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5 Questions for Dava Sobel

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Headshot of Dava Sobel

Photo Credit: Mia Berg

In your book, you describe some of the women as “human computers.” What does this mean?In the days long before laptops—even before mainframe computers—human beings performed all the calculations required to ascertain star positions and track the orbits of planets, moons, and comets. At Harvard, women were given the chance to do much more than calculate. They also examined photographs taken nightly by cameras attached to telescopes, from which they identified thousands of new celestial objects.What challenges did they face back then compared to what women have now in this field?Naturally they earned less money than men doing similar work. They needed to choose between marriage and career, since the idea of “working wives” seemed even more revolutionary than women’s winning the right to vote. They had to defend the utility of a higher education against claims that college was wasted on a woman.How has their contribution influenced the way we study the stars?Their system for classifying the stars made order in the cosmos, and is still in use today. One of them discovered a means for measuring distances in …

Science reporter and best-selling author Dava Sobel shines light on a remarkable group of women in The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars.


Alma Tassi has written for several magazines and edited books on spirituality, personal growth, and women's issues. almatassi.com.


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