The Glass Universe

  • by Dava Sobel
  • Narrated by Cassandra Campbell
  • 12 hrs and 42 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

Number-one New York Times best-selling author 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-19th 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 10 novae and more than 300 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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Customer Reviews

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Edifying

I have enjoyed reading a number of Sobel’s books such as “Galileo’s Daughter”. This book is about the women who worked at the Harvard College Observatory in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They were called computers. After reading “Rocket Girls” and “Hidden Figures”, I know this is a term applied to women who did the math and analytical work for scientists. These women at the Observatory were math, physics and astronomy majors and some were Ph.Ds. These women studied, compared, classified and catalogued data about stars that had been photographed by male astronomers on glass plates. At this time women were not allowed to be astronomers. The women were assigned the work that demanded both scrupulous attention to detail and could be considered tedious work.

Edward Pickering and Harlow Shapley were directors of the Observatory from 1877 to 1952. These men were willing to hire women and even created research grants and academic fellowships for women via the patronage of two women heiresses, Anna Palmer Draper and Catherine Wolfe Bruce, who provided the funding. Some of the women Sobel presents are Williamina Fleming, Annie Jump Cannon, and Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin. These women’s stories are absolutely fascinating.

The book is well written and meticulously researched. Sobel reviewed diaries, letters and memories and included excerpts from these sources into the story. Sobel writes with clarity and has an easy to read style.

The book is approximately thirteen hours long. Cassandra Campbell does a good job narrating the book. Campbell is a stage actress, voice over artist and an award-winning audiobook narrator.
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- Jean

But the seeing, which was everything, was better

There's been a trifecta of great books about women in physics, astrophysics and astronomy in the last year. There's Margot Lee Shetterly's "Hidden Figures: The American Story and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race" (2016 book, 01/06/2017 movie); Nathalia Holt's "Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon" (2016); and now, Dava Sobel's "The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars" (2016). The time has come for these engrossing books and the brilliant women they portray.

Sobel's "The Glass Universe" shows that the old cliche that until Rosie the Riveter and World War II, all educated women stayed at home, relegated to perfect homemaking, an occasional Lyceum, and gossipy book clubs just wasn't true. These are great women, along with other greats like Colonel Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space; American physicist Dr. Sally Ride, the first American woman in space; and astronomer Dr. Vera Rubin, whose work in dark matter defines current astronomy.

Sobel's book is first in time, with the first astrophotography, in 1850. For decades, astronomers at various observatories around the world photographed the stars onto glass plates. They were analyzed and catalogued at Harvard. More than a century and a half later, those images are still being studied. In an expanding universe, with a science so vast that light studied doesn't reach us for centuries, how the stars looked like when Abraham Lincoln was president is important in the 21st Century.

Willamina Flemming, classifying for the Draper Catalogue of Stellar Spectra (first volume published 1890) established the star classification system OBAFGKM. The lyrically named Antonia Mary refined classifications, which were adapted by Annie Jump Cannon into the classifications still used today. In other words, these women were not "computers" laboring with pencil and paper over long, boring equations - anymore than the women in "Hidden Figures" and "Rise of the Rocket Girls" were. They quietly laid the foundation for modern astronomy and physics. Happily, there are a dozen more women whose lives are in "The Glass Universe".

I do have a complaint about the Audible version of the book: it's the appendices and explanatory footnotes. They contain a lot of valuable information, and a .pdf would have been very helpful. I wish I'd known to listen to the definitions portion and the list of people at the beginning of the book, rather than the end.

The name of this review is from the book, discussing a new observatory's location.

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- Cynthia

Book Details

  • Release Date: 12-06-2016
  • Publisher: Penguin Audio