Category Archives: Book Review

Worthy of Time and Space: Book Review of The Glass Universe

Dava Sobel has done it again! sobel-dava-glass-universe-xmas

Sobel’s latest book, The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars, eloquently reveals the little-known story of the “women computers” at the turn of the 20th century. Tasked with cataloguing approximately 500,000 glass photographic plates and the millions of stars upon them, the computers were underpaid and overworked. And they were thrilled to do it for the science they loved.

Sobel’s book isn’t a typical woman astronomer biography. Instead, this is the “computers” story interwoven into the history of Harvard Observatory and its work with the Henry Draper Catalogue, a memorial funded by his widow to complete work halted by his untimely death.

Filled with anecdotes of astronomers’ daily lives and the pursuit of the science of their passion, Sobel transports the reader to the Gilded Age and a new era in the study of stars.

Sobel’s book offers a taste of that time. With subtle nuances of Victorian-laced quotes from diaries and letters, as well as Sobel’s own style, readers will enjoy a firsthand experience working with the women computers in the Brick Building, exploring new technologies in astronomical observation, locating better sites for bigger telescopes, and sharing in the discoveries that opened the Universe.

This book offers something for almost everyone, from novice to aficionado. Though it’s a history of science, astronomy concepts are succinctly and simply explored without being dumbed-down. The reader will embark on a fascinating journey of discovery during a time when technology grabs hold of humanity. With a peek into the personal lives of the women who helped lay the bricks of our current understanding of space, readers share in the challenges women encountered to get where we are today.

The Glass Universe is wholeheartedly worthy of your time spent reading, and certainly deserving of space on your bookshelf.

Not all the stories of the women computers, and other women astronomers, have been told. There are many more, tucked away in dusty archives at public libraries and universities, sitting on shelves or hidden in boxes, waiting to be found and shared. It’s just a matter of time and, hopefully, inclination.

As a final note, I hope Hollywood takes notice. I’d love to see this story on the big screen.

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On The Shelf: The Messier Album

Charles Messier's emblem.

As I pack my books in anticipation of moving next month, I realize what a great collection I have. My dear tomes live on two tall bookshelves, five shelves each. One bookshelf is dedicated entirely to science fiction, a lot of which I still need to read; the other holds my non-fiction. I thought I would share with you some of my favorite books about the science I love so much as a way to ignite the astronomy bug for those who may not know where to start.

If you are a novice to observing, one of the must-have books is The Messier Album, written by John H. Mallas and Evered Kreimer. First published in 1978 by Sky Publishing Corp (they also publish Sky & Telescope magazine), this book had its fifth printing in 1994 and now is only available from Amazon.com used resellers.

Why would I cherish such an old book about the Messier objects when there are newer ones with prettier images taken by bigger and better telescopes? I’ll admit I’m a little sentimental about this book, my primary reference when I first observed the glorious gems of the northern hemisphere. Night after star-filled night my little tome sat by my side during my quest for my Messier certificate from the Astronomical League.

During the day at many a star party, I would peruse my little companion for the objects I intended to bag after dusk. I read the “basic data,” “NGC description,” and “visual appearance” for each of the 110 Messier objects. I studied the black-and-white photographs and, sitting at my telescope after dark, I compared what I saw to the drawings made by Mallas.

Users of small telescopes will get the most benefit from The Messier Album. Mallas used a 4-inch f/15 Unitron refractor for his observations and his drawings offer an accurate view of what can be seen through a smaller aperture scope by the human eye. Trying to compare an object seen through a small telescope to the fabulous color pictures from light buckets like Hubble is nearly impossible for the novice.

Also included in The Messier Album are essays written by Owen Gingerich titled “Messier and His Catalogue” and “Hints for Beginning Observers,” as well as a checklist, a chapter on Mallas’ and Kreimer’s process, additional reading, and “Messier’s Own Catalogue” which is written in French. The best thing about this little book as an observing aide is that it’s available for as little as $2.38US from Amazon.com.

With today’s technology, you can spend hours searching the Internet for lists, photographs, and data about Messier’s objects. I even found an Android app that looks interesting. To be honest though, I’d much rather be sitting at the eyepiece with a red-lensed flashlight and my little book in hand.