Wednesday, 29 November 2017

The Glass Universe

Finished November 13
The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars by Dava Sobel, read by Cassandra Campbell

This fascinating look at the history of astronomy takes us from the late nineteenth century through to the mid-twentieth century. It is centered around the Harvard University and the women who worked and volunteered there, but also around the men who hired, worked with, promoted, supported, and cared about these women.
The first women at the observatory were family members of the male astronomers, many of whom took on volunteer roles as computers, interpreting the observations of the male astronomers. As photography advanced to allow the capture of the night skies, the role of women included observation of these photographs. The library of glass photography plates is the origin for the title of this book. Anna Palmer Draper, widow of one of the earliest photographers of the stars wanted to continue his life's work, and she donated money to the observatory to continue this work.
One of the earliest female employees was Williamina Fleming, a Scottish woman who had worked as a maid in the home of the director of the observatory, and who took on the role of curator of the glass plates of photographs of the stars. Fleming also observed these photographs and identified over three hundred variable stars (stars whose intensity changes in regular or irregular cycles) and ten novae. She was followed by women who were some of the first graduates of colleges such as Smith and Vassar and, later, by post-graduate students, research fellows, working astronomers, and professors.
Annie Jump Cannon, a college graduate, looked at the previous work and designed a classification system for the stars that is still used today. She and others made important breakthroughs in learning about the chemical make-up of stars and used features of starlight to measure distances in space.
Dr. Cecelia Helena Payne became the first female professor of astronomy at Harvard, and the first female department chair at the university.
Two directors, Edward Pickering who was director from 1877 to 1919, and Howard Shapley, director from 1922 to 1951 were key to valuing the work of these women, promoting them, supporting their work, and giving them credit for their achievements.
I learned so much about astronomy that I didn't know, thanks to Sobel's wonderful explanations of the various key discoveries. I also found the women very interesting. The book is about astronomy and the work these people did, the discoveries they made, and the contributions of their work worldwide. It is not about the personal lives of the various players, other than mentioning facts of children, spouses, and living arrangements. But for me, that was fine. Each of these women would merit a biography of their own as separate books. The reading of the book by Campbell was captivating, and I found even the appendices of the timeline, short biographies, and glossary worth listening to.
This was a story that needed to be told, and Sobel did a fantastic job.

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