Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars, by Dava Sobel (author), Cassandra Campbell (narrator)

Penguin Audio, December 2016

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.