mean the glass universe is without value. On the contrary, as the author observes:

“ . . . no matter how broadly or deeply modern sky surveys probe outer space, they cannot see what the heavens looked like on any given date between 1885 and 1992. The record preserved in the Harvard plate collection of one hundred years of starry nights remains unique, invaluable, and irreplaceable.”

Today, astronomers regularly consult the plates (over 500,000 of them!) to enrich and interpret their latest findings: “Celestial denizens undreamed of at the start of Pickering’s sky patrol - pulsars, quasars, black holes, supernovae, X-ray binaries - nevertheless left their marks on the plates.”

Evaluation: This tribute to tireless scientists including a small dedicated circle of women is well worth reading for an appreciation of the enormity of the effort of many people over many years behind scientific discoveries. Sobel also makes the point that while the men were generally assisted by wives, the women scientists who worked so long and so hard, also had homes and families to take care of, and they did it all.

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

This book was narrated admirably by Cassandra Campbell, who makes even the introduction of chapter numbers sound beautiful. She seamlessly takes on the pronunciation of different places in different languages, and it was a pleasure to listen to her.

Addenda: Harvard University is working to digitize and transcribe notebooks from some of Harvard College Observatory's most famous women computers, including Henrietta Leavitt and Annie Jump Cannon. They are looking for volunteers to help from home! You can read more about this and find out how to get involved here. ( )
  nbmars | Feb 26, 2018 |
This book was thoroughly researched and well written, but I would have appreciated more scientific and historical context. Was the classification of hundreds of thousands of stars inherently useful, or is it important just because it led to other discoveries, such as Leavitt's Law? Also, how do the ideas of that time relate to the current scientific consensus? I felt that everything in this book needed to be there, and was worth reading, but that more was needed to for me to appreciate the purpose of the work. The book also might have benefited from more context on women's scientific education and women's colleges at that time. ( )
  read.to.live | Sep 4, 2017 |
I really enjoyed this one, despite a nagging feeling that there was so much about the history of astronomy that I know I learned but have since forgotten. I certainly knew of the women of the Harvard Observatory but I was fascinated to learn more of their work and lives. My only complaint was that I think she could have picked a shorter time frame and really gone into more details. Every person is probably worth a full-fledged biography, though I know there are some out there. It also did somewhat peter out at the end as she moved quickly through the post WWII period when these jobs mostly came to an end. However, the manual work done by women in astronomy remained, I have posted above my desk the following from a 1965 paper:

"Star counts were made on a single plate of a field near the north galactic pole by Miss D.M. Pyper. The plate was subdivided for counting in such a way that miscounts produced by the fatigue of the counter would produce random rather than systematic variations across the plate."

Whenever I encounter a particularly tedious bit of work, I do feel an historical kinship to Miss Pyper.
1 vote amyem58 | Jun 27, 2017 |
In the style of HIDDEN FIGURES and THE ROCKET GIRLS, but not as fascinating. Historically, an accounting of the female presence and need for women to study and measure the stars. The "glass universe" refers to half a million plates of images, from the late 1800's, accrued by the Harvard College Observatory that were studied and cataloged by these women for use the world over, even now. Many of these women truly dedicated their lives to their work, dying in their 70's while still employed, to the exclusion of marriage and family. The Observatory staff was like a family and always led by an enigmatic director who recognized the talent of these women and did not restrain them in their thoughts or ideas. I found this a fascinating history lesson and have a greater appreciation of our solar system and it's importance in the everyday world. I just felt that the book was titled to capture the audience of the NASA computers when it was really a history of the Observatory primarily. ( )
  bogopea | Jun 13, 2017 |
In The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars, Dava Sobel examines the spectroscopy work performed at Harvard under the auspices of the Henry Draper Memorial. She seeks to counter the prevailing view of the female computers at Harvard as "underpaid, undervalued victims of a factory system" (pg. 262). Sobel's narrative begins with the work of Draper, who took spectroscopic photographs of the stars through a telescope, but died before having the opportunity to examine them. His widow, wishing to see the work completed, endowed the Harvard Observatory with a grant to catalogue the images and make further photographic and spectroscopic examinations, leading to the discovery of the chemical nature of the stars.
Sobel's work examines the lives and work of the women who worked as computers, counting the Fraunhofer lines on the stellar spectra and creating a system to interpret it. Most interesting of all, despite working in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in a field dominated by men, the ladies and their contributions were recognized both in the United States and abroad. Williamina Paton Stevens Fleming, who worked as a maid before establishing a system to classify the stars, and Annie Jump Cannon, a Wellesley graduate, both stand out in this narrative for their dedication and exactitude in their work as well as their lasting contributions to science. Their names should be spoken in the same breath as Isaac Newton and Einstein for how they changed our view of the cosmos.
The history Sobel examines is fundamental to our understanding of the universe and so has appeared before, in Cosmos and Alan Hirshfeld's Starlight Detectives, but her examination brings an unprecedented level of detail that demonstrates the significance of the women of the Harvard Observatory in their own time along with the challenges they faced, often working on a shoestring budget or without pay. Beyond her subjects' research, Sobel explores the nature of academia and academic funding in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, showing how research that would easily receive university and financial support in the twenty-first century struggled at times in the era on which she focuses.
Sobel's title refers to the massive collection of glass photographic plates accumulated in the Harvard collection as a result of their research (pg. 203). The research and writing are everything readers expect of Sobel and a delight to delve into, sharing in her narrative. Though unrelated to Sobel's work, the appearance of the book is rather lovely as well. ( )
  DarthDeverell | Jun 7, 2017 |
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To the ladies who sustain me:
Diane Ackerman, Jane Allen,
KC Cole, Mary Giaquinto, Sara James, Joanne Julian,
Zoe Klein, Celia Michaels, Lois Morris,
Chiara Peacock, Sarah Pillow,
Rita Reiswig, Lydia Salant, Amanda Sobel,
Margaret Thomspon, and Wendy Zomparelli
with love and thanks
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A little piece of heaven.
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Book description
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.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0670016950, Hardcover)

#1 New York Times bestselling author Dava Sobel returns with the captivating, little-known true story of a group of women whose remarkable contributions to the burgeoning field of astronomy forever changed our understanding of the stars and our place in the universe
In the mid-nineteenth century, the Harvard College Observatory began employing women as calculators, or “human computers,” to interpret the observations made via telescope by their male counterparts each night. At the outset this group included the wives, sisters, and daughters of the resident astronomers, but by the 1880s 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 to studying the stars captured nightly on glass photographic plates. The “glass universe” of half a million plates that Harvard amassed in this period—thanks in part to the early financial support of another woman, Mrs. Anna Draper, whose late husband pioneered the technique of 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-Gaposchkin, 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 a group of remarkable women who, through their hard work and groundbreaking discoveries, disproved the commonly held belief that the gentler sex had little to contribute to human knowledge.

(retrieved from Amazon Sat, 03 Sep 2016 17:22:32 -0400)

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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. --

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