The Glass Universe

In the 1870s, before women had the right to vote or a firm standing in the workplace, a lucky few found employment at the Harvard College Observatory. The first female assistants were born to the work—as the wives, daughters, and sisters of the resident astronomers.

Over time other ladies joined the group, thanks to the director’s farsighted hiring practices and the introduction of photography to astronomy. Instead of observing through the telescope by night, the women could analyze the stars in daylight on glass photographic plates. Harvard's female workforce grew accordingly, and its individual members won national and international acclaim for their discoveries.

The most famous among them—Williamina Fleming, Antonia Maury, Annie Jump Cannon, Henrietta Leavitt, and Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin—are the heroines of this story. The work was not only performed by women, but also funded by female philanthropists such as Anna Palmer Draper and Catherine Wolfe Bruce. The half-million glass plates captured through a century’s worth of observing still occupy their own building at what is today the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. 

“Like the women of the Harvard Observatory, Dava Sobel reveals worlds to us. The Glass Universe is sensitive, exacting, and lit with the wonder of discovery.” —Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction
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