National Geographic‘s Simon Worrell interviews Dava Sobel, an author whose new book The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars takes a look at the late 19th century women whose observations basically created the framework for our understanding of stars and the universe.
Tell us about the glass universe—is this the ultimate glass ceiling or something else altogether?
[Laughs] It’s both. It’s about women and astronomy and also about a unique collection of half a million photographs on glass plates that are stored in the Harvard College Observatory. Women are traditionally underrepresented in science, so it’s interesting to look back to the 1870s to 1890s and find that as many as 20 women at a time were working at the Harvard Observatory.
You don’t think of Harvard as a place that’s particularly friendly to women, especially then. The observatory was a wholly disowned subsidiary and made their own rules and went their own way. The director, Edward Pickering, was very much in favor of higher education for women and for giving women a chance if they were interested in doing astronomical work. There had been a tradition of women working in the observatory, but the earliest were family members of the astronomers, the resident observers. By Pickering’s time, women he hired were reporting for seven hours a day, six days a week, and had no family connection to the place. They were just capable and interested.
Were they the ones that took the pictures?
No. At the beginning, there was a real separation of duties. The men would operate the telescopes partly because of propriety. You couldn’t have the women in there with the men, up all night. [Laughs] But by 1896, that changed with women coming in from college-level programs in astronomy, who had learned to observe. The first woman to use the telescopes was Annie Jump Cannon in 1896.