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Deciphering the Glass Universe

Author Dava Sobel discusses the role of women in the founding of modern astrophysics.

On April 4, science writer Dava Sobel visited Caltech to give a talk about her recent book, The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars, which details the lives and accomplishments of a group of female astronomers and philanthropists at Harvard in the late 1800s. Sobel's book details the many accomplishments of these women, including funding new telescopes, inventing new classification systems for stars, and discovering a yardstick for measuring distances across space.

We sat down with Sobel to discuss this important time in astronomy and her motivation behind telling this story.

What is the glass universe?

The glass universe is the main character of this story—half a million glass plates on which the Harvard photographs of stars were taken. These plates enabled women to create a classification system for the stars and discover new objects. These plates mark the beginning of modern astrophysics.

What role did women have in deciphering the glass universe?

Women played a huge role in making these discoveries possible. Some of the stories I tell in my book are about the women who funded this effort, such as Anna Draper, who donated her fortune to Harvard astronomy, and Catherine Wolfe Bruce, who donated the money to build a telescope to photograph the sky of the Southern Hemisphere. One female philanthropist set up fellowships for women who wanted to work in astronomy at Harvard. These fellowships were later used to fund graduate studies and, consequently, the first-ever Harvard PhD in astrophysics was a woman named Cecilia Payne. Other stories I tell are of the women who made groundbreaking astronomical discoveries; women like Annie Jump Cannon, who created the stellar classification system that we still use today.

Until recently, many women have been discouraged from doing science, thinking that it's "not feminine." But the women I describe were given incredible opportunities at Harvard and truly seized them.

Why is this story important today?

I want young female astronomers to know the story of these women. It's inspiring and encouraging. This work done in the 1800s was very difficult, and the women really did it. This work should not be forgotten.


This talk was sponsored by the Keck Institute for Space Studies and the Caltech Women's Club. A full video of the presentation can be viewed at

Written by Lorinda Dajose