The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory took the Measure of the Stars by Dava Sobel (3 out of 5)

I decided that 2019 would be the year that I took my passing interest in astronomy and all things related into my book challenge for the year. This along with daring to read more nonfiction. My co-worker Andrew is a “terrible” (terrific) influence on me. I ordered a bunch of astronomy and books relating to Earth science last year. I’m just now getting to them, one by one. I started with this one only because it was in the pile of books I found on my bedside table a week ago. Sadly, this is how I’m delegating book choices! Anyway, Dava Sobel is known for a number of scientific and earth science-centric titles, most notable among them “Galileo’s Daughter” and “Longitude”. This one was a good read. It just didn’t light the fire I’d hoped for, namely that I wanted to jump straight into another nonfiction. It made me want some space…like a couple of Saturn’s moons.

In the 19th century, Harvard Observatory begins employing a small group of women to interpret the galactic observations made by their male counterparts with their telescopes. The official job title of the ladies, interestingly, was “computers”. I think if someone called me a computer, I would call them Tom Brady. The initial group of ladies were family members or wives of the resident astronomers, but as years progressed, that group expanded to include members of and graduates of the women’s colleges at the time. Photography expanded the field even more, and the group began studying the stars on glass photographic plates. Harvard managed to amass half a million of the glass plates (the glass universe), leaving the ladies able to make astonishing and history making discoveries. The list of ladies and what they did and what they discovered working with the tools they had? Amazing, and no question that it was groundbreaking at a time when women were usually expected at their husband’s beck and call and in the home. Inspiring as hell. It got a little muddled, though. Simply because the book reads like a long form list of names and personalities; only none of them really had much of a personality. It’s hard to get into that much of a history of the stars and what the ladies of the observatory did and realize that you really have no measure of THEIR individual personalities. I know much has been made of that time period and the limited roles of ladies outside of polite society, but come on! Make me give a shit about them, not just their accomplishments, impressive as they were. Also interesting to note is that not only do we have a cardboard coalition of ladies, but we also have no discussions of equality amongst the sexes, pay wage disparity (you know they didn’t make the money the male astronomers did; this is fact, just not fact mentioned by Sobel), sexual harassment, intellectual challenges brought forth, and credit fairly given to those who made discoveries, not those who merely possessed the right genitalia. I had hoped this book would shine a light on these issues, at least a little bit. I read Hidden Figures a year ago and recently reread it, and that is a great example of a book covering phenomenal ladies and addressing the social issues presented with being a woman in a field..and a world…dominated by men. No such luck here, and that confuses me. It also took a lot out of the enthusiasm I had for the book. So..go to it if you want inspiring stories of these incredibly gifted astronomers, but don’t get cheesed off by lack of social commentary.

~ by generationgbooks on January 21, 2019.

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