Book Review: The Glass Universe

It’s an incredible read (even given the benefits of reading by itself)!

End of review.

Or not. You might have heard about this amazing book by Dava Sobel, published at the end of 2016 and the wonderful female scientists that it showcases.


Half a million glass photographic plates still lie in the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics. These plates are still incredibly valuable today and a project is underway to digitalise them to preserve the information printed on them- the stars in the night sky.

Discovering and cataloguing the position, brightness and composition of stars was all performed by painstakingly poring over these early photos by astronomers. The unusual element in this scenario was that Edward Pickering, the observatory’s director, had hired women to this task, believing they were just as capable as men and that it might highlight the need for women to be accepted into higher education.

One of the 500,000 photographic plates that these incredible women analysed to catalogue the stars (the tiny dots in the image are stars). They would write numbers in a type of code onto the images to identify them. Image sourced from DASCH Project Harvard

They made remarkable discoveries far beyond simply identifying stars. Different women developed relationships between star brightness and distance- an incredible achievement, others analysed variability in the brightness of stars that would wax and wane to determine whether the star in question was very bright, or simply close. Other discoveries included spotting the first nova, studying the spectra of different stars and theorising about the possibility of stars containing hydrogen (which they definitely do!). The story of Cecilia Payne is also woven in, as the first woman to ever receive a PhD in astronomy from Harvard.

The book is full of their experiences as working as marginalised women who’s work was not taken seriously in a male-dominated field. But it’s not a purely “females-in-science” book … it also speaks about their general challenges of working in astronomy at the time, different advancements that were being made, how they learnt to analyse the photographic plates and the stories of the many other challenges and joys they encountered along the way.

Dava Sobel also draws on letters and other personal accounts to create an incredibly rich and interesting story and history of this time in astronomy, with the integral role that these women played and how their work continued to shape and change science afterwards, both from their research contributions and the growing acceptance towards the work of female scientists.


Overall: Can I say 5 out of 5?

It is a more detailed read, and would probably be of less interest to younger readers, but it is an absolute must-read for any who are interested in science, and/or history!



You can purchase it on Amazon here, or try looking for a copy at your local library or bookstore!

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