Book Review: Glass Universe by Dava Sobel

Glass Universe by Dava Sobel tells the story of a group of women—collectively nicknamed the Harvard Computers—who under the directorships of Edward C. Pickering at the Harvard College Observatory (HCO) examined photographic plates produced by large telescopes. From the late 1800s to mid 1900s these women—Williamina Fleming, Antonia Maury, Anna Winlock, Annie Jump Cannon, and Henrietta Swan Leavitt—cataloged, discovered, characterized, and classified tens of thousands of stars and astronomical phenomenon. These women were significant figures in a scientific community dominated by men, low wages, and pronounced gender inequality.

Sobel masterfully balances their important scientific discoveries with the personal narratives of these ambitious women to create a shining tribute. In addition Sobel highlights the contributions of others in the HCO orbit, including science patronesses Mary Anna Draper (wife of Henry Draper, an amateur astronomer and pioneer of astrophotography and spectroscopy) and Catherine Bruce, a wealthy socialite with a love of astronomy. Together these two women funded and boosted astronomical research, and created avenues for recognition like the Henry Draper Medal from the National Academy of Science and the Catherine Wolfe Bruce Gold Medal both awarded for contributions to astronomy. In 1931, Annie Jump Cannon was the first woman awarded the Henry Draper Medal and credited with the creation of the Harvard Classification Scheme, which was the first serious attempt to organize and classify stars based on temperature and spectral type. Her work was a foundational achievement that led to the development of modern stellar classification. Each of the women had their own achievements during their time at the HCO and proved themselves instrumental in furthering the study of the stars.

Anyone from budding amateur to PhD candidate will enjoy this book. It is told in a manner that keeps the popular science reader engaged while challenging the most scientifically inclined. At the core of the book is the history of astronomy as it chronicled the rapidly changing landscape of research, methodology, and technology. Anecdotally, it’s peppered with great vignettes about the discoveries of strange white dwarf stars, a spectroscopic binary, scientific rivalry, and the observations of the southern hemisphere’s Magellanic Clouds from a station in Peru ensconced in it’s own high altitude drama.

Please do yourself a favor and dive into the whole Dava Sobel catalog (pun very much intended) for more brilliant science narratives. Her book Galileo’s Daughter is the perfect companion to these astounding ladies who show us the power of resilience, dedication, and how quickly our understanding of the universe can change.