Dava So­bel

Sky at Night Magazine - - BOOK -

What was your in­spi­ra­tion in writ­ing the book?

I heard the name Hen­ri­etta Swan Leav­itt for the first time about 20 years ago, while in­ter­view­ing as­tronomer Wendy Freed­man. When I looked into Leav­itt’s back­ground, I dis­cov­ered she worked within a large group of women at Har­vard Col­lege Ob­ser­va­tory. The more I learned, the more in­trigu­ing the story sounded.

Was this a dif­fi­cult book to re­search?

What made it quite dif­fi­cult was the num­ber of char­ac­ters in the story and the length of time that elapsed from the hir­ing of Har­vard’s early fe­male com­put­ers to the grant­ing of ten­ure to the univer­sity’s first fe­male pro­fes­sor of astron­omy. Diaries and let­ters helped me por­tray the in­di­vid­ual play­ers and put their work in the con­text of their lives.

What are some of your favourite sto­ries from the book?

I ad­mire Wil­liamina Fleming’s rise from maid in the ob­ser­va­tory direc­tor’s res­i­dence to Cu­ra­tor of As­tro­nom­i­cal Pho­to­graphs, the first Har­vard Univer­sity ti­tle granted to a woman. I was also moved by An­nie Jump Can­non’s abil­ity to be­friend other as­tronomers all over the world, and even carry on cor­re­spon­dence with their chil­dren.

How can we en­cour­age young women to choose a ca­reer in sci­ence?

I’m sure there are many ways, but the only one I know is to tell true sto­ries so young women have real ex­am­ples to fol­low.

DAVA SO­BEL is an au­thor and for­mer sci­ence reporter for the New York Times

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