The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel

book jacket photo of the ladies of the titleThe Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory took the Measure of the Stars by Dava Sobel (2016)

I saw her talking about this, her latest book, on BookTV and reserved it immediately from the library. There was a queue.


Her book, Longitude, is one of my top ten favorite books that I loved so much I bought it. Even though I owned that copy book jacket photo of the clock an the inventorwhen the illustrated version came out, I really wanted it too, but had begun my mostly successful attempt to stop cold turkey my buying books addiction (owned more than 3,000 at one time) so settled for savoring the library’s copy of it.


She has some other good books too, the link on her name as author takes you to her Goobook jacket painting snips of Galileo and one of his daughterdreads page where another one I liked, Galileo’s Daughter is on the list.


This one is sad as I recall. How could it not be?


Like the recently book to movie , Hidden Figures, that shows women HAVE ALWAYS BEEN THERE in some way or other WHEN ALLOWED but too often erased from the records kept at the authority of men, I hope The Glass Universe also get a film treatment of it. Be sure to check Book TV for her discussion of it to though because that was delightful.

The really short version is that the director of the Harvard University Observatory had the brilliant idea to take photographs of the night sky for a long term (decades) documentation project. Hmm, I was just rereading the first few pages and am a little confused who first had the decades long concept. Dr. Henry Draper was the astronomer who began taking photographs of the night sky on glass plates coated with chemicals to react with the starlight. But whether Henry initially planned it to be decades long or Pickering decided to is not clear at the start of the book. Some of both perhaps, since they were friends as were all the astronomers of the day, being so few and so specialized.

Mr. Draper had been a professor at New York University and planned to pursue a project with his own observatory to resolve “the seemingly intractable age-old mystery of the chemical composition of the stars.” (p. 5) Mr. Draper had been awarded medals and was elected to prestigious scientific organizations for his STELLAR PHOTOGRAPHY. [Stellar in the photography of stars rather than as an adjective of achievement.] He died suddenly, unexpectedly, too shortly after retirement to make much photographs as he planned, just 300.

Professor Edward Pickering was the Harvard Observatory director who contacted his widow, Mrs. Anna Palmer Draper, after Henry’s death to offer to help. Pickering had previously offered Henry Harvard resources to “decipher the spectral patterns by measuring them with specialized equipment at Harvard.” Henry had declined, expecting to be able to make his own equipment. He died before he could do so.

November 15, 1882 is the night Sobel opens the story with, which was when Henry collapsed and then died 5 days later from pleurisy that infected his heart. Henry, 45 years old,  had been out hunting two weeks before in the Rockies and suffered exposure when stranded without shelter from a sudden blizzard.

While this is the story of “underdogs” getting a chance to shine, it is hard to reflect on the societal forces that got everyone to this precise set of circumstances in the first place. In 1882 women couldn’t vote, and couldn’t do much of anything beyond wives and mothers. However, the sister schools of the Ivy League had been founded and [white] women were getting higher education at a superior level. They studied mathematics and other coursework that demanded intellectual rigor rather than how to wash dishes.

Mrs. [Mary] Anna Palmer Draper is defined with her “maiden” name because she was an heiress. She lived with Henry in the home her late father built from his income as a “railroad and real estate magnate” named Cortlandt Palmer.

She and Henry were notables among notables. Thomas Edison was at dinner party the night Henry took ill.

I am not sure if Henry Draper was the first to “see” that stars were different colors in the scientific discovery sense, probably not since people have been star gazing forever I think. But he did figure out how to take the photographs “through a prism that split starlight into its spectrum of component colors. Although the photographic process reduced the rainbow hues to black and white, the images preserved tell tale patterns of lines within each spectrum — lines that hinted at the stars’ constituent elements.

Henry’s father was also a man of wealth. He was “the first physician in the family to mix medicine with active research in CHEMISTRY and ASTRONOMY. Obviously, having a parent with money, education and expertise in these fields made Henry Draper possible. Had he been poor, a woman, another race, whatever brilliance of his mind grasped that a photograph could be made using a prism that would show meaningful scientific information could not have happened. The average poor, non-educated, or otherwise socially disadvantaged might never see a prism or heard the word or have the significance explained to them to make the intellectual leap that colors of the stars showed chemical composition.

BIG DIGRESSION, not related to the book, but for photographers
Skip this part if you have no interest in night photography.

I know the stars have colors because I have been a night photographer for over ten years now. Not a stellar photographer with the equipment to move along with the rotation of the earth so that the stars remain stationary to the photograph plate (sensor) since that takes special equipment, but easily available today. I generally like the kind of night photographs that show the star “trails” recorded by long exposure and the earth rotation which makes it look like the *stars* are moving in a photograph.

The direction the camera is pointed, BTW, changes the “direction” the stars move. Point north and you will get the stars circling around the North Star. If you are interested in more about night photography, I personally recommend Lance Keimig workshops. He is also in the group, National Parks at Night, where you will see many variations on photographing the stars at night.  I participated in at the Zion National Park location in 2016. He has written The Definitive book on night photography, The Nightskye, now in it’s second edition.

Dennis Mammana is an actual sky photography, or I guess the proper term is astrophotographer. Plus he is an actual astronomer. He lives in the darkest town on the continental United States. FYI, if you go, rent vehicle in advance and make sure it is 4 wheel-drive with high ground clearance. I was fortunate that a last minute idea to hop out to see San Diego just because I had never seen it before using a really cheap (alas now bankrupt) air travel company, that he happened to do be doing a photographing the night sky at Borrego Park which I discovered 2 days before my flight and reserved a spot for and attended to my great enjoyment. Except the car part. No four wheel drives were left to rent, so it was a bit tricky, but we drove in a caravan so if I got stuck in the massive deep sand tracks, someone *might* be able to get me out. No extra room to maneuver in places though! Dennis is a great guy, kind and knowledgeable.

Okay, back to the book.

I  am too lazy to Google for more details as to how women who did math became known as computers. Obviously when contemporary people talk about computers they picture a machine. I suspect that since the job was to compute numbers, that’s why the original people that did those computations became called computers. Again too lazy to check if there were men computers at that time as well, or did the drudgery and detail already be deemed “women’s work” like typing became.

Anyway, Sobel mentions the “meagre wages” the workers got without digressing off on a comparison to what the professors made or what the Observatory director made. This is not the book for that. But the sheer injustice of it all just burns me up.

The book jackets gives a nice summary paragraph about the main women characters of this book:

They helped discern what the stars were made of divided the stars into meaningful categories for further research, and even found a way to measure distances across space by starlight. Their ranks included Williamina Fleming a Scottish immigrant originally hired as a MAID who went on to identify TEN NOVAE and more than THREE THOUSAND VISIBLE STARS; Annie Jump Cannon, who designed a stellar CLASSIFICATION SYSTEM that was adopted by astronomer the world over and is still in use today; and Dr. Cecilia Helena Payne, who in 1956 because the FIRST WOMAN PROFESSOR of Astronomy at HARVARD — and Harvard’s first female department chair.

Annie Cannon is my favorite because the classification system she developed is astonishing; a work of art really as much as science.

Good book, worth a read as hers all are but particularly fascinating post “Hidden Figures” historical depiction of how it used to be that some of us lived through but this one is back further by a century so to speak, falling in the 19th Century at the start. That is, before World War I, and way before the Enigma and the “computing machine” used to solve it (IBM was already making computing machines by WWII).

One little example of the tasks another woman (one of six already employed as computers at Harvard) is described as:

No, Mr. Pickering told her, as far as he knew the practice [employing women as computers] was unique to Harvard, which currently retains six female computers. While it would be unseemly, Pickering conceded, to subject a lady to the fatigue, not to mention the cold in winter, or telescope observing, women with a knack for figures could be accommodated in the computing room, where they did credit to the profession. Selina Bond, for example, as the daughter of the observatory’s revered first director, William Cranch Bond, and also the sister of his equally revered successor, George Phillips Bond. She was currently assisting Professor William Rogers in fixing the exact positions (in the celestial equivalents of latitude and longitude) for the several thousand stars in Harvard’s zone of the heavens, as part of a worldwide stellar mapping project administered by the Astronomische Gesellschaft in Germany. Professor Rogers spent every clear night at the large transit instrument, noting the time individual stars crossed the spider threads in the eyepiece. Since air — even clear air – BENT the paths of light waves, shifting the stars’ APPARENT positions, Miss Bond applied the mathematical formula that connected Professor Rogers’s notations for atmospheric effects. She used additional formulas and tables to account for other influential factors, such as Earth’s progress in its annual orbit, the direction of its travel, and the wobble of its axis. (p. 9)

The first lady mentioned, Williamina Fleming, the one who was a Scottish immigrant met a far better fate than she would have otherwise because her husband abounded her while she was pregnant, but they kept her on at Harvard regardless. She even had funds and the courage to go back to Scotland to have the baby, left him in the care of her mother and grandmaster, and still had a job and money enough to come back to continue work at Harvard.

This is a woman who otherwise in other places, indeed most times and places, including today, would have been shamed, shunned, and forced into a life of poverty, child care, and possibly only left with prostitution as a way to pay for food for herself and her son. What a disgrace this world still remains over a century later. she’s the one who identified TEN NOVAES and more than 3,00 visible stars.

The book has an excellent bibliography, decent index, and a timeline that needed some graphic designer to make it visual, but one can get the gist. The center has a section of color photographs (at least those that had color) so it is fun to see the people mentioned in the book.

last note: I am a bit confused about something but just want to finish this and get on to other things I must do. The woman who was a maid — for Mrs. Henry Draper, in another place is referred to as the developer of a classification system, but then Annie Jump Cannon is the one who designed the Henry Draper classification system. Google and see what’s what if you wish.