Book Review: The Glass Universe

The Glass Universe:  How The Ladies Of The Harvard Observatory Took The Measure Of The Stars, by Dava Sobel

When I was a tenth grade student taking AP European History, the document based question portion of the exam that year that I had to answer involved female astronomers from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and there were a lot of parallels between those documents and the ones examined here.  The author works with a clear agenda in presenting the women of Harvard’s observatory rather than the men–one of whom was the discoverer of Pluto but is nearly entirely ignored except as an endnote about having been a part of the observatory during his career.  Any author who can ignore the discoverer of Pluto [1] so that she can pursue a gender politics agenda is doing something very wrong.  That is not to say that the author does not tell a story that deserves to be told, for female astronomers and calculators are worthy of as much attention of their male colleagues, and the first wave feminism of the women themselves, the feminism of difference that seeks equal respect and remuneration and credit but believes in a difference between the sexes, is certainly one I can at least grudgingly support.  The book, though, tries to ignore or downplay men as much as it implicitly accuses other accounts of ignoring or downplaying women.  We do not right wrongs by repeating them in reverse.

This book is divided into three parts that take up about 250 pages, although the book is filled with a great deal of detail that suggests the author was trying to make a book out of something that had enough material to fill an essay.  The titles of the chapters come out of late Victorian or Edwardian novels, like “Mrs. Draper’s Intent” (1) or “What Miss Maury Saw” (2).  The general picture, though explained in a convoluted fashion, is easy enough to understand.  In the late 19th and at least through the middle of the 20th centuries, women served as (relatively) inexpensive labor that was involved in studying the light spectra of stars, as well as the classification of stars based on those spectra, as well as the routine work of dealing with university politics and publishing papers and chasing awards.  There is enough compelling material here to make a quaint historical film for the art house crowd but those readers who do not share the author’s left-leaning bias will not find all aspects of this book to be appealing, including the way the author tries to smear Senator McCarthy rather than face up to the problems of left-wing biases among scientists and their potential implications with regards to espionage and disloyalty.

At any rate, the author has chosen to tell a story about some aristocratic and mostly spinsterish women committed to scientific advancement at an elite university.  Like the early modern female astronomers I read about, many of them were either from elite households or were connected to them (one of them, surprisingly enough, as a former housekeeper) and their elite status made it easier for them to enter into the world of science, as was the fact that they were paid considerably less because they were not assumed to have households of their own.  The author includes enough of the raw material of these women’s lives and writings and research to make her editorializing nearly tolerable, if not enjoyable, and if you have an interest in women in science, and in some of the more obscure corners of astronomy, there is a lot to enjoy here.  For myself, though, I would have preferred more about the discoverer of Pluto.  That would have been as obscure a story and one that would have had less unpleasant political overtones as well.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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2 Responses to Book Review: The Glass Universe

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

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