November 9, 2018
Edward Pickering, who took over as director of the Harvard College Observatory in 1877, was a physicist, not an astronomer. Pickering quickly moved to expand activities beyond determining the positions of stars and the orbits of asteroids, moons, and comets. He invented new instruments for studying stellar brightness to help quantify the changes in variable stars. He introduced photography as a boon to celestial mapping and a key to characterizing the spectra of stars. The images that Pickering began amassing on glass plates in the late 19th century came to number in the hundreds of thousands and are currently being digitized to preserve their enduring value. Their abundance of pictures necessitated a special building to house them and a large team of assistants — nearly all women — to analyze them.
Pickering’s glass universe gave these women the means to make discoveries that still resonate today. Williamina Fleming, Antonia Maury, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Annie Jump Cannon, and Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin, the most famous members of the group, all played a part in the early development of astrophysics.
Dava Sobel, an award-winning former science reporter for The New York Times, is the author of several best-selling books, including Longitude, Galileo’s Daughter, and The Planets. She has also written a play, And the Sun Stood Still, which originally appeared as the centerpiece in her biography of Copernicus, A More Perfect Heaven. Her latest book, The Glass Universe, was published by Viking in December 2016. Sobel is a 1964 graduate of the Bronx High School of Science, where she had several memorable teachers. Unfortunately, none of them suggested she combine her interest in science with her ability to write good papers for English class, but, after five years divided among multiple majors at three colleges, she fell into a job with a newspaper just in time to chronicle preparations for the first Earth Day celebration. In addition to her B.A. from SUNY Binghamton (now Binghamton University), Sobel holds honorary doctor of letters degrees from Middlebury College, Vermont, and Bath University in England, as well as an honorary doctor of science degree from Bern University, Switzerland. She has a heightened respect for teachers after her experiences teaching science writing at the University of Chicago in 2006, and at Mary Baldwin College in 2011. From 2013 to 2016 she was the Joan Leiman Jacobson Visiting NonFiction Writer at Smith College.
Photo credit: Mia Berg