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