MARCH 2017 BOOK REVIEW by Sheila Lamonzs
THE GLASS UNIVERSE
How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars
AUTHOR: DAVA SOBEL
Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are!
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.
-Jane Taylor (1806)
Jane Taylor could not have known that in the latter part of the century in which this poem was created, there would be an array of courageous, brilliant women calculating that ‘twinkle’. The human computers, as they were known in those days, viewed copious ‘diamonds’, providing information that would be of great value to the scientists of the day and for years to come. Dava Sobel brings you into their world, establishing a stellar diary, of sorts, to enlighten our generation as to the contribution and importance of these determined few.
It was a most unique and unusual situation for the Harvard Observatory to employ women to compute the stars in the nineteenth century. When this female corps was originated, it was comprised of daughters, wives, sisters, associates of resident astronomers, women who were eager to expand their horizons. Later, when the work they were doing drew attention for outstanding achievement, they were joined by women from prestigious colleges. The challenge for these women, initially, was to interpret the revelations made through telescopic observations. As time went by, photography allowed for more detailed study of the stars, capturing the subject through a lens which was then transferred to glass plates. Composition, categorization and measured distances across space by starlight ensued. As a result, the knowledge gained was transmitted to the scientific community through the dedication, acumen of these women. Their continued success in discovery afforded contributions to the field of astronomy that would forever challenge our understanding of the stars, prompting those who followed to maintain a level of excellence unequaled prior to their existence.
It appears that the more we peer deeply into the annals of history, the more we discover the remarkable accomplishments of women. We also know that ignoring the intellectual prowess of women has been historical. However, this elegant, distinctly intellectual, scientific revelation is nothing less than extraordinary, providing yet another illustration of their capabilities. Ms. Sobel is brilliant in her research, leaving no stone unturned in her relevant descriptions of countless, distinguished achievements. To say the least, the legacy of their gracious gifts to astronomy exists because these women of the world dared to reach for the stars!