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Book Recommendation: Glass Universe

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By Stacy Palen

A few weeks ago, Colin Inglefield wrote a guest post about his uses of trade books in the classroom. Over break, I finally had a chance to read Glass Universe by Dava Sobel, and I think this would make a great book to use in this context. The book is about the early years of the Harvard Observatory, and the women “computers” who worked there. I am considering using this text for Astro101 next fall.

There are several themes running through the book that might be used to guide discussion throughout the semester.

The first is the science and society angle; there’s a lot to talk about here, of course, about the role of women in science, and how the larger society’s norms decide who gets to play along in the sciences, and in what role. Then there’s the question of who gets the credit. In recent years, it has become increasingly well-known that Rosalind Franklin was robbed of recognition for her critical involvement in the discovery of DNA due to her gender. Sobel tells a parallel story in astronomy about Cecilia Payne-Gaposhkin, and her 1925 thesis that began a revolution in astronomy by discovering that stars have fundamentally different compositions than planets. Why is her name not as well-known as Chandrasekhar’s? That’s an opening point for a wide-ranging discussion about not only the role of women in science, but also general fairness (think of the recently renamed Hubble-Lemaitre Law).

The second is about the symbiotic connection between technology and science. (This is covered more directly in another trade book, Starlight Detectives by Alan Hirshfeld.) Hirshfeld convincingly argues that the revolution in photography created a corresponding revolution in science, because scientists were able to store objective data for the first time. This meant that multiple scientists could analyze the same data, and compare data points over time. Hirschfeld follows this thread through Henrietta Leavitt’s work on different types of variable stars, Annie Jump Cannon’s work on spectroscopy, and Cecilia Payne-Gaposhkin’s work on elemental abundances, and reveals why these discoveries could not have been made in Newton’s time, for example, the record-keeping ability that photography provides simply didn’t exist. Similarly, telescope technology was improving by leaps and bounds during this time, and internally consistent observations from both hemispheres became possible.

The third theme is about the role of private and public philanthropy in science. Most students are not aware of how science is funded today, nor how it has been funded in the past. The funding sources dictate, to some extent, what projects are pursued. At the Harvard Observatory during this time, Mary Ann Draper’s interests were decisive to the success of the observatory, and dictated to some extent the avenues of inquiry that were followed. There are benefits and drawbacks associated with privately funded science just as there are with publicly funded science. Deciding on the balance between the two funding sources is a current argument unfolding in the political sphere and in the larger society. This book helps illuminate the extent to which science in the past was dependent on the individual inclinations of wealthy donors. It’s for your students to decide whether they think the system has improved or not!

I’ll use this book for an experiment with book discussion groups in fall semester. I’ll let you know how it goes! Let me know if you decide to try something similar.

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