Tuesday , February 20 2024
Dava Sobel aims to shatter misconceptions and celebrate the amazing women of the Harvard Observatory in her latest book, 'The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars'.

Interview: Dava Sobel, Author of ‘The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars’

Photo of Author Dava Sobel
Credit: Mia Berg
Dava Sobel is a former New York Times (NYT) science reporter. She has penned five books, including NYT bestsellers such as LongitudeGalileo’s Daughter, and The Planets. Ms. Sobel will participate in this year’s Virginia Festival of the Book, which is produced annually by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities in Charlottesville, Virginia. There she will discuss her latest book, The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars. It chronicles the amazing stories of women working at the Observatory as early as the late 19th century.

How did you first learn about these ladies who worked at the Harvard College Observatory?

I was interviewing an astronomer, Wendy Freedman, and she mentioned the name of Henrietta Leavitt to me as being really important, even now, in the ability to measure distances in space. I had never heard of her. When I went to learn more about Henrietta Leavitt, I discovered she had been one of a room full of women at Harvard, which was extremely surprising because one doesn’t associate big opportunities for women at Harvard in that time. She started there in the 1890s. That was a big surprise. The more I learned about them, the more interesting the situation became. This was more than 20 years ago when I found out about them, but I didn’t get to do [this book] until recently.

Were there any misconceptions about their stories that you wanted to dispel?

Yes! There’s a story – if you start to look up these women anywhere, you will come across the story that Edward Pickering hired them all because he was so fed up with the sloppy work of his male assistants. He said something to the effect of “My maid could do a better job.” He brought in his maid and then hired in other women. Although he did hire his maid to work in the Observatory, having done the research and found no evidence that he ever said anything like that, he was the most polite person I have ever come across. The thought that he would publicly dress down one of his assistants that way is completely out of character for him. Also, when he arrived to take over as director, there were already three women working at the Observatory. He didn’t really initiate the concept, but he expanded the three to about twenty.

Photo of The Glass Universe Cover
Were you able to examine any of the glass plates in person? 

Oh, yes. All half million of them are still in the building that was constructed expressly to hold them. People are welcome to visit. There’s a curator who will show you some of the more interesting ones. They are in active use. They’re also being digitized now because they’re in active use and they’re very fragile. It would probably be easier to share them digitally. This project has been going on for several years to copy them all and make them available to anybody who wants to look at them. Because of their age, people are always worried that there will be some kind of deterioration. It could be that the photographic emulsion would start to separate from the glass. By having them digitized, they’ll be preserved.

Of the people you discussed in the book, Mrs. Fleming was one of my favorites. I also loved Miss Catherine Wolfe Bruce and her letters. 

Me, too. She has such a sense of humor!

I found Miss Bruce interesting in comparison to Mrs. Draper. Is it fair to say that she was more creative than Mrs. Draper was in getting support for the Observatory?

I don’t think so. Both women had their money by inheritance and gave generously. You mean, in the way she agreed to fund other astronomers?


She advised Pickering that he had to approach the millionaires kind of from the side. Well, again that’s just her wit in a letter. I’m not sure that really makes her more creative than Mrs. Draper. Maybe she was, but Mrs. Draper gave a lot more money. If you total her gifts over the 30 years, it’s five or six times what Miss Bruce gave the Observatory.

The amounts are substantial. Miss Bruce gave $175,000. 

Not all of those gifts went to Harvard. She had Pickering’s help in deciding which people she would help. In terms of what went to Harvard, of course, the $50,000 for the Bruce telescope – that was the main thing.

Was there a story or fact you uncovered in your research that surprised you?

Yes, the most surprising thing was the realization that the presence of the women and the fellowship money their presence attracted are what funded the graduate program. When Pickering died, [Harlow] Shapley took over and wanted to create a graduate level astronomy program, which Harvard never had. The only fellowship money he had were these Pickering fellowships for women. The first three years – all the graduate students were women! There was no financial support for men. Women were specifically recruited from the women’s colleges to come. I remembered the day that hit me and I just walked around with my mouth open that day. You’ll recall the first Harvard Ph.D. in astronomy was one of those women.

Photo of VA Book Fest Logo
I was surprised by women’s honorary admissions to astronomy societies. Mrs. Fleming got a title as well as the curator of astronomical photographs. 

I thought that was surprising, too: how much credit they got in their own lifetime from their peers. The only place I think where they were disappointed was in their salary. In terms of everything else, they always had their names published with whatever they had accomplished. That’s stunning, even now. Have you seen Hidden Figures or read it? There’s a bit in Margot Lee Shetterly’s book how one of the women co-authored several papers and was never allowed to have her name on them.

Based on how much these women accomplished, are the sciences unfairly stigmatized? Does the STEM community get a bad rap?

I’m not sure what you mean there. Have the sciences been unfairly stigmatized as unfriendly to women?

Yes, we have the big push and headlines for engaging women in STEM subjects. It’s not necessarily new that we’ve pushed STEM. It seems like the pockets were smaller back then. 

I think the problem is even larger than science. I think it has a lot to do with education. Girls are discouraged. Until very recently, you hear so many stories of parents saying to their daughters, “Well, you really can’t be an astronaut or an astrophysicist. You pick something that is appropriate for a girl.” It wasn’t surprising that not that many women went into science. They had so many obstacles to get over. They had to really want it and have a temperament to take those risks and push really hard.

I think now there’s more of an effort to be inclusive, but there’s still a lot of prejudice. So often I hear this from people now, that when a woman presents some new idea at a meeting, people think, “Mm, that’s interesting.” But if a man presents the same idea, it gets a different reaction. I think even women have internalized that and have that lower expectation for women. We’re not even aware of that prejudice.

I noticed when I first picked up your book, a lot of these women had close associations or were related to individuals in this field who were willing to give them support. 

Right. And it was unusual at that time. There was even an idea prevalent that higher education was physically harmful to women and the fact that they would be in school and taxing themselves at a time when they were growing, which could cause their reproductive organs to atrophy. I’m not making this up. There were all sorts of crazy ideas that had to be put to rest. There was another thing that Pickering did which was so great: to invite the college graduates to participate in the work of the Observatory by working at home, making their own observations, and sending their results to him for publication.

About Pat Cuadros

Pat Cuadros is Pop Culture Editor for Blogcritics Magazine. She frequently covers TV, film and theater. Her portfolio includes interviews with Ndaba Mandela and actors Juliette Binoche, Fran Drescher, Derek Jacobi and Brent Spiner. She's also spoken with notable voice actors Petrea Burchard, Garry Chalk, Peter Cullen and Brian Drummond.

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