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

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A half a million glass photographic plates hold the only visual record of the night sky between 1885 and 1992. This dazzles me and I'm not an astronomer. It dazzles me even more to learn that a group of dedicated women (mostly unpaid) spent decades attending to these glass slides with utmost dedication well before women were allowed to attend Harvard. These women helped count the stars, helped astronomers learn what the stars are made of, created the classification system astronomers still use, and inadvertently helped measure our Universe. I didn't have to be an astronomer to love this book, and neither do you.

— From Dana


From #1 New York Times bestselling author Dava Sobel, the "inspiring" (People), little-known true story of women's landmark contributions to astronomy

A New York Times Book Review Notable Book of 2017

Named one of the best books of the year by NPR, The Economist, Smithsonian, Nature, and NPR's Science Friday

Nominated for the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award

"A joy to read." --The Wall Street Journal

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.

About the Author

DAVA SOBEL is the author of five books, including the New York Times bestsellers Longitude, Galileo's Daughter, The Planets, and The Glass Universe. A former New York Times science reporter and longtime contributor to The New Yorker, Audubon, Discover, and Harvard Magazine, she is the recipient of the National Science Board's Individual Public Service Award and the Boston Museum of Science's Bradford Washburn Award, among others.

Product Details
ISBN: 9780670016952
ISBN-10: 0670016950
Publisher: Viking
Publication Date: December 6th, 2016
Pages: 336
Language: English