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

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From #1 New York Times bestselling author Dava Sobel, the "inspiring" (People), little-known true story of women's landmark contributions to astronomy

A New York Times Book Review Notable Book of 2017

Named one of the best books of the year by NPR, The Economist, Smithsonian, Nature, and NPR's Science Friday

Nominated for the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award

"A joy to read.” —The Wall Street Journal

In the mid-nineteenth century, the Harvard College Observatory began employing women as calculators, or “human computers,” to interpret the observations their male counterparts made via telescope each night. At the outset this group included the wives, sisters, and daughters of the resident astronomers, but soon the female corps included graduates of the new women's colleges—Vassar, Wellesley, and Smith. As photography transformed the practice of astronomy, the ladies turned from computation to studying the stars captured nightly on glass photographic plates.

The “glass universe” of half a million plates that Harvard amassed over the ensuing decades—through the generous support of Mrs. Anna Palmer Draper, the widow of a pioneer in stellar photography—enabled the women to make extraordinary discoveries that attracted worldwide acclaim. They helped discern what stars were made of, divided the stars into meaningful categories for further research, and found a way to measure distances across space by starlight. Their ranks included Williamina Fleming, a Scottish woman originally hired as a maid who went on to identify ten novae and more than three hundred variable stars; Annie Jump Cannon, who designed a stellar classification system that was adopted by astronomers the world over and is still in use; and Dr. Cecilia Helena Payne, who in 1956 became the first ever woman professor of astronomy at Harvard—and Harvard’s first female department chair.

Elegantly written and enriched by excerpts from letters, diaries, and memoirs, The Glass Universe is the hidden history of the women whose contributions to the burgeoning field of astronomy forever changed our understanding of the stars and our place in the universe.
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More by Dava Sobel

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Dava Sobel's The Glass Universe will be available from Viking in December 2016

With her bestsellers Longitude and Galileo's Daughter, Dava Sobel introduced readers to her rare gift for weaving complex scientific concepts into a compelling narrative. Now Sobel brings her full talents to bear on what is perhaps her most ambitious topic to date-the planets of our solar system. Sobel explores the origins and oddities of the planets through the lens of popular culture, from astrology, mythology, and science fiction to art, music, poetry, biography, and history. Written in her characteristically graceful prose, The Planets is a stunningly original celebration of our solar system and offers a distinctive view of our place in the universe.

* A New York Times extended bestseller
* A Featured Alternate of the Book-of-the-Month Club, History Book Club, Scientific American Book Club, and Natural Science Book Club
* Includes 11 full-color illustrations by artist Lynette R. Cook

"[The Planets] lets us fall in love with the heavens all over again."
-The New York Times Book Review

"Playful . . . lyrical . . . a guided tour so imaginative that we forget we're being educated as we're being entertained."
-Newsweek

" [Sobel] has outdone her extraordinary talent for keeping readers enthralled. . . . Longitude and Galileo's Daughter were exciting enough, but The Planets has a charm of its own . . . . A splendid and enticing book."
-San Francisco Chronicle

"A sublime journey. [Sobel's] writing . . . is as bright as the sun and its thinking as star-studded as the cosmos."
-The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"An incantatory serenade to the Solar System. Grade A-"
-Entertainment Weekly

"Like Sobel's [Longitude and Galileo's Daughter] . . . [The Planets] combines masterful storytelling with clear, engaging explanations of the essential scientific facts."
-Physics World
4.6
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Additional Information

Publisher
Penguin
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Published on
Dec 6, 2016
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Pages
336
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ISBN
9780698148697
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Features
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Language
English
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Genres
History / Modern / 20th Century
Science / Astronomy
Science / History
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Eligible for Family Library

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“A lively and informative history.” – The New York Times Book Review

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By 1514, the reclusive cleric Nicolaus Copernicus had written and hand-copied an initial outline of his heliocentric theory-in which he defied common sense and received wisdom to place the sun, not the earth, at the center of our universe, and set the earth spinning among the other planets. Over the next two decades, Copernicus expanded his theory through hundreds of observations, while compiling in secret a book-length manuscript that tantalized mathematicians and scientists throughout Europe. For fear of ridicule, he refused to publish.

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