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

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

#1 New York Times bestselling 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 universeIn the mid-nineteenth century, the Harvard College Observatory began employing women as calculators, or “huma...

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Title:The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars
Author:Dava Sobel
Rating:
ISBN:0670016950
Edition Language:English
Format Type:Hardcover
Number of Pages:320 pages

The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars Reviews

  • KC
    Dec 17, 2016

    I would like to thank NetGalley, Penguin Publishing, and Dava Sobel for the advanced digital copy in exchange for an honest review. This is the story of the women of Harvard's astronomy program. It began in the mid-nineteenth century when Harvard College Observatory began hiring women as "human computers". They studied thousands of glass photographic plates which consisted of magnified images of the cosmos. I felt this book was a bit too scientific. Sobel was unable to connect her "characters" t

    I would like to thank NetGalley, Penguin Publishing, and Dava Sobel for the advanced digital copy in exchange for an honest review. This is the story of the women of Harvard's astronomy program. It began in the mid-nineteenth century when Harvard College Observatory began hiring women as "human computers". They studied thousands of glass photographic plates which consisted of magnified images of the cosmos. I felt this book was a bit too scientific. Sobel was unable to connect her "characters" to her audience, whereas the novel "Hidden Figures" by Margot Lee Shetterly, not only contained the full body of work that was discover by these amazing women but the author was also able to incorporate the struggles, friendships, and dreams of the scientists/mathematicians she was writing about.

  • LillyBooks
    Dec 12, 2016

    I wanted to love this book. It has all the hallmarks of things I love: strong woman, intelligent women, women in science, astronomy, a little known factoid of history, etc. This book is successful in the sense that Sobel has obviously done a lot of research into the facts and it able to relay them clearly, while also plainly explaining the science. However, I found this book no more than a recitation of those facts. None of the characters seemed to have a personality, and only a few had physical

    I wanted to love this book. It has all the hallmarks of things I love: strong woman, intelligent women, women in science, astronomy, a little known factoid of history, etc. This book is successful in the sense that Sobel has obviously done a lot of research into the facts and it able to relay them clearly, while also plainly explaining the science. However, I found this book no more than a recitation of those facts. None of the characters seemed to have a personality, and only a few had physical descriptions (although there is a photo section). We know almost nothing about most of the women outside of their education and work at the Harvard observatory. Were they married? Did they have children? Other family members? What did their family members think of their work? Where they supported or demonized for stepping out of social norms at the time? Most distressing is that Sobel presents these women's work in a vacuum. There is almost no discussion of wage disparity, sexual harassment, theft and degrading of their intelligential property, and the general misogyny at the time. Even if these ladies were lucky enough to live and work in an unlikely Victorian utopia without these problems, shouldn't at least a paragraph have been devoted to explaining that anomaly? I read this immediately after reading Hidden Figures, which excels at examining the work of those later female computers within the broader social contexts that history, and women - all women - deserve.

  • Peter Mcloughlin
    Dec 14, 2016

    History of astronomy and the women of Harvard's astronomy program which formed the basic knowledge of astrophysics and stars. All the data that our theories of star life cycles, types of stars and distances of galaxies make possible our current cosmological picture of the universe. We stand on the shoulder of giants. In this case, numerous women who collected data on glass plate emulsions of photographed stars. The data these women collected and insights they provided are the basis of much of wh

    History of astronomy and the women of Harvard's astronomy program which formed the basic knowledge of astrophysics and stars. All the data that our theories of star life cycles, types of stars and distances of galaxies make possible our current cosmological picture of the universe. We stand on the shoulder of giants. In this case, numerous women who collected data on glass plate emulsions of photographed stars. The data these women collected and insights they provided are the basis of much of what we know today about the universe.

  • Novels And Nonfiction
    Dec 30, 2016

    What I Liked

    The focus on the scientific breakthroughs and contributions to astronomy/astrophysics accomplished by the female scientists in the book. By reading The Glass Universe I learned a lot about the evolution of the science of stellar spectroscopy, which was absolutely fascinating. From advances in telescope size and power, to the first photographs taken of stars, to the discovery that these photographs could reveal so many of the hidden mysteries of

    What I Liked

    The focus on the scientific breakthroughs and contributions to astronomy/astrophysics accomplished by the female scientists in the book. By reading The Glass Universe I learned a lot about the evolution of the science of stellar spectroscopy, which was absolutely fascinating. From advances in telescope size and power, to the first photographs taken of stars, to the discovery that these photographs could reveal so many of the hidden mysteries of the universe like star composition, distance and the size of the universe itself – I soaked up all the scientific details with glee. Most of the discoveries made in this history were either wholly or in part the work of the female scientists that make up the book’s principal cast, several of whom actually attended the same liberal arts college I went to (Wellesley) though over a hundred years before me. If you’re interested in learning about the early history of modern astronomical investigation, The Glass Universe is a beautifully written and accessible source of information.

    The detailing of the personal lives and friendships of the scientists. The Glass Universe primarily revolves around the work done at the Harvard Observatory in the late 1800s and early 1900s by a group of increasingly tight-knit men and women who developed both professional and personal relationships through the years. Sobel brings these historical characters to life, including their animosities, their envies, their friendships, their love affairs and their eccentricities. I loved the inclusion of segments of letters sent from one scientist to the other, providing a primary source through which to witness their now long-past interactions. Despite writing about people who lived over a hundred years ago, Sobel was able to make them feel real and relatable to me. I desperately wanted to sit overnight at the Harvard Observatory with these women and help them glean secrets from the stars.

    What I Didn’t Like

    Not enough analysis of the ways in which the female scientists struggled against societal expectations in the atypical path they chose. Unlike Hidden Figures, The Glass Universe is not light on scientific details. On the other hand, The Glass Universe fails to provide a real analysis of the gender discrimination these female astronomers experienced in the pursuit of their scientific careers. Beyond a few mentions of it taking longer for a female astronomer to be awarded a particular medal or position and two paragraphs of hurried analysis at the end, the book misses the opportunity to delve into what difficulties these women experienced that their male counterparts never had to face. They must have struggled to reconcile a busy career life with having a family and children. They must have faced skepticism from parents, friends and strangers about their very unusual life choices for the times. They must have struggled economically from being paid so much less than their male counterparts. There’s very little discussion of any of this unfortunately in the book and I found it a glaring omission.

    Final Verdict

    A beautifully written history of the development of stellar spectroscopy and of the work of the female scientists who contributed to the discoveries that it enabled. Unfortunately lacking in analysis of the gender discrimination experienced by the women involved.

  • Nooilforpacifists
    Feb 14, 2017

    Vastly overrated, this book just isn't very interesting. Part science, part feminist history, it ends up being neither.

    Sobel, the author of the magnificent "Longitude", concatenates endless facts with breathless anticipation: as if something momentous is about to happen. But the most important discovery, Hubble's Law, takes place off-stage by a man, notwithstanding a late effort to rename it after one of the featured women. And the second most important realization--the way to calculate a star c

    Vastly overrated, this book just isn't very interesting. Part science, part feminist history, it ends up being neither.

    Sobel, the author of the magnificent "Longitude", concatenates endless facts with breathless anticipation: as if something momentous is about to happen. But the most important discovery, Hubble's Law, takes place off-stage by a man, notwithstanding a late effort to rename it after one of the featured women. And the second most important realization--the way to calculate a star cluster's distance by comparing its diameter and magnitude--is poorly explained.

    I never doubted it: chicks can do math. But this book doesn't advance the case.

  • Maureen
    Jan 19, 2017

    Sigh....astronomically dull (get it?). I was interested in the topic but this was just too dry for me.

  • Brendon Schrodinger
    Jan 28, 2017

    "The Hidden History of the Women Who Took the Measure of the Stars"

    You'd be forgiven if this book looked like a social history book of the struggles of female astronomers in the late 19th and early 20th Century. It's not a social history at all, even though it flouts itself on a social issue. It's a scientific history, and a fairly dry one at that which, I'd guess, would leave most of it's marketed audience high and dry.

    Dava Sobel recounts the history of the Harvard College University which happ

    "The Hidden History of the Women Who Took the Measure of the Stars"

    You'd be forgiven if this book looked like a social history book of the struggles of female astronomers in the late 19th and early 20th Century. It's not a social history at all, even though it flouts itself on a social issue. It's a scientific history, and a fairly dry one at that which, I'd guess, would leave most of it's marketed audience high and dry.

    Dava Sobel recounts the history of the Harvard College University which happened to employ, for that time, a disproportionate amount of women, especially in roles of calculating and cataloguing. Even though they were underpaid and used for what others saw as busywork, the women of the Observatory worked hard and worked well together. The information provided to them - photographs of the night sky on glass plates - was analysed and the group found new facts about the stars through spectrum analysis and lead the world in the classification of stars, and of finding variable stars. A few of the women expanded upon this work with research of their own and had discoveries that transformed astronomy and paved the way for current stellar understanding. They were integral to worldwide astronomical research at the time. They were not working in isolation at all, and the story revolves just as much around the men working at Harvard at the time and the benefactors that provided money for the running of the Observatory.

    Dava Sobel gives a scholarly history that presents facts, even from first-hand sources such as correspondence and research papers on the work done at the Observatory. Only until the last chapter is there any attempt at social commentary on the situation and this is brief. But, Dava does such a great job presenting the facts of the time in detail that it is not hard to read between the lines and make your own judgements on the social situations.

    The book goes into some depth on astronomy and spectroscopy without any primers or help. A reader without prior knowledge of these concepts may be lost about the significance, meaning or need for the work that was being done. An understanding of these concepts or the ability for some self-research would be needed for a reader to successfully understand what is happening in the pages or to even have enough stamina to wade through all the facts. It is not really a book for the absolute layperson and is certainly not a social history of these women or women in science in general. I'll make a comparison to another book, one on social history involving a woman, 'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks'. 'Lacks was purely a social history, it told the story of Henrietta and her family and the standing of African-Americans at the time and also the social implications of health care and medical research. There was minimal science. To me, it was too social history. 'The Glass Universe' would be at the opposite end of the spectrum, a lot of science, a lot of historical details, very little if zero social commentary.

    I enjoyed the book, though. It bridged gaps in my knowledge between early astronomy and Hubble. It gave me the names and histories of inspiring women scientists to introduce to others. It gave me an understanding of how stellar evolution was first understood and how early spectroscopy was applied to astronomy.

  • Alice, as in Wonderland
    Jan 21, 2017

    God only knows why this book is an incredibly dry read, but it really, really was. In comparison to another book about female mathematicians and scientists,

    , this book both dragged and didn't drag enough. It throws people and lives at you in fast motion, leaving you unable to settle or focus on anyone except Pickering and arguably Draper to some extent. I can pick out some other names, such as Maury, Cannon and so on, but ask me about anecdotes about them specifically or their dai

    God only knows why this book is an incredibly dry read, but it really, really was. In comparison to another book about female mathematicians and scientists,

    , this book both dragged and didn't drag enough. It throws people and lives at you in fast motion, leaving you unable to settle or focus on anyone except Pickering and arguably Draper to some extent. I can pick out some other names, such as Maury, Cannon and so on, but ask me about anecdotes about them specifically or their daily lives and I come up flat. Other than that they were prodigious minds of their generation and field it's hard to remember them as personal figures, which makes them hard to keep track of.

    That's the main problem - when it talks about the glass, a lack of visual assistance makes it difficult to keep interested. When it talks about people, people are introduced, married, ignored, forgotten, reintroduced with such speed that it's hard to tell what's going on and who we're focusing on in the current moment. This may not be a problem for some people, but I found myself drifting off and having to reread pages over and over again. This book would have taken me half the time if I had been able to focus on it, but it did almost everything it could to make it impossible. I felt like I could replace names with variables like in algebra and it would have made MORE sense, and I don't feel like I need a backstory to x, y, and z to appreciate their importance.

    Hidden Figures fixates on three particular people, and in doing so manages to weave in everyone's lives. Glass Universe, in whatever way, made it difficult for me to keep track of what had happened. Considering the several deaths that happen in the book - that I had to go back and reread because I was a paragraph into mourning and didn't notice that Pickering's wife had passed away, for example? This was one of the most damning realizations - that the book hadn't kept me focused enough to notice that people had died. I had a hard time visualizing or feeling any interactions - they were merely things that happened. And one thing just happens after another and another - one could argue, I suppose, that this is all history is, but it lacked any dimension, and the connections would stray so far from the central point that it would all seem a little pointless.

    The chapter titles seem loose and broad, making the book seem even more scattered than it was. There were huge portions of chapters that I didn't feel were focused to the title at all, diverging so much that I would just stare at the top of the page wondering what was happening and if this had anything to do with anything.

    A fascinating topic, to be sure, and this isn't to say there wasn't stuff about it was interesting. I retained a lot more than I initially thought I did, but I felt like I was reading this book in a stupor, like I was going in and out of sleep even while I stared directly at the page.

  • SmartBitches
    Jan 22, 2017

    The Glass Universe is the story of the women who worked for the Harvard Observatory from the mid-1800’s though the 1940’s. Like the women of Hidden Figures, these women were known as “human computers”. Under the leadership of Professor Edward Pickering, and later Harlow Shapley, these women catalogued the locations, relative brightness, and distances of stars. In the process, they discovered new stars and nebulas, created a classification system, an

    The Glass Universe is the story of the women who worked for the Harvard Observatory from the mid-1800’s though the 1940’s. Like the women of Hidden Figures, these women were known as “human computers”. Under the leadership of Professor Edward Pickering, and later Harlow Shapley, these women catalogued the locations, relative brightness, and distances of stars. In the process, they discovered new stars and nebulas, created a classification system, and paved the way for the discovery that the universe is expanding.

    Stylistically, The Glass Universe is the opposite of Hidden Figures, the book and movie about the African American women who worked as human computers for NASA. Hidden Figures keeps a tight focus on a small group of women. While it talks about their scientific work, the focus is on their lives.

    This book is a great resource for readers with an interest in women in science. The pictures alone are delightful. Just beware that the focus is on science rather than on biography.

    - Carrie S.

  • Joyce
    Mar 02, 2017

    Even Cassandra Campbell's clear and thoughtful reading couldn't save this book for me. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I've liked Sobel's books before, and I was excited about this, having read an historical romance back in the late 70s, early 80s that featured astronomer Maria Mitchell. She's not present here, except for a mention. Perhaps the focus was to narrow for me--primarily the women at Harvard--and perhaps had it focused on women in astronomy it would have been livelier with

    Even Cassandra Campbell's clear and thoughtful reading couldn't save this book for me. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I've liked Sobel's books before, and I was excited about this, having read an historical romance back in the late 70s, early 80s that featured astronomer Maria Mitchell. She's not present here, except for a mention. Perhaps the focus was to narrow for me--primarily the women at Harvard--and perhaps had it focused on women in astronomy it would have been livelier with more diverse and interesting women to follow. Lots of science/astronomy--it reminds me why I didn't take astronomy in college: too much math! Can't fault the prose but the topic never worked for me.