Dava Sobel and the ladies of the Harvard Observatory

If you don’t know the names Williamena Fleming, Antonia Maury, Henrietta Leavitt, Cecilia Payne, and Annie Jump Cannon, you’re not alone. Many people working in astronomy don’t recognize these women who have made enormous contributions to the field.

Dava Sobel

Dava Sobel talked about her new book “The Glass Universe” Dec. 15 at Town Hall Seattle. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“They’re making a splash now,” laughed Dava Sobel, author of the new book The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars (Viking, 2016). Sobel talked about the book Thursday night at Town Hall Seattle.

There is an impression that the women who worked at the observatory were trivialized or marginalized, Sobel said that really wasn’t the case.

“They really were well treated, they were given this tremendous responsibility, they made valuable discoveries, and they were well regarded—and some of them even world famous—in their own lifetimes,” Sobel said. She pointed out that Cannon, for example, held a number of honorary degrees, was a member and officer of the American Astronomical Society, and also was an honorary foreign member of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Interestingly enough, even Sobel, whose bailiwick is science history, hadn’t heard of Leavitt until her name came up during an interview for a magazine article she was writing 20 years ago. Her curiosity was piqued, and the seed for The Glass Universe was planted.

Cheap labor

Sobel noted that when Edward Pickering took over as director of the observatory in 1877 there were already a half a dozen women working there, many of them relatives of the resident astronomers. He liked working with the women. They did good work, and they were inexpensive.

“Women cost less,” Sobel said. “This is an old story about women earning less than men for doing the same work.”

But she added that it wasn’t just dollars and cents for Pickering.

“He was very open minded, broad minded, and felt that higher education for women was a good thing even at a time when this was questioned,” Sobel said. “There were people who really thought that college was bad for girls and could affect their ability to have children.”

Pickering recruited alumnae of women’s colleges who studied astronomy, asking them to make observations and contribute their data to the work of the observatory.

“That would be a way to prove to the world that women could make a contribution to science and that their education wasn’t wasted,” Sobel said.

Financial support from women

The observatory was a separate entity and didn’t receive any money from Harvard. Much of the work at the observatory was possible due to significant financial support from women.

Heiress Anna Palmer Draper and her husband, Dr. Henry Draper, had done some of the earliest work on photographing the spectra of stars. Henry Draper was a medical doctor, but he was, according to Sobel, a passionately engaged and inventive amateur astronomer. They built their own observatory and Henry created many of his own instruments for the work on spectra. Unfortunately, Henry got sick and died at the age of 45. Anna eventually donated much of their gear, and a lot of money, to the observatory to continue the work on stellar spectra.

Philanthropist Catherine Wolfe Bruce donated $50,000 to help the observatory set up a telescope in Peru for observing the skies of the southern hemisphere. Data from this instrument informed Leavitt’s work on variable stars.

Major achievements

The contributions by the computers were significant. A few examples noted by Sobel:

Leavitt studied variable stars and discovered that the brightest ones took longer to cycle through their changes, and that the length of the cycle correlated to the true brightness of the star. Knowing this, one can calculate how far away a variable star is based on how bright it appears from Earth.

Harvard women 1918

Some suggest this 1918 photo of Harvard College Observatory women in “paper doll” pose marginalizes them, but Sobel says they were regarded and treated well in their time. Photo: Harvard University Archives.

“This work was fundamental to distance measurements all over the sky,” Sobel said. The discovery, most often called the period-luminosity relation, is more often these days being referred to as “Leavitt’s Law.”

Cannon, a renowned observer, came up with the star classification system still in use today.

Fleming first came to the observatory as a maid, but later found astronomical success, too.

“She was the first woman to get a university title at Harvard,” Sobel said. “She was the curator of astronomical photographs.” Her analysis of some ten thousand stars were critical to the publication of the first Henry Draper Catalogue.

Maury, Draper’s niece, studied at Vassar, graduated with honors in astronomy and physics, and went to work at the observatory, where she came up with a system of identifying stars.

Payne was Harvard’s first Ph.D. in astronomy. It was no surprise that a woman earned the top degree first; all of the early graduate students in astronomy were women because the only money the observatory had for the graduate program came through fellowships established for women to study there. Payne studied spectra of stars and found that hydrogen was far more prevalent in stars than any other element. She wrote about her findings in her dissertation, but it was so counterintuitive that it was downplayed. Within a few years, however, her findings were confirmed.

Given the stature of the accomplishments, it seems astounding that these women are not more well known.

“A lot of history gets buried just because there are so many people, so many characters, so much time goes by,” Sobel noted, adding that the women didn’t feel marginalized at the time. “They really loved what they did and were credited for it, but over time I think it has been downplayed.”

They’re making a splash now

There’s been a lot more attention for the women astronomers in recent years. A decade ago George Johnson penned the biography Miss Leavitt’s Stars (W.W. Norton and Company, 2006). A couple of plays have been written about them, including Silent Sky by Laruen Gunderson, which was produced earlier this year in Seattle by Taproot Theatre. You can go back to read our coverage of the play. The 2014 reboot of the television series Cosmos with Neil deGrasse Tyson featured a segment about the computers.

“This got the attention of a lot of young women,” Sobel said. The Harvard women are also featured in the web series Insignificant.

“It’s great fun to see their story being remembered in so many ways. There are even Lego figures,” of Cannon, Leavitt, and Payne, Sobel said. “You know you’ve made it!”

Several other recent books have highlighted the work of women in space and astronomy. Sobel singled out The Rise of the Rocket Girls (Little, Brown and Company, 2016) by Nathalia Holt, a story about the women who made contributions to space science at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab; and Hidden Figures (William Morrow, 2016) by Margot Lee Shetterly, a look at the African-American women who worked at Langley in the 1940s and ‘50s. Hidden Figures has been made into a feature film that is scheduled to open in theaters in January.

An important story for our times

Sobel said she enjoyed getting to know the personalities of the ladies of the Harvard College Observatory and feels that their story is an important one in the era of fake news and anti-science attitudes.

“All of us need to be telling true stories about science,” Sobel said. “I feel especially good about this one not only because it’s true, but because I hope it will be inspirational to young women to have models like these ladies and to show that women have always been interested in science.”


More books by Dava Sobel:


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