Throughout history, the accomplishments of women have been continually overshadowed by men, dishonestly claimed by men, or forgotten by the world all together. Bestselling author Dava Sobel's latest scientific exposition seeks to correct that all to common mistake by shining a light on the incredible women behind some of astronomy's most important scientific discoveries, which is just one of the reasons you should read The Glass Universe. A powerful feminist story about human computer's and the accomplishments of women, this is one December release you don't want to miss.
In The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars (Dec. 6, Viking), veteran science writer Dava Sobel, known for her #1 New York Times bestsellers Longitude, Galileo’s Daughter, and The Planets, heralds the scientific accomplishments of the women of the Harvard College Observatory. Originally hired in the 1880s to be "human computers" who interpreted the observations of their male counterparts, the women of "Pickering's harem," so called that after their boss scientist named Edward Charles Pickering, did far more than plug numbers into formulas and record their results. At 25 cents an hour, these brilliant women discovered hundreds of variables in the stars, created new classification systems, and made significant contributions to observational astronomy that are now the cornerstones of the modern science.
Though many of their accomplishments were credited to the male scientists they worked for, including the still-current classification system of stars that is branded with Henry Draper's name, The Glass Universe finally gives credit where credit is due: to the women who took measure of the stars. Expertly researched and skillfully executed, Sobel's work is engaging and inspiring for scientists, thinkers, and average readers alike.
If you're looking for a good book to curl up with this December, here are 5 reasons to make it The Glass Universe, an stirring story of women in science.
1. It stars more than one remarkable woman.
The Glass Universe covers a lot of ground, from the history of astronomy to the incredible scientific discoveries made in the lat 19th and early 20th century, but what it does best is paint a realistic picture of the women of the Harvard College Observatory, often called human computers or "Pickering's harem" after their boss and director. More than just tools for data entry or computing, this group of women was made up of complex, complicated, and brilliant young girls who, each in their own way, made a lasting impression on the world around them.
The women who made up the "human computers" started out as a mix of relatives and wives of the male scientists at Harvard, but over time, the group became a mingling of aspiring scientists, brilliant thinkers, and avid learners. Among the incredible talent that Harvard's project attracted were Williamina Fleming, a Scottish-born woman who rose from the ranks of maid to accomplished star identifier; Annie Jumo Cannon, the creator of a stellar classification system still in use today; and Antonia Maury, a woman who "entered a field of discovery dominated by men, yet she stood among the first astronomers to detect an entirely new group of objects" using bold new practices.
With the help of diary entries, letters, memoirs, and other incredible source material, Sobel is able to create not just mere caricatures of these human calculators, but fully-fleshed out portraits of real women making an incredible difference in the world.
2. It's a positive story about women's education and professional advancement.
More often than not, stories about women succeeding in their fields are accompanied by heartbreaking tales of prejudice, oppression, sexism, and worse, but in The Glass Universe, Sobel presents readers with a positive story about women who are able to accomplish a lot without too much mess or heartache. That is not to say that the women of Harvard's Observatory didn't face any obstacles at all — they were originally believed to be too weak to man the telescopes at night, their work was often credited to the men that they worked for — but unlike so many other success stories about women, Sobel's is filled with inspiring outcomes.
At the time The Glass Universe is set, women's colleges were becoming more and more popular, but opportunities for women after completing their educations were still scare. The project at the Harvard Observatory gave women a fruitful opportunity to put their knowledge, training, and skills to good use in a field often closed off to them, while continuing to learn new things throughout the experience. An uplifting story about the success of women, thanks in part to the support of the men who ran the projects they were involved with, The Glass Universe is a ray of hope in an otherwise dark pit of stories about women desperately trying elevate themselves in a world that continues to push them back down.
3. It's filled with touching human stories.
At the start of The Glass Universe, readers are introduced to Mrs. Anna Draper, the recent widow of stellar photographer Henry Draper, a grieving yet hopeful widow who dedicates her life to furthering her late-husband's work as a way to honor his memory. From that moment on, Sobel's book is a beautiful mix of science and history as well as personal stories, stories about love, family, and self-discovery. Filled with characters readers get to know, with motivations they understand, adds a lovely human component to an otherwise heavily academic work.
4. And incredible scientific discoveries.
The women at the Harvard College Observatory grew to be more than just mere computers — they played critical roles in discerning what starts were made of, dividing them into meaningful categories, and developing a way to measure distances in space by the light of stars. Told in vivid detail with heart and emotion, reading about these groundbreaking discoveries alongside the women who made them turns this historical account of astronomy into an exciting experience of wonder and fascination.
5. It's an inspiring feminist read.
Lately, it's seemed harder than usually to muster up that spirit of female empowerment (you know, after watching an overqualified woman lose a job to a completely under-qualified man). But The Glass Universe provides a beautiful and much-needed reminder that females are strong as hell, that we are valuable and worthy, and that we can change the world in the most profound ways, even in the most unlikely of circumstances.
A nice break from all of the negativity, uncertainty, and doubt, The Glass Universe brings the right message at just the right time: women are incredible change-makers, and there's no telling what we will do next.
The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars by Dava Sobel, $20.68, Amazon