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

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The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the StarsThe Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars by Dava Sobel

Dava Sobel has long done great work in giving major events and people in science a compelling and engaging narrative, whether it be Nicolaus Copernicus in A More Perfect Heaven, Galileo and his daughter Suor Maria Celeste in Galileo’s Daughter, or John Harrison in Longitude. In her newest work, The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars, her focus shifts slightly from the singular to the plural, telling the story of the group of women who worked as “human computers” at Harvard analyzing the Observatory’s glass plates — a massive photographic record of the stars’ movements in the skies. Their work led to some of the most important breakthroughs in astrophysics, including the still-used classification system for stars — the Henry Draper Catalog or System.

In fact, Sobel’s story begins at the Draper mansion, the dark November night of 1882 partially illuminated by the newfangled electric lights invented by Thomas Edison, who was one of the 40 guests that evening, along with a host of other members of the National Academy of Sciences. Henry Draper had been an early pioneer on stellar photography, and his wife Anna had quickly caught the astronomy bug as well, becoming:

…a willing partner in observation as in marriage. How many nights had she knelt by his side in the cold and dark, spreading foul-smelling emulsion on the glass photographic plates he used with his handcrafted telescopes?

Unfortunately, the party that November night was nearly their last night together, as Henry died only five days later. Keen to keep his legacy alive, Anna Draper became a major benefactor and tireless advocate of the Harvard University thanks to her and Henry’s close relationship with its director Edward Pickering. Her bequests to the observatory of both money and equipment paid for telescopes, staff, research, and publication over the ensuing decades, combined with Pickering’s zeal in encouraging women in the field, allowed “the ladies of Harvard University” to achieve their life’s work.

And what work it was. Williamina Flemings eventually became the first woman granted (after more than a few years and a little resistance by those less enlightened than Pickering) an official title by Harvard thanks to her work constructing one of the earlier classification systems as well as her discoveries of nearly a dozen novae and several hundred variable stars. Henrietta Leavitt discovered even more — several thousands of said variables — and it was her work on these that led her to uncover the relationship between their peak luminosity and their variation period, which eventually became the method for determining the vast distances between the stars and our own system. Cecilia Payne, one of the first female Ph.D.’s in astronomy, was instrumental in determining star temperature and composition. And Annie Jump Cannon further refined the OBAFGKM (Oh Be A Fine Girl/Guy and Kiss Me) system formally put into place in 1922 and still in use today.

Sobel does an excellent job in laying out these discoveries and their importance in lucid fashion, though it’s possible those without some more-than-basic knowledge of astronomy might find their patience challenged a bit as some of the scientific details accumulate in a few of The Glass Universe’s more dense segments. But those will be rare moments if they occur at all. And as in her past work, she displays a nice eye for detail, as well as an unflagging work ethic when it comes to research. As for instance in the opening scene at the Drapers, where:

…while the usual gaslight illuminated the home’s exterior, novel Edison incandescent lamps burned within — some afloat within bowls of water — for the amusement of the guests at table.

The shift from a singular subject to a plural one does rob the figures of some of the fully realized, wholly immersive characterization and narrative focus of Sobel’s other works as the women come and go. Somewhat ironically, the most closely, fully depicted character in a book focusing on the achievements of women is Edward Pickering, mostly thanks to his 40-plus years tenure as director of the observatory and because he had his hand in so much of the individual women’s work. That said, we get to know most of these people well enough that their eventual deaths (The Glass Universe spans roughly 60 years of narrative) are strongly felt.

As they work, we get a sense not only of their dedication but of their obstacles. Pickering, as mentioned above, was a constant advocate for the women. Sobel notes, for instance, that when one of the women’s work was published in the Annals of the Harvard College Observatory, she had “feared she might not receive credit,” but her name “stood out in bold black and white, right on the title page, above the name of Edward C. Pickering, Director” (italics Sobel’s). And when he read Fleming’s paper at a convention (she of course couldn’t read it herself), he “added a coda of his own… [saying] Mrs. Fleming had omitted to mention that of these seventy-nine stars nearly all had been discovered by herself.”

One of the pleasant surprises of The Glass Universe, in fact, is how welcome the women were in the field. That isn’t, of course, to say they had no obstacle to overcome; they were constantly struggling to find work, they were never of course paid at the same rate as men doing similar work (Fleming was paid $1500 a year while the male assistants were getting $2500), and Pickering’ superiors were far less supportive of women in academics or in official positions. Even some of the compliments were a bit edged, as when Pickering’s eulogy for Fleming notes she was a “striking example of a woman who attained success in the higher paths of science without in any way losing the gifts and charm so characteristic of her sex.” Lest one think this sort of thing solely a male point of view, Miss Cannon’s own obituary of Fleming notes she “had that quality of human sympathy which is sometimes lacking among women engaged in scientific pursuits.”

Despite being slightly less compelling than Sobel’s other works, The Glass Universe is informative and concise, engagingly written in terms of its prose style and characterization, with a sharp eye for detail and a nicely honed balance of scene and summary. An excellent read and an important one, lest the contributions of these women sink into obscurity as too often happens.

Published December 6, 2016. Named one of the best books of the year by NPR, The Economist, Smithsonian, and Science Friday. Nominated for the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award. 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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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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2 comments

  1. I have to read this! Here’s hoping I get a gift certificate for Christmas!

    Thanks for the lovely introduction to the book.

  2. I’ve really enjoyed Sobel’s previous books, so I’m very glad to hear that you thought so highly of this one!

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