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March 4, 2021

Heavenly Women

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Dava Sobel, a former New York Times science reporter, is the author of Longitude, a prize-winning international bestseller, and Galileo’s Daughter, which was shortlisted for the Pulitzer prize.

She has co-authored six books, including Is Anyone Out There? with astronomer Frank Drake, and The Illustrated Longitude with William JH Andrewes. Her new book is The Glass Universe.

Dava, how did you prepare for a book like this? How exhaustive was the research? I am fascinated by how you pull the threads together?

I did years of homework, reading everything I could about the characters, the work they did, and the ‘tenor of the times’. Most of the scientific material – the papers published by the astronomers during the period the story takes place – was available online. Access to original documents, such as diaries and letters, was limited by the operating schedule of the university’s archives. I had to make very efficient use of those five-hour periods five days a week. Fortunately I was so fascinated by the subject that each new finding energised me. Chronology helped guide the storytelling, since all the people involved were motivated by a shared sense of discovery and purpose. Also they handled many of the same materials, namely the glass photographic plates that are still stored in the building constructed specifically to house them. Several of the plates I examined fairly glowed with significance.

What do you leave out? Are the choices along the way as important as what you choose to include?

More gets left out than put in. Telling any story involves selection of those elements most useful and potentially interesting to the reader. Anything that derails the story can be omitted. These choices are deliberate and difficult.

Why has the story of women astronomers and the ladies of the Harvard Observatory been largely untold?

The women were engaged in a serious scientific enterprise that requires a good deal of explanation. Not every author wants to tell that sort of story. Also the prevailing, often unconscious, assumption that women are unfit for scientific work has let the story languish – has even dulled the importance of their findings.

How did women’s domestic roles, and their tendency to be in the home, make them perfect observers of the night sky and computers?

The women of The Glass Universe worked a minimum of nine hours a day, six days a week at the observatory. Some of them also performed telescope observations at night, so they did not have domestic duties typical of women in the 1890s. They did have patience, an eye for pattern recognition, and a capacity for tedium. The first important American female astronomer, Maria Mitchell, believed that a girl’s development of certain domestic skills gave her a decided advantage as an observer. Mitchell said, ‘The eye that directs a needle in the delicate meshes of embroidery will equally well bisect a star with the spider web of the micrometer’.

What is the romance, do you think, of the stars or the universe for women in particular, at that time before they even had the vote?

The beauty of the heavens has drawn human attention since the dawn of time. Before women had the right to vote there was a lot less light pollution blocking their view of the cosmos. Anyone who takes time to appreciate the dark of night and the questions raised by the stars can be seduced to study astronomy.

What particular story or piece of research moved you most in preparing The Glass Universe?

Choosing among the many, I would say I was most affected by the genuine warmth of Annie Jump Cannon’s personality. Her correspondence files show that she was in communication with astronomers all over the world – and also with their children. Her thoughtfulness knew no bounds. Although she never bore children of her own, she became ‘Aunt Nan’ to several younger generations whom she ‘adopted’ and encouraged through her professional contacts.

What instigated your love of science?

I was lucky to grow up in a house where everyone was interested in science. My parents were both curious and generous with their knowledge.

You tell the human story of science/ What is it that appeals to you most about these people that most  non-sciencey people would perceive as ‘bookish‘ and ‘dull’? Is it because you believe they deserve the acclaim they are so often denied but afforded to the work and lives of musicians and artists?

The stereotype of the scientist as someone bookish and dull is a creation of Hollywood, television, and people who got frightened of science at an early age. Most scientists feel a passion for their work that makes them take all sorts of risks. They often have wild ideas and a tremendous drive to find out what they don’t know.

Dava Sobel will be appearing at Byron Writers Festival 4–6 August. All tickets now on sale at byronwritersfestival.com.

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