No. 118 (essentialsaltes) wrote,
No. 118

The Glass Universe, by Dava Sobel

I really like Sobel's book on Galileo's Daughter, so I was definitely curious to read this one. It tells the history of the female calculators at Harvard University. How their role changed from the late 19th century into the mid-20th. First as (very modestly paid) numerical calculators, and then examiners of photographic plates, and on into become some of the main organizers of early stellar spectroscopic data, and early studies of variable stars to the first Ph.D. students and dissertations, and on into everything from Oh Be A Fine Girl to spectroscopic binaries, to the discovery that stars are mostly hydrogen and helium, to the law between variable star periods and their intrinsic brightness, one of our first and best rulers for measuring the distance to distant stars.

Just some other details that caught my eye:

The story focuses on the women, but also goes into other activities of the broader Harvard Observatory, including setting up a telescope in Peru near Arequipa, which got involved in some civil unrest "[Bailey] recorded daily events, the din of nearby rifle fire, and his relief that the battle coincided with the cloudy season, 'as otherwise it would sadly interfere with our night work.'" Or Shapley's work on globular clusters showing that we are not in the center of the galaxy. In Shapley's words, "the solar system is off center and consequently man is too, which is a rather nice idea because it means that man is not such a big chicken."

Just after WWII, Cecilia Payne and her husband Sergei Gaposchkin took in the family of Reverend Casper Horikoshi -- a Japanese born missionary whose family had recently been interned at one Heart Mountain camp before now coming to Massachusetts for Divinity school. He and his wife probably had some stories of their own to tell.
Tags: book, history, malebutnotnarrow, physics, science

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