Tag Archives: Harvard Computers

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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See Me Soar, Day 3: Charlotte Emma Moore Sitterly

Charlotte Emma Moore Sitterly. Image courtesy AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

“In complete ignorance of the requirements needed for this job, I reported for duty and was cordially received, but without fanfare assigned my first task, the photographic determination of the position of the moon.”

So began the career of Charlotte Moore upon graduating from Swarthmoore College in 1920. As was the case for many woman astronomers in that era, she was a “mathematics computer” for Princeton University, tasked with making calculations used in astronomical research. It was “women’s work” dating back to The Harvard Computers. While at Princeton, Moore worked with Henry Norris Russell, the co-developer of the Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram.

After five years at Princeton, Moore moved to California to work at Mount Wilson Observatory researching solar spectra. In 1928, she returned to Princeton for a year before resigning to continue her education at the University of California at Berkley. Upon completion, she again worked with Russell at Princeton on atomic spectra.

It was during this period that Moore met her husband, Dr. Bancroft Walker Sitterly, an astronomer, physicist, and faculty member at Wesleyan University. They married on May 30, 1937. The couple did not have any children and remained married until his death in 1977.

In 1945, after recommendation from Russell, Moore went to work at the National Bureau of Standards in the Spectroscopy Section of the Atomic Physics Division. This work culminated in Atomic Energy Levels, volumes published from 1949 to 1958, which were “the definitive reference sources used for decades in such fields as astronomy, laser physics, and spectral chemistry.”

Moore received many awards during her long career, including:

1937 – Annie J. Cannon Prize
1951 – Silver Medal, Department of Commerce
1960 – Gold Medal, Department of Commerce
1961 – Federal Woman’s Award, U.S. Civil Service Commission
1963 – Annie Jump Cannon Centennial Medal, Wesley College
1966 – Career Service Award, National Civil Service League
1968 – Honorary Doctorate, Universitat zu Kiel, Germany
1972 – William F. Meggers Award, Optical Society of America
1990 – Bruce Medalist, Astronomical Society of the Pacific

Moore was born on September 24, 1898 in Ercildoun, Pennsylvania. Her parents were George Winfield Moore, a school superintendent, and Elizabeth Palmer Walton Moore, a schoolteacher. Moore worked until her death at age 91 on March 3, 1990 from heart failure at her home in Washington, D.C.

Other links:

Charlotte E. Moore
Charlotte E. Moore Biography
Sitterly, Charlotte Emma Moore
Charlotte Emma Moore Sitterly
Charlotte Moore Sitterly