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The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars

3.54  ·  Rating details ·  1,817 ratings  ·  434 reviews
Author Dava Sobel returns with the little-known true story of a group of women whose contributions to the burgeoning field of astronomy forever changed our understanding of the stars and our place in the universe

In the mid-nineteenth century, the Harvard College Observatory began employing women as calculators, or “human computers,” to interpret the observations made via t
Hardcover, 336 pages
Published December 6th 2016 by Viking
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3.54  · 
Rating details
 ·  1,817 ratings  ·  434 reviews

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Dec 12, 2016 rated it it was ok
I wanted to love this book. It has all the hallmarks of things I love: strong woman, intelligent women, women in science, astronomy, a little known factoid of history, etc. This book is successful in the sense that Sobel has obviously done a lot of research into the facts and it able to relay them clearly, while also plainly explaining the science. However, I found this book no more than a recitation of those facts. None of the characters seemed to have a personality, and only a few had physical ...more
Brendon Schrodinger
"The Hidden History of the Women Who Took the Measure of the Stars"

You'd be forgiven if this book looked like a social history book of the struggles of female astronomers in the late 19th and early 20th Century. It's not a social history at all, even though it flouts itself on a social issue. It's a scientific history, and a fairly dry one at that which, I'd guess, would leave most of it's marketed audience high and dry.

Dava Sobel recounts the history of the Harvard College University which happ
Susanna - Censored by GoodReads
This book covers not only the seminal work of the ladies of the Harvard Observatory, from Annie Jump Cannon and Cecelia Payne on down, but also its directors, Edward Pickering (director 1877-1919) and Harlow Shapley (1922-1951). Most time is given from the 1880s through the 1930s. Some of the ladies of Harvard made great discoveries, from astronomy's first "true candle" of relative distance, the Cepheid variables, to the stellar classification scheme that is still in use, to name only two of the ...more
Alice, as in Wonderland
God only knows why this book is an incredibly dry read, but it really, really was. In comparison to another book about female mathematicians and scientists, Hidden Figures, this book both dragged and didn't drag enough. It throws people and lives at you in fast motion, leaving you unable to settle or focus on anyone except Pickering and arguably Draper to some extent. I can pick out some other names, such as Maury, Cannon and so on, but ask me about anecdotes about them specifically or their dai ...more
Mar 18, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Preface: If you're only going to read one book by Dava Sobel, my advice is: don't start here. Read her beloved classic, Longitude. Having said that, this book is worth it, as long as you're aware of what it is.

This is an incredibly informative book (with, among other things, extremely helpful supplementary materials, such as a glossary, cast of characters, and timeline), about a fascinating topic (the stars, and how we came to begin to understand them), centered around a research project of enor
Jun 02, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2017-reads
Another relatively new book uncovering the hidden histories and contributions of women in science. If I were to compare it to the most popular of those titles I'd say that the only things that The Glass Universe has in common with Hidden Figures, other than the women in science theme, are that both could be subtitled "When Computers Were Human" and both books offer women the respect of not calling them "Girls" (to wit: Rise of the Rocket Girls, Girls of Atomic City, Radium Girls, Lab Girl, Rocke ...more
Jan 03, 2017 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
My mind kept wandering as I listened to this. I did not get any sense of the women profiled in what I did listen to. I also got no sense of the larger socio-cultural-political environment that surrounded these women.

A far, far better book is Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly; Hidden Figures was fascinating and engaging and interesting and I understood what was supporting the employment o
Jan 20, 2018 rated it liked it
I have read much better tellings of Henrietta Swan Levitt and Cecilia Payne. This history was surprisingly dry. However, in the very first part of the book (that I thought was reflective of how the rest of the book would go), Sobel retold the history of the remarkable Mary Ann Palmer Draper and her husband Henry, two passionate astronomers and patrons of science.

Mary Anna Palmer Draper was a rare spouse (one of only 2 known in the nation) who collaborated with her husband Henry Draper, whose pa
Sep 28, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone, especially space or astronomy buffs.
This is not a quick weekend read but it is fairly engrossing. It traces the many women, (most of whom were first employed as "computers") who brought the science of astronomy into the 20th century at the Harvard Observatory. Some amazing discoveries were made by these women and this is their story. There were some male directors who saw what these women could accomplish when given time and opportunity.

You don't pick up Dava Sobel for a light read but she does make detailed and historically accur
Peter Mcloughlin
History of astronomy and the women of Harvard's astronomy program which formed the basic knowledge of astrophysics and stars. All the data that our theories of star life cycles, types of stars and distances of galaxies make possible our current cosmological picture of the universe. We stand on the shoulder of giants. In this case, numerous women who collected data on glass plate emulsions of photographed stars. The data these women collected and insights they provided are the basis of much of wh ...more
Novels And Nonfiction
Dec 30, 2016 rated it really liked it

What I Liked

The focus on the scientific breakthroughs and contributions to astronomy/astrophysics accomplished by the female scientists in the book. By reading The Glass Universe I learned a lot about the evolution of the science of stellar spectroscopy, which was absolutely fascinating. From advances in telescope size and power, to the first photographs taken of stars, to the discovery that these photographs could reveal so many of the hidden mysteries of
Jan 19, 2017 rated it it was ok
Sigh....astronomically dull (get it?). I was interested in the topic but this was just too dry for me.
Dec 13, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
I have really enjoyed the writing of Dava Sobel, especially in her books The Planets and Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time. She combines a clear writing style with excellent scientific research, which allows the reader to grasp ideas that stretch the mind.

On her website, she says:
"Even before the publication of Longitude twenty-one years ago, I learned about a group of women who worked at the Harvard Colle
Nick Smith
Aug 22, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This was the first science book I have read in some time. I've always done well and been successful in science, in school, and I admire books on astronomy, cosmology, natural history, evolution, and string theory. I received a few recommendations that I should read some books by Dava Sobel. This was the first book of hers that I have ever read. She is systematic and comprehensive both in presenting an orderly history of the undertakings of the Harvard Observatory and its staff, and also in expla ...more
Apr 26, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
In an interview, Arthur Searle, acting director of the Harvard College Observatory, told a journalist, "It is only fair to warn you that your proposed article cannot be at once true and entertaining. The work of an astronomer is as dull as that of a book-keeper, which it closely resembles." It turns our that he was quite wrong!

Dava Sobel has written an interesting, engaging, historical, and emotional story of the dedicated women who revolutionized Astronomy. In fact, it is fair to say that witho
I have enjoyed reading a number of Sobel’s books such as “Galileo’s Daughter”. This book is about the women who worked at the Harvard College Observatory in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They were called computers. After reading “Rocket Girls” and “Hidden Figures”, I know this is a term applied to women who did the math and analytical work for scientists. These women at the Observatory were math, physics and astronomy majors and some were Ph.Ds. These women studied, compared, classifie ...more
I would like to thank NetGalley, Penguin Publishing, and Dava Sobel for the advanced digital copy in exchange for an honest review. This is the story of the women of Harvard's astronomy program. It began in the mid-nineteenth century when Harvard College Observatory began hiring women as "human computers". They studied thousands of glass photographic plates which consisted of magnified images of the cosmos. I felt this book was a bit too scientific. Sobel was unable to connect her "characters" t ...more
Even Cassandra Campbell's clear and thoughtful reading couldn't save this book for me. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I've liked Sobel's books before, and I was excited about this, having read an historical romance back in the late 70s, early 80s that featured astronomer Maria Mitchell. She's not present here, except for a mention. Perhaps the focus was to narrow for me--primarily the women at Harvard--and perhaps had it focused on women in astronomy it would have been livelier with ...more
Dec 06, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Fascinating read about the lives of the women that catalogued, classified, and calculated the astronomy discoveries of the mid-nineteenth century. Also interesting to a native Pittsburgher to hear such familiar names Buhl and Carnegie intertwined in this narrative.

While there's a profuse use of astronomy history and terminology, I found it easy to follow along many years after college Astronomy 101.
Jan 18, 2017 marked it as didn-t-survive-the-60-page-rule
I read over 100 pages and gave up. Very dry reading, especially for someone like me with no knowledge of astronomy. Interesting to know how many female computers were installed in the Harvard observatory.
May 19, 2017 rated it really liked it
An absorbing biography of the collection of astronomical spectro-photographs at Harvard Observatory, from 1882, when the widowed Anna Palmer Draper decided to devote a slab of her vast inheritance to the continuation of her late husband's work on astronomical spectroscopy, until 1941, a year marked by the death of Annie Jump Cannon, the extraordinary astronomer whose work over decades on the classification of stars, using those photographs, brought her international acclaim, a scad of scientific ...more
Andrew Hiller
Jan 20, 2018 rated it liked it
This is the second audio book I've listened to in 2018 and it's a mixed bag.

There's endlessly cool amounts of information about the players in late 19th Century astronomy and I loved reading the letters that Sobel shared through her research. The importance of women to the field in defining classification systems and developing our current understanding of the universe is outstanding. The deftly and very gently delves into the glass ceiling as well as the glass universe in discussing different j
Dec 23, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, science
This book blends two of my favorite non-fiction topics: history and science. It examines the Harvard Observatory from around 1882 to the mid-20th century, and particularly the contributions made by the women who worked there. Most started out as computers, doing the complicated but tedious tasks. Eventually some gained doctorates in astronomy themselves and were honored around the world for their discoveries. Not with equal pay, of course. Two long-time directors of the observatory and a wealthy ...more
Not exactly what I expected. The focus was more on the research being done than on the women doing the research. Part of that was very interesting but most was over my head.

Of interest to probably no one other than myself...I listen to audiobooks on cross-country road trips with my cat. Some narrators are displeasing to him as evidenced by increased meowing and general restlessness. He seemed to find the narrator for this audiobook, Cassandra Campbell, quite soothing. I liked her voice, too.
Aug 12, 2017 rated it really liked it
The Glass Universe - is this a play on "The Glass Ceiling" or is it a description of the work that these bright, highly educated, and motivated women did with the glass photographic plates of images of the stars? An interesting look at the female computers at Harvard Observatory from the end of the 19th to the beginning of the 20th century. I would also like to put in a good word for some of the men who saw what these women had to offer and who encouraged them. The work was what many people woul ...more
Dec 05, 2017 rated it really liked it
I was surprised at how much information about the stars and the universe, that I take for granted,was discovered in the relatively recent time period covered by this book, and it was exciting that so many women were participants in large and small ways in these discoveries.
Jun 25, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was extremely interesting and informative! Loved it, especially the picture section in the end to relate everything I had just read to actual visual material.
I think this book is well researched, and there were a number of sources that Sobel had to consult, gather together and analyze and organize into the narrative. Prior to beginning this book, I had read several reviews of it and so was looking forward to reading it. I say this because I am rating it 3 stars, which is a reflection, I suspect, more of my interests than the excellence of the book. I do not want to discourage anyone to read it. The women made significant discoveries, such as how to m ...more
Dec 02, 2017 added it
Shelves: abandoned
I only read a third of this book and lost interest. The details are not as captivating as knowing that this history exists.
Dec 29, 2016 rated it liked it
This book was not what I expected from the title. Rather than a history of women astronomers, it turned out to be a history of the Harvard Observatory that highlights the contributions of female benefactors and researchers. While this book may appeal to people interested in the development of astronomy, it did not provide the kind of personal or social history I was looking for.

Dava Sobel does an excellent job in this book of describing the scientific work of the observatory in terms that can be
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Dava Sobel is an accomplished writer of popular expositions of scientific topics. A 1964 graduate of the Bronx High School of Science, Ms. Sobel attended Antioch College and the City College of New York before receiving her bachelor of arts degree from the State University of New York at Binghamton in 1969. She holds honorary doctor of letters degrees from the University of Bath, in England, and M ...more
“To have done work which is widely recognized, to have gained the sincere esteem of many and the real love of even a few, surely these are sufficient reasons to look on life as well worth the living.” 0 likes
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