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The Glass Universe: The Hidden History of the Women Who Took the Measure of the Stars 
by Dava Sobel.
Fourth Estate, 336 pp., £16.99, January 2017, 978 0 00 754818 7
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It’s nice​ to settle in with an old-fashioned story of inheritances, dramatic shifts in social class and the occasional total eclipse of the Sun. Dava Sobel’s The Glass Universe: The Hidden History of the Women Who Took the Measure of the Stars begins in the late 19th century, following the story of the women (and a few men, too) who worked at the Harvard College Observatory computing the location and brightness of the stars. Many of these women progressed from being skilled ‘human computers’ – basically people doing calculations – to making major scientific contributions: documenting the birth of new stars, working out what the stars are actually made of (surprise: almost all hydrogen and helium) and devising ways to measure distances across space. This all began happening at a time when American women still could not vote, and when many questioned whether women merited a higher education at all.

As the story moves forward into the first half of the 20th century, The Glass Universe still mostly reads like a 19th-century novel, following unexpected turns of chance and the fateful course of inheritances. There’s some science, of course – but also a tragic drowning, a fatal case of dysentery and (late in the game) a marriage plot or two. Reading the book reminded me that one reason 19th-century novels are the way they are is that the 19th century was the way it was (for a good measure of people). These women have some control over their lives, but chance is a more powerful determinant. One observatory employee whom Sobel writes about extensively is a certain Mrs Fleming: a Scot who comes over to America pregnant in 1878. Abandoned by her husband, she finds work at the observatory as the director’s maid, and then, when it is discovered that she has a natural mathematical facility, she is hired for astronomical work. Soon enough she is supervising a large team of ‘computers’, has developed a stellar classification system and drawn attention to what are known as ‘variable stars’.

So much event! Charles Pickering, the director who hired Mrs Fleming and who oversaw the years when the number of women computers grew from three to twenty, is not only dashing and interested in women’s intellectual development, but also comes co-cast with a prodigal brother whom he dispatches to a mountain-top in Peru to build a Southern Hemisphere Observatory for Harvard. The prodigal Pickering spends too much money on building the family villa. The responsible Pickering tactfully replaces him. Minor characters in The Glass Universe have dramatic arcs, too, such as the impoverished elderly sisters, Miss Bond and Miss Bond. Decades earlier the Bond sisters’ father was a director of the observatory, but in the timeframe covered by Sobel they have to write to the current director begging for employment after a ‘scurrilous trustee’ cheats them out of their inheritance.

But in spite of all the picaresque detail in this book (and I haven’t even mentioned the earthquake in Peru, the fire at the director’s house, or the blind painter heiress who pays for people to look at the stars), there are extended portions of The Glass Universe which one might fairly term dull. Part of the dullness is unavoidable: meticulously tracking the brightness and position of thousands of stars on photographic plates – essential, groundbreaking work done by the women at the observatory – is tedious. Just as arranging in detail for a special glass factory in Munich to make a new telescope lens is at once game-changing and mind-numbing. Often, as in her most famous book, Longitude, Sobel excels at dramatising otherwise rather opaque scientific glory – you really get a sense in The Glass Universe of how exciting it must have been to decode the meaning of the thick and thin lines of the stars’ spectral patterns, for example – but the relevant science often feels somewhat peripheral. Even the people at times feel peripheral, in part because there are so many of them. Sobel tacitly acknowledges this by having a dramatis personae at the back of the book. It has 52 entries. With such a large cast it is difficult to remember who wanted to alter the stellar classification system, and who was the niece of the Draper family, and so on.

And yet there is something productive about all the confusion: it directs the readerly gaze towards a bigger picture. There are plenty of books which think about this period in astronomy – when we learned that we are just one galaxy among many, that the universe is receding from us in every direction – but none (that I have discovered) looks as a whole at the dozens of women who found work at the Harvard College Observatory at a time when near enough to no women were employed in astronomy, or any other science, elsewhere. (An excellent book by George Johnson focuses on one of those women, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, the under-acknowledged astronomer who deduced a way to measure distances in space.) Writing about a group of people is tricky – it is easier for a reader to connect to the story of an individual, whether remarkable, or pathetic, or evil – but writing at the scale of one person can obscure other stories with superior explanatory power.

The most memorable and well-drawn characters in The Glass Universe turn out to be ye olde Money and Chance. Sobel begins her story with a dinner party at a mansion on Madison Avenue. The hostess, Mrs Draper, is an heiress, the host, Mr Draper, an astronomer. Mr Draper dies unexpectedly, five days after the dinner; Mrs Draper resolves that her husband’s work, documenting the stars through photographs taken from his private observatory, must go on. And so substantial funding and a telescope find their way to the Harvard College Observatory, whose director, Pickering, had naturally been at the dinner party.

Thus a chip falls one way instead of another. That this story then becomes one of women becoming notable astronomers is in large part a consequence of the Harvard observatory, newly equipped, still being strapped for cash to meet the scope of its ambitions. The observatory was acquiring images more quickly than it could assess them and in 1882 Pickering put out a call for volunteers, noting especially that

Many ladies are interested in astronomy and own telescopes … Many of them have the time and inclination for such work, and especially among the graduates of women’s colleges are many who have had abundant training to make excellent observers … The criticism is often made by the opponents of the higher education of women that, while they are capable of following others as far as men can, they originate almost nothing, so that human knowledge is not advanced by their work. This reproach would be well answered could we point to a long series of such observations as are detailed below, made by women observers.

It may have been unpaid labour, but it was also progress. Pickering called, and the ladies answered.

More money came from another heiress – the blind painter, Miss Bruce – and more women came to be actually employed at the observatory, earning between 25 and 50 cents an hour, about half of what men doing the same work would get. Eventually Pickering also obtained funds for research fellowships specifically for women (naturally called Pickering Fellowships), which meant that when his successor as director decided to start a PhD programme – there had been no graduate studies in astronomy at Harvard before then – the most readily available funds were for female students: the first graduate student class were all women.

Still, the women struggled, and Sobel gives the financial detail. Miss Maury, we learn, supplemented her income by giving ‘Evenings with the Stars’ lectures: $10 for one lecture, $30 for a four-part series. Miss Payne, the first woman to earn a PhD in astronomy (from Radcliffe), falls between paycheques when she moves from a job in Cambridge, England to Cambridge, Massachusetts; she had been getting paid at the beginning of the month, now she gets paid at the end – and so in order to pay her rent she pawns her jewellery and violin.

Seeing Money and Chance clearly, rather than as ghostly background presences, has the happy effect of minimising the sense that this is a story of heroes and villains. It’s nice, sure, that Pickering has the vision to hire women, but the story isn’t about him. Nor is it about Abbott Lawrence Lowell, the president of Harvard who makes a classically villainous appearance to deny a renowned female astronomer a university appointment she obviously merits, and swear that she will never get a professorship while he’s alive. Pickering and Lowell, when seen from a distance, and across time, are only as consequential as clear or cloudy skies in a stargazing project: they will pass. They can help or they can hurt, but their power to do so is dwarfed by impersonal forces.

When the book begins, a notable astronomer of the Lowell family – a relative of the Harvard president – could still look up at Mars and be convinced he saw canals, and a Martian race, thirsty, searching for water, desperate for our help. The women of the Harvard College Observatory were less romantic, and less wrong. In 1893 Williamina Fleming, the Scottish maid turned astronomer, was looking over a photographic plate of the night sky taken three months earlier when she noticed that one of the stars had an unusual spectrum, with a dozen bright hydrogen lines. This pattern was characteristic of a stella nova – an apparently new star in the sky (though we now understand it to be the flaring of an ancient star). A stella nova was something that had been documented only nine times before in history, including twice by Tycho Brahe and once by Galileo. Fleming had found the tenth stella nova; it was named Norma.

She went on to find nine more. The technique she used – studying photographic plates rather than looking directly at the sky – was a change in astronomy comparable to the use of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) in molecular biology, which by multiplying copies of DNA sequences allowed genes to be studied in ways never possible before. With the increase in raw data as well as precision, Fleming was able to develop a much more sophisticated star classification system than the four-type arrangement then dominant; her later colleague, Annie Jump Cannon, developed a system even more evolved, one that is still in use today. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say these women’s classification work was like replacing Fire, Air, Earth and Water with the periodic table. Fleming had just one word put on her gravestone: ‘astronomer’.

The women at the observatory are also distinguished for their work on variable stars – stars whose brightness changes over time. Henrietta Swan Leavitt, who tracked more variable stars than anyone else, noticed that the brighter variables also had longer periods – their variations between bright and dim took place over a longer cycle. Her observations let astronomers determine distances across space, a method still in use. In 1925, a Swedish mathematician wanted to nominate Leavitt for the Nobel Prize in Physics, but she died in 1921, and the prize has rarely been awarded posthumously.

In 1900, Harvard University put together a time capsule, the ‘Chest of 1900’. Fleming was invited to put together a six-week diary for inclusion in the capsule. She explains her working days in detail, noting what is being done for ‘the classification of the spectra of the faint stars for the Southern Draper catalogue’. She also takes time to say: ‘My home life is necessarily different from that of other officers of the University since all housekeeping cares rest on me, in addition to those of providing the means to meet their expenses.’ On her one day off, changing linen and attending to other housework, she notes: ‘Alas how matter of fact and different from the Sunday morning duties of other officers of the University.’

Fleming appears to have had a pretty positive relationship with Pickering, who after all had seen fit to hire her up from the position of maid. But in her journal, which she knows will be sealed in a capsule for a century, she writes:

He seems to think that no work is too much or too hard for me, no matter what the responsibility or how long the hours. But let me raise the question of salary and I am immediately told that I receive an excellent salary as women’s salaries stand … Sometimes I feel tempted to give up and let him try someone else, or some of the men to do my work, in order to have him find out what he is getting for $1500 a year from me, compared with $2500 for some of the other [male] assistants. Does he ever think that I have a home to keep and a family to take care of as well as the men? But I suppose a woman has no claim to such comforts. And this is considered an enlightened age!

A month later, she writes: ‘I find that on March 12 I have written at considerable length regarding my salary. I do not intend this to reflect on the Director’s judgment, but feel that it is due to his lack of knowledge regarding the salaries received by women in responsible positions elsewhere.’ For historical record, she softens the tone. Fleming, understandably aggrieved, was the only woman at that time to hold an official position at Harvard. When she died – this happens less than halfway through The Glass Universe – her obituary, written by Pickering, mentioned her stock: her great-grandmother had eloped with an army captain, followed him to the Peninsular War in Spain, and given birth on a battlefield the very day her husband was killed.

One woman​ whose wages in science we need not worry about is Dava Sobel. Longitude, put out by a small press in 1995 and in no obvious way destined to have mass appeal, spent a decade on the bestseller lists. This is remarkable for many reasons, among them that longitude is a subject that requires gracefully reminding readers of elementary school knowledge they have probably forgotten. In that slim book, Sobel took a subject that to the modern reader might seem technical and abstract, and managed to communicate what was so exciting not just about the problem – inaccurate longitude estimates were causing ships to founder, the prize money set by the king for accurately determining longitude was enormous – but also about the fact that it was solved by a clockmaker (read peasant-type) rather than an astronomer from the Royal Society. After the scientific problem is ingeniously solved, there ensues a long injustice plot regarding verification and recognition for the clockmaker. The emotional tension of those chapters recalls Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas.

It never feels quite right to be most attached to a writer’s most famous work. But there’s something private and swift about Longitude. The Glass Universe has a more dutiful energy to it. Sobel’s other books include Galileo’s Daughter and A More Perfect Heaven. In the former we are put in touch with a woman stuck in a nunnery since the age of 13 who is still incandescent and curious. In the latter we learn about the unlikely young stranger who travelled to hostile political territory to persuade a hesitant old man – Copernicus – to publish his world-shifting theories. These books are more straightforwardly fun to read, in part because of the cameo-thrill of world-historical figures attended to at a human scale, Galileo eating lemon treats, Copernicus writing a treatise on monetary policy.

Another of Sobel’s books, The Planets, an eccentric love letter of sorts to each orb, shows her at her most playful and poetic. Here is the opening to the chapter entitled ‘Lunacy’:

During the glory days of the Apollo project, a young astronomer who analysed Moon rocks at a university laboratory fell in love with my friend Carolyn, and risked his job and the national security to give her a quantum of Moon dust.

‘Where is it? Let me see!’ I demanded at this news.

But she answered quietly, ‘I ate it.’ After a pause she added, ‘There was so little.’

As though that explained everything … . I still envy Carolyn her taste of the Moon … In reality I know she is married now to a veterinarian in upstate New York and has three grown children. She doesn’t glow in the dark or walk on air. She has long since lost all traces of that Moon morsel, which no doubt passed through her body in the usual manner. What could it have contained, anyway, to preoccupy me all these years?

A few grains of titanium and aluminum?

Some helium atoms borne from the Sun on the solar wind?

The shining essence of all that is unattainable?

Sobel generally prefers an unobtrusive prose style, but because she writes about science she has so much specialised language with which she can work. Again, in Planets: ‘All geologic ferment on the Moon ceased about three billennia ago, after the late heavy bombardment cleared the solar system of most menacing massive projectiles. Today, a ton-mass meteorite strikes the Moon no more than once in three years, on average.’ That tossed off ‘billennia’ is great, as is the sleight of hand achieved by that ‘on average’, which transforms a ton-mass meteorite into not too big a deal in the scheme of things.

To the extent​ that it plays with the antiquated language of the 19th century, The Glass Universe, by contrast, can feel a bit dusty. Referring to the astronomers by their gender honorifics, and using chapter titles such as ‘Mrs Draper’s Intent’ and ‘Miss Bruce’s Largesse’, is at once cute, historically appropriate and irritating; the same goes for terms like ‘a Princeton wag’. But when in the latter half of the book Sobel turns, as her subject requires, to the dreaded marriage plots – which until then I would have been happy not to have to read – the emotional and narrative energy picks up. For much of the book the relationship between a star’s periodicity and brightness to its distance dominates any other ‘relationship’ stories. ‘No one had left to get married since Nettie Farrar’s departure at the start of the Draper project. As Mrs Fleming could attest, the women now on staff were wedded to their work.’ In the world that Sobel has drawn up to that point, you don’t want to be Nettie Farrar, who, of course, stops working once she’s married. But as the decades proceed, the possibilities shift. When a male graduate student joins the programme – Frank S. Hogg is his Mad Magazine name – he ends up with the new Pickering Fellow from Mount Holyoke, Miss Sawyer. They both keep working, and Sawyer goes on to win a prestigious prize. Later Bart Bok, just 22, turns up, and is starry-eyed for Miss Fairfield, who is far more accomplished than him and ten years his senior. They marry, and eventually write a popular book together on the Milky Way. The Bok-Fairfield affair would be refreshingly modern if it happened yesterday.

The most thematically resonant of the marriage plots is saved for the end. It begins with a close friendship between two women astronomers, Miss Ames and Miss Payne, one beautiful and rich, one plain and poor. Their colleagues term them ‘the heavenly twins’. When Miss Ames drowns, Miss Payne is so despondent that eventually her friends persuade her to travel – anything to shake the depression. It’s 1933. Payne goes to visit observatories in northern Europe, and then, despite repeated advice not to go, in the Soviet Union. There she meets people immeasurably more miserable even than her. When she presents the observatory people with some coffee as a gift they throw a party: none of them has had coffee in years. There is very little food. Their research facilities are unworkable. One evening there is an especially luxurious supper: it includes carrots (which her host confesses he stole). Another evening a young Russian woman leads her out to the middle of a field so as not to be overheard to whisper-beg for help getting abroad: ‘I would wash dishes, I would do anything to get away from here.’

Payne proceeds to a meeting of the Astronomische Gesellschaft in Göttingen, and there the plot thickens. A man familiar with her research on the make-up of stars approaches her. He has cycled 150 miles to meet her.

Gaposchkin was a Russian émigré facing Nazi persecution. As one of ten children born to poor parents in the Crimean village of Yevpatoria, he had worked on fishing boats, farms and in factories to realise his childhood dream of becoming an astronomer. He had studied in Bulgaria and Berlin, and written a doctoral dissertation about eclipsing binary stars, in which he cited papers by both Harlow Shapley and Cecilia Payne. Just recently he had lost his job at Babelsberg Observatory for political reasons. Gaposchkin was under suspicion in Germany of being a Soviet spy, and had been denied re-entry into Russia, where authorities presumed him a German spy.

Gaposchkin is the damsel in distress, Payne the valiant knight. In Cambridge, he works under her supervision, and his salary is carved out of the funding for her project. After three months they elope to New York and marry at City Hall. During her honeymoon at Hotel Woodstock, she writes: ‘I had never thought that such happiness could be for me.’ To complete the reversal of gender norms, when Harlow Shapley, Pickering’s successor as director, announces their elopement to the other astronomers, Payne’s colleagues are disapproving. They think Gaposchkin is too poor, and too short. Sobel includes a moving photograph of Payne and Gaposchkin with their children: the children and father all have their gaze directed at Payne.

It was Cecilia Payne who made the (to many unwelcome) discovery that the stars weren’t made of the same stuff, more or less, as Earth, as was previously assumed: hydrogen, she determined, was about a million times more plentiful on the stars. It’s difficult to overstate how alien this finding was. Even Payne, in publishing it, wrote that it was ‘almost certainly not real’. Her finding came out at around the same time that Edwin Hubble, building on Leavitt’s work, made the (also to many unwelcome) discovery that ours was not the only galaxy, and another, Andromeda, was more than a million light years away. We are still in the same super-bloom of astronomy that the women of the Harvard College Observatory saw from its beginning, the one that dots the indifferent and expanding universe with the comforting little resplendencies of a detail decoded here, a detail there.

Reading about these women, I sometimes found myself thinking of their fictional contemporaries. I thought, for example, of May Bartram in Henry James’s The Beast in the Jungle, who spends years and years as a devoted friend to a man who is awaiting his dreaded ‘spectacular fate’ – a fate he intuitively feels will be his, though he doesn’t know when it will arrive, or what specifically it will be. On account of the anticipated terrible fate he decides he will never marry, so as to spare any woman the fate in question. May Bartram dies near the end of the novella, of course, while John Marcher marches on, devoting some time to waffling about how he had now suffered the dreaded blow – that he had missed the chance to love May. May’s fate, he tells himself, wasn’t so terrible, since she got to love him. OK. I thought also of the varied and lonely excellent women in those sad and comic Barbara Pym novels, transcribing notes for doofy male anthropologists, or vying for a spot to serve lemonade at a conference. Or the pleasurably menacing Fleur Talbot in Muriel Spark’s Loitering with Intent, working as a secretary at the Autobiographical Association and writing men’s memoirs for them. Those are the lives these astronomers didn’t live.

Perhaps for many women (and men?) there will be something as maddening as there is appealing in reading about Miss This and Mrs That. I was surprised to discover that I felt seasick when reading about a 1929 New Year’s Eve musical revue put on by the ladies called ‘The Observatory Pinafore’ and even more queasy, and even repelled, to read about the spectral classification mnemonic – ‘Oh Be a Fine Girl, Kiss Me!’ – used as the title for Part Two of the book. For decades, adaptations of Edith Wharton and Jane Austen books for films made me feel the way others might feel about watching intestinal surgery, and I thought poorly of the female friends who took me to these films. I was in my thirties before I even read those writers, whom I now nearly worship. I’m not proud of this – or ashamed really, or immune from unpleasant gender norms of more modern vintage – but I note it, because The Glass Universe reminded me that this aversion isn’t due to some defect in storytelling, or even subject matter, but instead is connected to an irrational if predictable fear that reading this stuff might somehow result in having to live alongside these people. One admires but doesn’t want to be the women in this book. Such lowbrow self-centred sympathetic reading habits are more common with novels. It’s not quite right to say that the women of the Harvard College Observatory were treated poorly. But while it’s true that Annie Cannon’s classification system was universally adopted, it came to be known as the Harvard Classification System. The Bruce Medal, founded in 1898 and specified to be available to both women and men, didn’t go to a woman until 1982.

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