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Sky at Night Magazine - - CONTENTS -

Dava So­bel 4th Es­tate £16.99 HB Glass plate neg­a­tives of the sky sys­tem­at­i­cally taken over 75 years do not sound like the mak­ings of a grip­ping read. Yet they form the ground­ing for a web of sto­ries that take us into ob­ser­va­tory life at the turn of the 20th cen­tury, sto­ries that show us – with the light­est of touches – the ob­sta­cles and op­por­tu­ni­ties that the pe­riod of­fered to women hop­ing for a ca­reer in sci­ence. At the same time, they in­tro­duce the new ideas that were then emerg­ing about vari­able stars, gal­ax­ies, the com­po­si­tion of stars and their evo­lu­tion.

This is a book about women in astron­omy with few com­par­isons. It tells the story not of a sin­gle pi­o­neer, but of an ob­ser­va­tory and the group of women who worked there. In do­ing so, it by­passes the need to iden­tify heroic acts to jus­tify their fame. In­stead, we see the day-to-day ex­pe­ri­ences of peo­ple that to­day we hon­our as pi­o­neers – An­nie Jump Can­non, Ce­cilia He­lena PayneGa­poschkin and Hen­ri­etta Swan Leav­itt – as the ob­ser­va­tory sup­ported them in their ca­reers.

The story be­gins in 1882, when rich heiress Anna Draper met with Har­vard Col­lege Ob­ser­va­tory direc­tor Ed­ward Pick­er­ing. Draper’s hus­band had spent his life pho­tograph­ing the spec­tra of stars; she hoped that work could con­tinue, and was pre­pared to pay for it. Chap­ter by chap­ter we are then in­tro­duced to the women who helped fund, carry out and shape that project. There are some won­der­ful ob­ser­va­tions in the book, as the women ex­pe­ri­ence cer­tain in­jus­tices. As Ms Payne put it, she had orig­i­nally pic­tured her­self “a rebel against the fem­i­nine role,” be­fore recog­nis­ing that her real re­bel­lion “was against be­ing thought, and treated, as in­fe­rior.” Ob­ser­va­tory di­rec­tors Pick­er­ing and then Har­low Shap­ley tried not to treat women as in­fe­ri­ors, and in that en­vi­ron­ment the women thrived. There are a few loose ends. Hertzsprun­g ap­pears, joined a few pages later by Russell, yet no di­a­gram fol­lows. The year 1930 comes and goes with no men­tion of Pluto. These, how­ever, are mi­nor quib­bles and very much an aside from the main story, which is told beau­ti­fully.

DR EMILY WINTERBURN is the au­thor of The Stargazer’s Guide: How to Read our Night Sky

An­nie Jump Can­non at her desk at Har­vard Col­lege Ob­ser­va­tory

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