Sunday, June 19, 2022

Miss Leavitt's Stars: The Untold Story of the Woman Who Discovered How to Measure the Universe (Great Discoveries), by George Johnson (author), Stephen Bowlby (narrator)

Blackstone Publishing, May 2022 

In the early years of the 20th century, a "computer" was a person, an actual flesh and blood human being, who was good at math. These computers were often women, because women were so much cheaper to hire. You could perfectly legally and openly offer much lower wages to women than to men, for the same work.

One of these women was Henrietta Swan Leavitt, employed by the Harvard Observatory to calculate the positions and luminosities of stars in astronomical photographs.

There were two competing theories about the size of the universe at the time. One held that the Milky Way, our galaxy, was the entire universe, and the nebulae seen outside it were just wispy gas clouds. The other held that those nebulae were, in fact, other "island universes"--other galaxies like our own. It was Henrietta Leavitt who did the calculations that made it possible to answer the question. 

Leavitt was widely known and respected in the astronomical community of the day, valued for her contributions. However, she had no advanced degree, wasn't and couldn't be a member of the scientific societies that would have welcomed a man of her accomplishments, and lived a very private life.  When George Johnson was researching this period in the astronomical sciences for a book, he became very interested in her, envisioned a biography of her--and then discovered how little is known about her. This important contributor to astronomy and our knowledge of the physical universe left almost no letters that weren't entirely professional, no diary, no journal that wasn't purely about her work. Almost nothing is known about her outside her work.

The result is this short book, blending what little is known of her, her work and accomplishments, and the scientific discoveries that flowed from that, changing our understanding of the universe we live in. In many ways, this book is most revealing about the place of women in science lies in what we don't know about Henrietta Leavitt, given her importance in astronomical research in the early 20th century, which was such a crucial period.

It's interesting, enjoyable, and informative about the period and about Leavitt's work, but still a disappointment in some respects, for reasons largely beyond the author's control.

I bought this audiobook.

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