Dava Sobel, the bestselling author of Longitude, explains elegantly the story of the female “computers” and their painstaking tabulation who worked on the classification of stars through the latter half of 19th and first half of the 20th century. Astronomer Dr Henry Draper, and his heiress wife Anna in 1882 have invited an eminent gathering of scientists for dinner to their Madison Avenue mansion. Sobel continues her streak of luminous science writing with this captivating and fascinating witty book revealing the true story of women’s landmark contributions to astronomy.
Dava Sobel writes “ The red-haired Mrs Draper, an heiress and renowned hostess, surveyed her electrified salon with satisfaction” The gathering was a great success, although her 45-year-old husband is suffering from a cold, although five days later he died of pericarditis, and Mrs Draper is determined to honour his memory by continuing his work.
Henry’s was an astronomical photographer whose work of stars through a prism, resulting in varying patterns of lines that seemed to indicate the star’s constituent elements. Edward Pickering from Harvard, chose young women for data analysis especially a young women named Williamina or “Mina” Fleming, who was hired as maid but her talents promoted her to the computing room. Ladies of the Harvard Observatory took the measure of the stars as photography transformed the practice of astronomy.
Pickering’s focus was Dr. Pickering’s photometry, the study of brightness of stars including variables, stars that vary their light output over time. Draper’s 300, 000 glass plates captured images of thousands of stars tracking changes of images through time, and are Sobel’s “Glass Universe”, capturing skies above Massachusetts and most of the south hemisphere, from, the Peruvian outpost.
The Glass Universe: The Hidden History of the Women Who Took the Measure of the Stars by Dava Sobel, Fourth Estate £16.99/ Viking $30, 336 pages