The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars - Dava Sobel

I don't usually bother reviewing books that disappoint me but I'm making an exception to that rule. This is one of those books where I am so glad I picked it up at the local library and didn't even spend the 45p it costs to have it reserved from another branch, so that will tell you something. 

 

I mean, it's not actively awful and I suppose if you didn't know anything about the subject matter, it would be a reasonable introduction, but it just doesn't do what it sets out to do if you're looking for more than that (and I was!). For a book about the women who worked in the Harvard astronomy department in the late 19th and early 20th century, it sure talks a lot more about the men who work there than actually tell us much about the women. I got to the point about halfway through that I was skimming paragraphs to see if they were about the women or not and moving on if they weren't. More time at one stage is spent on the women whose money supported the department than the ones doing the work, so we know more about how they felt about it than how the actual women astronomers did.

 

In the end, I didn't feel like I came away from this book with any more idea of who these pioneering women were and what it was like to do what they did, both personally and professionally, than I had when the book started. There's no sense, for example, of the frustration many (all?) of them must have experienced at the restrictions set on what they could do while less talented men passed them by on the academic ladder. Surely, somewhere, there must be some more candid account of what it was like to be them than has been drawn on in this book?

 

All of this was then capped for me by the way the author refers to everyone - men get referred to routinely by their surname, women as Miss or Mrs. Which is fine, except that while most of the men have a PhD and possession of that or otherwise is glossed over, so do some of the women and I felt as though that should have been recognised - not doing so is doubly ignoring the difficulty for a woman of that time to get a doctoral degree in a science subject. It also plays into the idea that these women, the first 'computers' were uneducated grunt workers and not the scientific pioneers they actually were, most of them middle class or above, most of them with postgraduate education or above.

 

Anyway, disappointing coming from the woman who wrote the excellent Longitude (which I recommend, regardless of this book) and I guess the book I really wanted to read about these women is (hopefully) still out there...