The Glass Universe | Dava Sobel

Summary of: The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars
By: Dava Sobel


Step into the extraordinary world of astronomy with ‘The Glass Universe,’ where you’ll discover the pivotal role women played in establishing, funding, and studying the prestigious Harvard Observatory’s catalog of stellar photographs. Dava Sobel illustrates the captivating seven-decade history of the Draper Catalogue of Stellar Spectra. You will encounter trailblazing women like Margaret Draper, Williamina Fleming, and Antonia Maury, as you journey through their exciting astronomical discoveries, while witnessing their ongoing dedication and determination despite societal limitations. This remarkable story awaits you, as you prepare to explore the captivating annals of Harvard Observatory and its pioneering women astronomers.

Women Pioneers of Harvard Observatory

Dava Sobel’s book recounts the incredible journey of the women who were instrumental in shaping Harvard Observatory’s Draper Spectral Catalogue. This seven-decade history showcases how the female pioneers had to overcome challenging circumstances to be a part of the observatory. Sobel’s writing is insightful, engaging, and vivid, providing readers with an in-depth understanding of the significance of the Harvard Observatory’s stellar catalog and the role of women in astronomy.

Investing in the Future of Astronomy

Edward Pickering, the director of the Harvard Observatory, revolutionized the field of astronomy by utilizing stellar photography. His approach allowed for each photograph to be a valuable resource of information for future reference. Thanks to Margaret Draper’s generous donation of a telescope and the establishment of the Henry Draper Memorial fund, the observatory was able to make strides in innovative research. The Henry Draper gold medal, awarded by the National Academy of Sciences for significant accomplishments in the field of astronomical physics, solidified Harvard’s position as a leader in astronomical research.

Women at the forefront of stellar photography

Williamina Fleming and Antonia Maury, former maid and physics and astronomy degree holder, respectively, made significant contributions in classifying stars. The Henry Draper Catalogue came to be with Fleming’s classification system. By combining labor and photographic plates, Fleming oversaw 14 women analysts. Maury was a part of this group and discovered the second spectroscopic binary. Together, they were the first women to utilize stellar photography in uncovering secrets of the universe. Their groundbreaking work paved the way for future astronomers.

Women’s Contributions to Astronomy

From making groundbreaking discoveries to providing funding for technological advancements, women played a crucial role in the development of astronomy. During the 1860s to World War II, Catherine Bruce donated $50,000 for the creation of a groundbreaking 24-inch lens telescope, which produced outstanding plates. She also sponsored the Catherine Bruce Gold Medal to recognize lifetime achievements in astronomy. Annie Draper’s $150,000 bequest catapulted the Harvard Observatory to preeminence, making astronomers like Henrietta Swan Leavitt possible. Women proved that astronomy isn’t just a man’s game.

The Pioneering Astronomer

In 1893, Henrietta Swan Fleming discovered a rare nova, becoming the first person to do so through stellar photography. As a result, she was appointed as the official curator of astronomical photographs at Harvard and the first woman to hold any title at the institution. Despite her dedication to the observatory for 30 years, Fleming received a fraction of her male colleagues’ salary. Her legacy as a pioneering astronomer continues to inspire women in the field of science.

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