The women history forgot

New book sheds light on the women astronomers of the late 19th century

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Courtesy of the Harvard University Archives
The astronomers of Harvard gather for a photo taken on May 19, 1925, including Cecilia Payne, at the drafting table, the first person to earn a Ph.D. in astronomy.

While the world knows the name John Glenn as the first man to orbit the Earth, it wasn’t until last year’s Oscar-nominated hit Hidden Figures, that the world learned more about the group of African American women who helped put him there. Heroes of their time, these women surpassed racial and gender boundaries to advance their country and help NASA win the Space Race.

But several decades before the women of Hidden Figures made history, there was another group of ladies who were making major discoveries about the sky above. Starting in the 1870s, flocks of women joined the astronomy ranks at Harvard College Observatory to undertake the task of charting the night sky to further understand the stars.

These women are the subject of the new book The Glass Universe, by author Dava Sobel, who stops by the Boulder Book Store on March 9.

Similar to Hidden Figures, The Glass Universe lifts the veil on the women history forgot.

“A lot has happened in world history,” Sobel says. “It’s a lot to keep everything at the forefront. Somebody has to care and go back and pick up one of these stories and tell it.”

During the late 19th century, photography revolutionized the practice of astronomy. Because the camera enabled longer exposure times, photographs were able to capture details the eye could not see through a telescope. As Harvard amassed a great number of glass photographic plates, they began hiring “human computers” to do the math and chart the positions of the stars.

“The women were very good at this kind of work,” Sobel says. “[Looking at these plates] you get a sense of just how tiny the figures are and how many gazillions of stars are on a plate. It takes a certain kind of patience and perseverance to work with that image, and they were up to the task.

“They were doing something new,” she continues. “It was important, they enjoyed it, and it was a real challenge. They knew how lucky they were.”

The women went on to create a sorting system for the stars called the Henry Draper Catalog (named for the astronomy enthusiast who essentially began the collection). This allowed astronomers to separate the stars and understand the differences between them, and it is still in use today around the world, Sobel says.

Courtesy of Hastings Historical Society, New York
Antonia Maury installing a 6-inch Clark telescope.

The first women to do this work were the wives, sisters and daughters of astronomers, most of whom learned on the job. One of these women was Williamina Fleming, a Scottish immigrant originally hired as a maid in the house of a Harvard astronomer. Fleming went on to make significant additions to the star catalogue, identifying more than 300 variable stars and 10 novae. Fleming was also a single mother, and she was able to put her son through Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he graduated and then went on to become a mining engineer.

Also during this time, women’s colleges began to emerge, churning out qualified graduates who were able to push past the title of computer and become astronomers. Women also went on to break records in education, like Cecilia Payne.

“You sometimes see her listed as the first woman to get a Ph.D. in astronomy at Harvard, but she was actually the first person to do so,” Sobel says.

The contributions these women made to the field is indisputable and led to later findings, like the work of Henrietta Swan Leavitt, whose discovery on measuring distances in space is now called the Leavitt Law. It’s the law Edwin Hubble used to show there are other galaxies beyond the Milky Way, and the same one he later used to show the universe is expanding.

Joining Sobel at the Boulder Book Store March 9 will be Boulder Ensemble Theater Company, who will be doing a scene from their upcoming show Silent Sky, which opens April 6. The play follows Leavitt as she maps the sky and explores the mystery of her own life as well.

While Henrietta Leavitt is a name every astronomer has heard, Sobel says, the same cannot be said about many of the others in The Glass Universe.

“When I was writing, I got a number of people to fact check the book,” she says. “There was a professor of astronomy at Harvard and she was astounded. ‘I’ve heard this story but I always thought they did some minor work. I didn’t realize how much science they were actually doing.’ The fact that’s the case, even at Harvard, convinced me that I was really right to go after this,” she continues. “[These women] are not household names.”

Mia Berg
Dava Sobel will stop by the Boulder Book Store March 9.

In 2017, women are starting to gain traction in STEM fields, yet the landscape is still woefully off balance in terms of gender equality. But Sobel notes some glimmers of hope toward a more equal future.

“Just recently, it was occurring to me how many women were in high positions in science,” Sobel says. “The head of the National Science Foundation, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Astronomical Society and [until this year] the American Geophysical Union are all women. At Harvard about half the astronomy graduates students are women, but only a third of senior faculty.”

As storytellers like Sobel continue to unearth these untold histories, they even the playing field and provide upcoming generations with pioneers to look up to, hopefully leading to a brighter future filled with more scientific discoveries.

“There’s a lot of support out there now to encourage girls that they really can do this. They shouldn’t be ashamed of being good at math, it’s really OK,” she says with a laugh. “And there were a lot of women before them that were good at math.

“Stories like [The Glass Universe] and Hidden Figures, it’s important to tell these stories,” she continues. “A lot of young girls have no role models. The only woman scientist they’ve ever heard of is Madame Curie. And that’s is going to change. It is changing.”

On the Bill: Dava Sobel — The Glass Universe with special performance from BETC. 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 9, Boulder Book Store, 1107 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-447-2074.