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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

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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3681842,756 (3.71)55
  1. 10
    Miss Leavitt's Stars : The Untold Story of the Woman Who Discovered How to Measure the Universe by George Johnson (themulhern)
    themulhern: Both books cover the same subject, and they don't entirely agree, which is interesting. "The Glass Universe" is longer and broader, "Miss Leavitt's Stars" is shorter and more focused.

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» See also 55 mentions

English (17)  Spanish (1)  All languages (18)
Showing 1-5 of 17 (next | show all)
A complement to "Miss Leavitt's Stars" which I am also currently reading. This book takes a wider view, and covers a longer period. It manages to give more background to "Miss Leavitt's Stars", which was a help to me. I plan to read it in physical form, having only listened to it in audio so far.

It's funny how Pickering managed to be an ardent feminist while simultaneously routinely and deliberately underpaying his female employees.
  themulhern | Sep 23, 2018 |
What started as mild amusement at the underrepresentation of women in this book, turned into boredom (this books puts me, a professor in engineering, to sleep), and then ended in plain anger. I waffle between 1-2 stars. After getting to Cecilia Payne, and finally realizing that all of these women are called Miss instead of doctor or just by their name (as the men are) and are constantly othered and that the incredible contribution of Dr. Payne was (IMO) so poorly communicated and the story of how she was led to doubt even herself... it's preposterous to call this a book about women in science. it's a book that has women. furthermore, I don't think the explanations of the science and their meaning or import are adequate.

I found the narrative to be much too chronological. I didn't feel that it maintained the threads of the scientific endeavor or the personalities. After reading reviews with Dava Sobel, it seems that she had a very hard time trying to put all the material together. I can definitely appreciate the book a lot more from that perspective, but I suspect there was a publishing push due to Hidden Figures that left the book unpolished. Also, I am aggravated by the fact that so much of the book is about men (esp first half) and that all the women are Miss or Mrs. or otherwise designated by their relationships to men .


here are my prior thoughts:

As a PhD in engineering, I thought this would be inspiring. It's not, it's frustrating and boring. So many science and history books end up like a jumble or chronological list of facts and anecdotes. This book is no exception, in my opinion. I understand the desire to stay close to the material.... but I don't think it's achieved.

it seems the author wrote the book with mostly information created by men (journals, letters) and so we end up with four pages about men for every page about women.

the discoveries are jumbled with financing. the chronological organization doesn't really aid the reader, it just confuses since most of the astronomy seems to be described in generic terms and there no real theme to the chapters.

this book is neither about women in science or astronomy. it's about the director of the Harvard Observatory, a bunch of other dudes, and the choice of letters for classification of stars and financing of the Observatory by women. ( )
  CassandraT | Sep 23, 2018 |
In the mid-19th century, the Harvard Observatory began employing women as computers, to do the calculations that were the necessary next step after observations were made and recorded. It was considered inappropriate to subject women to the rigors of nighttime observation work, but there was no reason they couldn't do the essential mathematics. Initially, these women were often family members of the director or other astronomers, introduced to the field by their husbands, brothers, or fathers. As time went on and the demand for good computers grew, though, it became a field of science unusually open to women who were increasingly able to pursue formal scientific education.

That need grew in part because another woman, Mrs. Anna Draper, heiress to the Draper fortune, wanted to support her late husband's dedication to photographic study of the stars. Through her support, Harvard amassed half a million glass photographic plates, which could be studied in far more detail and precision than hand-drawn records that preceded them.

The women of the Harvard Observatory, whether wives, sisters, and daughters at the outset, or later, graduates of the women's colleges of Smith, Vassar, and Wellesley, or even, in one case, a former maid, Williamina Fleming, recruited by the observatory director, made major discoveries. Fleming discovered ten novae and over three hundred variable stars. Annie Jump Cannon developed the stellar classification system still in use today. Dr. Cecelia Helena Payne-Gaposchkin became not just Harvard's first female professor of astronomy, but also its first female department head.

They weren't just doing the boring, tedious stuff, as sometimes assumed now. They were doing ground-breaking scientific work, collaborating in what might now seem surprising equality with the men of the observatory.

These are fascinating stories, and well told by Sobel and well read by Campbell. In addition, this audiobook does include the sources, glossary, and other after-matter that are an essential part of the book, making pursuit of further information about any of the subjects that much easier.

Highly recommended.

I bought this audiobook. ( )
  LisCarey | Sep 19, 2018 |
The view of the Harvard College Observatory under the directors Edward Pickering and Harlow Shapely and the women calculators and astronomers who worked and build reputations there is almost all pretty high level more a discussion of a not quite accidental group of women who made substantial contributions to astronomy and astrophysics. There is almost no hint of what the community life or individual life of the dedicated women was like, and lacking any real villain beyond a crushing paternalistic system, the only hint of scandal Pickering's somewhat profligate and decidedly glory hound of a brother was always geographically distant, and unwillingness of Harvard's President Lowell to accept women as officially associated with Harvard is not dissected as to whether it had to do with astronomy or women and he was hardly an exception if the latter. So this isn't quite the interesting tale of [Longitude], but it is a painless discussion of late 19th and early 20th century astronomical advances. ( )
  quondame | Jul 16, 2018 |
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 |
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Dava Sobelprimary authorall editionscalculated
Bouvard, LaurenceNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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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.
The year 1925 brought belated recognition for Henrietta Leavitt, from an admirer who did not yet know that she had died. “Honoured Miss Leavitt,” began the letter of February 23 from Gosta Mittag-Leffler of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. “What my friend and colleague Professor von Zeipel of Uppsala has told me about your admirable discovery of the empirical law touching the connection between magnitude and period length for the S. Cephei-variables of the Little Magellan’s Cloud, has impressed me so deeply that I feel seriously inclined to nominate you to the Nobel prize in physics for 1926, although I must confess that my knowledge of the matter is as yet rather incomplete.” The writer, a ferocious advocate for the recognition of women in science, had agitated in 1889 to gain a full professorship at Stockholm University College for the Russian mathematician Sofia Kovalevskaya. In 1903 he successfully pressed the Nobel committee to include Madame Marie Curie in the physics prize being awarded to her husband, Pierre, and their countryman Henri Becquerel, the discoverer of radioactivity.
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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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