Book Review: The Glass Universe

I haven’t read much of Dava Sobel. That’s kind of crazy, given how much she writes about the history of space and astronomy, both subjects that I enjoyed. I knew she was a best-selling author, and that she had a pretty good reputation, but that was about it.

So I was floored by The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars. If you’ve ever taken an Astronomy 101 class, you’ve probably heard of ‘Pickens’ Harem,’ the collection of women who served as computers back before computers had RAM. Names like Williamina Fleming and Annie Jump Cannon might have stuck with you as well, as they are fairly well known for their contributions to astronomy. But if you’re like me, you probably kept those women filed away as folks performing manual labor.

Sobel dives into the lives of these women, as well as their work, taking readers behind the scenes in their interactions. Despite the negative connotation implied with ‘harem’, that of women blindly following their wise male master, she makes it clear that the women operating as computers were intelligent and thoughtful, often filled with a passion for the work they pursued.

Sobel’s book also changed my view of Pickering. After all, this is a man known for hiring women, which cost far less money. What I didn’t know was how much he pushed for their individual recognition, positioning, and pay. He encouraged the women – often educated college students in their own right – toward learning and research, and recognized their contributions rather than taking the credit as his due.

Sobel’s writing is clear and engaging, and I highly enjoyed the book. I look forward to adding her other works to my collection.