AN OBSERVER BOOK OF THE YEAR
‘A peerless intellectual biography. The Glass Universe shines and twinkles as brightly as the stars themselves’ The Economist
#1 New York Times bestselling author Dava Sobel returns with a captivating, little-known true story of women in science
In the mid-nineteenth century, the Harvard College Observatory began employing women as calculators, or “human computers,” to interpret the observations their male counterparts made via telescope each night. As photography transformed the practice of astronomy, the women turned to studying images of the stars captured on glass photographic plates, making extraordinary discoveries that attracted worldwide acclaim. They helped discern what the stars were made of, divided them into meaningful categories for further research, and even found a way to measure distances across space by starlight .
Elegantly written and enriched by excerpts from letters, diaries,
and memoirs, The Glass Universe is the hidden history of a group of remarkable women whose vital contributions to the burgeoning field of astronomy forever changed our understanding of the stars and our place in the universe.
‘A peerless intellectual biography. “The Glass Universe” shines and twinkles as brightly as the stars themselves’ The Economist.
‘Sobel has done astronomy a valuable service in enabling a fascinating part of its history to become more widely known’ Spectator
‘Sobel tells [the story] with brio and sympathy, making excellent use of the rich archival materials’ Guardian
‘An engaging science history…Sobel has a knack for crisp narrative and a cracking story’ Financial Times
‘A joy to read’ The Wall Street Journal
‘Sobel lucidly captures the intricate, interdependent constellation of people it took to unlock mysteries of the stars … The Glass Universe positively glows’ NPR
‘A compelling portrait of pioneering women who contributed as much to the progress of female empowerment as they did to the global understanding of both astronomy and photography’ Harper’s Bazaar
“An elegant historical tale…[from] the master storyteller of astronomy’ The Boston Globe
‘Sobel vividly captures how her brilliant and ambitious protagonists charted the skies, and found personal fulfilment in triumphant discovery’ The National Book Review
‘It takes a talented writer to interweave professional achievement with personal insight. By the time I finished The Glass Universe, Dava Sobel's wonderful, meticulous account, it had moved me to tears…Unforgettable’ Nature
‘Sensitive, exacting, and lit with the wonder of discovery’ Elizabeth Kolbert,
‘This is intellectual history at its finest. Dava Sobel is extraordinarily accomplished at uncovering the hidden stories of science’ Geraldine Brooks
‘Sobel soars higher than ever before continuing her streak of luminous science writing with this fascinating, witty, and most elegant history’ Booklist, Starred Review
About the author
Dava Sobel, a former New York Times science reporter, is the author of ‘Longitude’, a prize-winning international bestseller, and ‘Galileo's Daughter’, which was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize. She has co-authored six books, including ‘Is Anyone Out There?’ with astronomer Frank Drake, and ‘The Illustrated Longitude’ with William J. H. Andrewes. Dava Sobel has won a number of awards for her outstanding contribution towards public understanding of science. She lives in East Hampton, New York.
Acclaimed science writer Sobel (A More Perfect Heaven) casts much-needed light on the brilliant and determined women behind two historic revolutions in astronomy: one scientific, one professional. In the mid-18th century, astronomers employed human "computers" to scan glass photographic plates and perform calculations. Only the Harvard College Observatory, directed by professor Edward Pickering, hired both men and women as computers. The women there including Williamina Fleming, Antonia Maury, Henrietta Leavitt, Annie Jump Cannon, and Cecilia Payne earned far less than their male counterparts but were eager for the work. As Sobel explains, it was the only way they could do science. Their research led to both the creation of a catalogue of stars still in use today and groundbreaking discoveries in stellar composition, motion, evolution, and a reliable way to calculate interstellar distances. Sobel knows how to tell an engaging story, and this one flows smoothly, with just enough explication of the science. She also reveals the long hours the women worked and their constant search for funding as well as their triumphs of discovery and the eventual acknowledgment of their achievements by their peers and public. 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.