Starting In The 1800s, These Harvard Women Studied The Stars

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The cover of "The Glass Universe," by Dava Sobel. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
The cover of "The Glass Universe," by Dava Sobel. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Beginning in the late-1800s, women were employed by the Harvard College Observatory to study images of the stars that were captured by the observatory’s telescopes. Their analyses led to a deeper understanding of the nature of stars and the makeup of the universe.

Dava Sobel tells their story in "The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars," and joins Here & Now's Eric Westervelt (@Ericnpr) to talk about the book.

Interview Highlights

On how she first discovered the story

"I was interviewing astronomer Wendy Freedman, who was working on a Hubble telescope key project about the expansion of the universe, and she mentioned the name Henrietta Leavitt as someone whose work had been crucial to the current research. And I'd never heard of her. And when I went to learn more about Ms. Leavitt, I discovered she was working in room full of women at Harvard. Harvard is not a place one associates with early advances by women — this would have been the very early-1900s. And then the things that the women got to do were important and are still in use today. So, I was surprised that nobody had told the story."

On Harvard Observatory director Edward Charles Pickering

"He was wonderfully broad-minded. He really believed in giving women a chance to do things at a time when there were very few opportunities for women's work, and even the question of higher education for women was very controversial. There had been a book in the 1870s that said that college would actually cause a girl's reproductive organs to atrophy. And Pickering thought that was ridiculous. He not only hired women, but he also invited the alumnae of the new women's colleges to contribute to his project, to make their own observations, send him the results. It was a very savvy move, because he had an enormous amount of data to analyze, and that's what he hired the women to do. They were given glass-plate photographs that were taken at the observatory all through the night, every night, and they had to look at these pictures to map the stars, to study the composition of the stars, and create a classification system. And because women worked for lower salary, he could hire more people."

On the work the women did

"It seems so antiquated, but right now, there's a citizen science project that is inviting people to help look for possible new ninth planet in our solar system. And it's that same kind of work — you sit in front of your own laptop, but you look at gazillions of tiny dots and try to see something that's different."

"They gradually infiltrated the entire astronomy community. And their work had been recognized, valued, accepted by astronomers all over the world."

Dava Sobel

On Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, the first astronomy Ph.D. from Harvard

"Cecilia Payne came to the observatory as a graduate student. After Pickering died, the new director wanted to create a graduate level program in astronomy, which Harvard had never had. So the new director needed graduate fellowship money. And the only money he had was money specifically earmarked for young women to come work a year at the observatory. So the whole first crop of graduate students were all female. And Cecilia Payne became the first person — not just the first woman — to earn a Harvard Ph.D. in astronomy. And she stayed on at the observatory her whole life."

On how the women contributed to our understanding of the universe

"They were able, by looking at photographs that recorded the spectrum of the stars, not just points of light but strips of starlight that actually betrayed the chemical composition of the stars. And they used that to create a classification system. Ms. Payne was the first one to really look at the relative quantities because it was true that the stars contained many of the same elements we have on Earth. But what she noticed was that the abundance of hydrogen and helium was out of proportion to everything else. And this seemed radical, and she was advised not to make too much of that in her dissertation. But she had brought it to the attention of the other astronomers who looked into it seriously. And it took only four years for everyone to come around and say, 'You know what, it really is mostly hydrogen.'"

"Ms. Leavitt, whose name I first learned in the group, came up with a way to measure distance in space. And when we look up at the sky, it's very hard to tell what is bright, because it's close, or, is it bright because it's really far away but extremely bright? She made a discovery that was translated into a yardstick that is still in use today."

On how the story relates to those of women in science today

"This story put women in the observatory where they have remained. Contemporary accounts, or more contemporary accounts, such as the women of ‘Hidden Figures,’ I don't think NASA would have been hiring all those women if it hadn't been for the Harvard women. They not only worked at Harvard, but there were quite a few who came through Harvard on fellowships, so they had financial support for one year to work in the Harvard observatory, but then they went to work at another observatory. So they gradually infiltrated the entire astronomy community. And their work had been recognized, valued, accepted by astronomers all over the world. So, they set a precedent. I like to think they were the great-grandmothers of the ‘Hidden Figures’ and the 'Rocket Girls' at JPL."

Book Excerpt: 'The Glass Universe'

By Dava Sobel


A little piece of heaven. That was one way to look at the sheet of glass propped up in front of her. It measured about the same dimensions as a picture frame, eight inches by ten, and no thicker than a windowpane. It was coated on one side with a fine layer of photographic emulsion, which now held several thousand stars fixed in place, like tiny insects trapped in amber. One of the men had stood outside all night, guiding the telescope to capture this image, along with another dozen in the pile of glass plates that awaited her when she reached the observatory at 9 a.m. Warm and dry indoors in her long woolen dress, she threaded her way among the stars. She ascertained their positions on the dome of the sky, gauged their relative brightness, studied their light for changes over time, extracted clues to their chemical content, and occasionally made a discovery that got touted in the press. Seated all around her, another twenty women did the same.

The unique employment opportunity that the Harvard Observatory afforded ladies, beginning in the late nineteenth century, was unusual for a scientific institution, and perhaps even more so in the male bastion of Harvard University. However, the director’s farsighted hiring practices, coupled with his commitment to systematically photographing the night sky over a period of decades, created a field for women’s work in a glass universe. The funding for these projects came primarily from two heiresses with abiding interests in astronomy, Anna Palmer Draper and Catherine Wolfe Bruce.

The large female staff, sometimes derisively referred to as a harem, consisted of women young and old. They were good at math, or devoted stargazers, or both. Some were alumnae of the newly founded women’s colleges, though others brought only a high school education and their own native ability. Even before they won the right to vote, several of them made contributions of such significance that their names gained honored places in the history of astronomy: Williamina Fleming, Antonia Maury, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Annie Jump Cannon, and Cecilia Payne. This book is their story.

From THE GLASS UNIVERSE by Dava Sobel. Reprinted with permission by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2016 by John Harrison and Daughter, Ltd.

This article was originally published on February 24, 2017.

This segment aired on February 24, 2017.



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