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The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars
October 12, 7:00 pm - 8:00 pm
In the mid-19th century, the Harvard College Observatory began employing women as calculators, or “human computers,” to interpret the observations their male counterparts made via telescope each night. At the outset this group included the wives, sisters, and daughters of the resident astronomers, but soon the female corps included graduates of the new women’s colleges–Vassar, Wellesley, and Smith. As photography transformed the practice of astronomy, the ladies turned from computation to studying the stars captured nightly on glass photographic plates.
The “glass universe” of half a million plates that Harvard amassed over the ensuing decades–through the generous support of Mrs. Anna Palmer Draper, the widow of a pioneer in stellar photography–enabled the women to make extraordinary discoveries that attracted worldwide acclaim. They helped discern what stars were made of, divided the stars into meaningful categories for further research, and found a way to measure distances across space by starlight. Their ranks included Williamina Fleming, a Scottish woman originally hired as a maid who went on to identify ten novae and more than three hundred variable stars; Annie Jump Cannon, who designed a stellar classification system that was adopted by astronomers the world over and is still in use; and Dr. Cecilia Helena Payne, who in 1956 became the first ever woman professor of astronomy at Harvard–and Harvard’s first female department chair.
Elegantly written and enriched by excerpts from letters, diaries, and memoirs, The Glass Universe is the hidden history of the women whose contributions to the burgeoning field of astronomy forever changed our understanding of the stars and our place in the universe.
Dava Sobel, a former New York Times science reporter, is the best-selling author of Longitude, Galileo’s Daughter, The Planets, A More Perfect Heaven, And the Sun Stood Still, and The Glass Universe. She has also co-authored six books, including Is Anyone Out There? with astronomer Frank Drake. Lecture engagements have taken Ms. Sobel to speak at the Smithsonian Institution, the Explorer’s Club, NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center, the Hayden Planetarium, the U. S. Naval Observatory, the Royal Institution (London), and the American Academy in Rome. She received her bachelor of arts degree from the State University of New York at Binghamton in 1969. She holds honorary doctor of letters degrees from the University of Bath, in England, and Middlebury College, Vermont, both awarded in 2002, and also an honorary doctor of science degree from the University of Bern, Switzerland, 2015.
Copies of The Glass Universe will be available for purchase at the event courtesy of Rainy Day Books. A book signing will immediately follow the lecture.
The event is free and open to the public; however, e-tickets are required.
Parking is free in Library parking lots and along the west side of Holmes Street between 51st and 52nd streets. The main entrance to the Library grounds is on Cherry Street. The Linda Hall Library is not affiliated with UMKC. Parking in all UMKC lots is by permit or meter. Doors open at 6:00 p.m.