How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars
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Popular science writer Sobel (And the Sun Stood Still, 2016, etc.) continues her project of heralding the many contributions of women to science.

If you took an astronomy course in college, you learned a still-current classification system for the stars whose origins stretch back to the 1880s as well as a geography in which a star such as HD 209458—which “made news when modern detection methods located a planet in orbit around it”—finds its place in the star charts. Though the Henry Draper Catalogue bears a man’s name, it was the work of the women he hired as “computers” who did most of the analysis that fueled it. Draper, an astronomer and technologist, funded that work, overseen by a Harvard scientist named Edward Charles Pickering, who thought it ungallant to have women scrambling about in the cold and dark with the telescopes but thought that “women with a knack for figures could be accommodated in the computing room, where they did credit for the profession.” So they did, and Sobel’s heroines, at 25 cents per hour, made signal contributions to observational astronomy. Henrietta Swan Leavitt, for instance, took on the Great Nebula in Orion, discovering hundreds of variables, while the indomitable Williamina Paton Stevens Fleming ran an efficient shop while making enough advances on her own that, largely overlooked in her own country, she was made an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1906. Often, even as they made major discoveries, the “computers” of Harvard College Observatory left it to the males who ruled science to bask in their glory. More than recounting and celebrating the lives and work of these distinguished and decidedly unsung women, Sobel also provides insight into how basic science research is now supported, thanks to lessons learned in the military and commercial applications of once-arcane technologies—though, even after World War II and their contributions to it, women found it as difficult as ever to find scientific work.

A welcome and engaging work that does honor to Sobel’s subjects.

Pub Date: Dec. 6th, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-670-01695-2
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 2016


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