Dava Sobel is as adept at spotting promising subject matter as the extraordinary women astronomers she writes about in The Glass Universe have been at spotting variable stars. By translating complicated data into manageable bites sweetened with human interest stories, Sobel tends to make hard science palatable for the basic audience. Even more than her 1999 book Galileo’s Daughter, this new perform highlights women’s typically below-appreciated role in the history of science.
The ladies who worked at the Harvard College Observatory in the late 19th and early 20th centuries have been not initially named astronomers it took decades for their “critical leaps in celestial understanding” to earn them that designation. They had been assistants, or human “computers” — math whizzes, devoted stargazers, and later physics and astronomy majors (and PhD’s) who studied, compared, classified and catalogued data about stars that had been photographed by guys on thousands of glass plates. “The work,” Sobel writes in her eye-opening chronicle, “demanded each scrupulous attention to detail and a big capacity for tedium.”
But, as Sobel points out, these “prepared slaves to routine” had been fortunate to have the work when possibilities in science have been uncommon for females. They had been also fortunate to toil below the aegis of two forward-pondering men, Edward Pickering and Harlow Shapley, whose successive directorships of the Observatory spanned the years from 1877 to 1952. Their pioneering efforts in astronomy integrated the creation of analysis grants and academic fellowships especially for women — which, along with the Observatory’s groundbreaking function in photographing and studying stellar spectra, benefited from the patronage of two widowed heiresses, Anna Palmer Draper and Catherine Wolfe Bruce.
Sobel lucidly captures the intricate, interdependent constellation of folks it took to unlock mysteries of the stars.
Sobel lucidly captures the intricate, interdependent constellation of people it took to unlock mysteries of the stars, such as their chemical composition and their distances across space. Pickering and Shapley come across as smart, diligent, and decent — two scientists with a firm commitment to collaborative research, documentation over theorizing, the free sharing of details, and an insistence on crediting the tough-operating girls who made so several discoveries that paved the way for contemporary astrophysics.
As for the ladies — some of whose names are nevertheless respected in the field — their fortitude and devotion are practically nothing brief of amazing. In the early years, they were married to their perform, but after the Depression, a lot of balanced marriage and children with six-day weeks at the Observatory.
Williamina Fleming, a teacher in her native Scotland, was initial hired as a maid to the Pickerings right after her husband disappeared, leaving her in a “delicate situation.” Luckily, they recognized her skills. Over decades, she classified a lot more than ten,000 stars using a scheme she devised, discovered ten novae (new stars) and far more than 300 variable stars. In 1899, at age 42, at Pickering’s urging, she became the very first woman to hold an official title at Harvard University when she was named Curator of Astronomical Photographs. However in her journal, she noted that her annual salary of $ 1500 fell far brief of men’s $ 2500. “And this is deemed an enlightened age!” Fleming wrote.
Sobel doesn’t make a point of it, but Harvard University’s track record concerning women in science was not stellar even just before 2005, when then-President Lawrence Summers controversially attributed the under-representation of female scientists at elite universities to innate differences amongst the sexes. Despite Shapley’s repeated petitions, Annie Jump Cannon, a Wellesley graduate who won worldwide acclaim for her revised classification scheme (which is nevertheless in use nowadays) wasn’t granted an official title at Harvard until 1938, just three years before her death.
Similarly, Harvard president Abbot Lawrence Lowell repeatedly declined to name Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin to the faculty, regardless of her groundbreaking 1925 dissertation, which earned her the 1st PhD. in astronomy Harvard awarded to a woman. (It posited the similarities of stars’ chemical composition — largely hydrogen — regardless of varied temperatures.) She lastly became the first female complete professor at Harvard in 1956, and in 1958, was named the Phillips Professor of Astronomy. But, Sobel writes, “Even then her salary of $ 14,000 a year, even though larger than her husband’s, remained far beneath that of her male peers.”
Of necessity, Sobel strives to convey the nature of the astronomers’ discoveries and achievements. And by and massive she does, with admirable clarity. The truth that I located my eyes glazing more than anytime she gets into the nitty-gritty of the women’s classification systems heightened my respect for their ability to focus painstakingly on such details for decades on finish. When it comes to these ladies — their pluck, persistence, insights and eventual recognition — The Glass Universe positively glows.