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The Glass Universe: Book summary and reviews of The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel

The Glass Universe

How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars

by Dava Sobel

The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel X
The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel
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Book Summary

Dava Sobel returns with the captivating, little-known true story of a group of women whose remarkable contributions to the burgeoning field of astronomy forever changed our understanding of the stars and our place in the universe.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the Harvard College Observatory began employing women as calculators, or "human computers," to interpret the observations made via telescope by their male counterparts each night. At the outset this group included the wives, sisters, and daughters of the resident astronomers, but by the 1880s 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 to studying the stars captured nightly on glass photographic plates. The "glass universe" of half a million plates that Harvard amassed in this period - thanks in part to the early financial support of another woman, Mrs. Anna Draper, whose late husband pioneered the technique of 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-Gaposchkin, 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 a group of remarkable women who, through their hard work and groundbreaking discoveries, disproved the commonly held belief that the gentler sex had little to contribute to human knowledge.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"Starred Review. With grace, clarity, and a flair for characterization, Sobel places these early women astronomers in the wider historical context of their field for the very first time. " - Publishers Weekly

"Starred Review. [Sobel] soars higher than ever before ... The Glass Universe is a feast for those eager to absorb forgotten stories of resolute American women who expanded human knowledge." - Booklist

"A welcome and engaging work that does honor to Sobel's subjects." - Kirkus

"This is intellectual history at its finest. Dava Sobel is extraordinarily accomplished at uncovering the hidden stories of science and conveying complex information with ease and grace. In The Glass Universe, she brings to the foreground the glittering brilliance of five 19th-century women whose work at the Harvard Observatory changed the history of astronomy." - Geraldine Brooks, New York Times bestselling author of The Secret Chord and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of March

"Like the women of the Harvard Observatory, Dava Sobel reveals worlds to us. The Glass Universe is sensitive, exacting, and lit with the wonder of discovery." - Elizabeth Kolbert, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sixth Extinction

The Glass Universe has a fascinating subject at its core: a group of pioneering women "calculators" who contributed to the field of astronomy. At Harvard in the late nineteenth century, these women measured the brightness of stars by taking detailed measurements of the spectral objects' photographs on glass plates. A whole "glass universe" of these photos (through the process known as photometry) was being churned out and these "calculators" kept at it for long hours and little pay. While the women's contributions were stellar (no pun intended) the book itself could have benefited from more explanation of the science for the layperson and from a less detailed chronicling of who measured which plate on what day. We also see the "human calculators" mostly in the claustrophobic lab setting. One wishes the author could have zoomed out a little more to shine brighter light on their personal lives to make each more rounded. As it stands the women are barely distinguishable from each other. A little less time spent looking through the microscope and more time gazing up at the stars would have made this already commendable book a true delight. - BookBrowse.com

This information about The Glass Universe was first featured in "The BookBrowse Review" - BookBrowse's membership magazine, and in our weekly "Publishing This Week" newsletter. Publication information is for the USA, and (unless stated otherwise) represents the first print edition. The reviews are necessarily limited to those that were available to us ahead of publication. If you are the publisher or author and feel that they do not properly reflect the range of media opinion now available, send us a message with the mainstream reviews that you would like to see added.

Any "Author Information" displayed below reflects the author's biography at the time this particular book was published.

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Author Information

Dava Sobel Author Biography

Dava Sobel, a former New York Times science reporter, is the author of Longitude (Walker 1995 and 2005, Penguin 1996), Galileo's Daughter (Walker 1999 and 2011, Penguin 2000), The Planets (Viking 2005, Penguin 2006), A More Perfect Heaven (Walker / Bloomsbury 2011 and 2012), And the Sun Stood Still (Bloomsbury, 2016) and The Glass Universe (Viking, 2016). She has also co-authored six books, including Is Anyone Out There? with astronomer Frank Drake.

In recent years she has been teaching science writing, first at the University of Chicago in 2006, at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia, in 2011, and from 2013 to 2016 at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts as the Joan Lieman Jacobson Visiting Nonfiction Writer.

Link to Dava Sobel's Website

Other books by Dava Sobel at BookBrowse
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