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review 2018-07-22 22:16
The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel
The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars - Dava Sobel

Dava Sobel's 'Glass Universe' has a fantastic premise: telling the story of the women who founded, funded, and worked in the Harvard Observatory from the late 19th century to well into the 20th.

There were marvelous strides made in astronomy during that time, and it is astonishing to think of how these women were able to parse out the mechanics and make-up of the stars from long examination of glass plate negatives.

The science was marvelous and astonishing. The women themselves, with very few exceptions, seemed to have escaped Sobel's notice. There was an enormous 'cast' of women for Sobel to profile, true, but she could have picked a few representative cases instead of picking 1, or at most 2, dramatic instances from the lives of dozens of scientists and patrons. This is unfortunate, as without a human touch to the narrative, the science made me glaze over.

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review 2018-02-01 09:24
The Glass Universe - Dava Sobel
The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars - Dava Sobel

I don't usually bother reviewing books that disappoint me but I'm making an exception to that rule. This is one of those books where I am so glad I picked it up at the local library and didn't even spend the 45p it costs to have it reserved from another branch, so that will tell you something. 


I mean, it's not actively awful and I suppose if you didn't know anything about the subject matter, it would be a reasonable introduction, but it just doesn't do what it sets out to do if you're looking for more than that (and I was!). For a book about the women who worked in the Harvard astronomy department in the late 19th and early 20th century, it sure talks a lot more about the men who work there than actually tell us much about the women. I got to the point about halfway through that I was skimming paragraphs to see if they were about the women or not and moving on if they weren't. More time at one stage is spent on the women whose money supported the department than the ones doing the work, so we know more about how they felt about it than how the actual women astronomers did.


In the end, I didn't feel like I came away from this book with any more idea of who these pioneering women were and what it was like to do what they did, both personally and professionally, than I had when the book started. There's no sense, for example, of the frustration many (all?) of them must have experienced at the restrictions set on what they could do while less talented men passed them by on the academic ladder. Surely, somewhere, there must be some more candid account of what it was like to be them than has been drawn on in this book?


All of this was then capped for me by the way the author refers to everyone - men get referred to routinely by their surname, women as Miss or Mrs. Which is fine, except that while most of the men have a PhD and possession of that or otherwise is glossed over, so do some of the women and I felt as though that should have been recognised - not doing so is doubly ignoring the difficulty for a woman of that time to get a doctoral degree in a science subject. It also plays into the idea that these women, the first 'computers' were uneducated grunt workers and not the scientific pioneers they actually were, most of them middle class or above, most of them with postgraduate education or above.


Anyway, disappointing coming from the woman who wrote the excellent Longitude (which I recommend, regardless of this book) and I guess the book I really wanted to read about these women is (hopefully) still out there...

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text 2017-07-13 21:12
Nonfiction Science Book Club: My Suggestions
Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That's Rewriting the Story - Angela Saini
How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming - Mike Brown
13 Things That Don't Make Sense 13 Things That Don't Make Sense 13 Things That Don't Make Sense - Michael Brooks
The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars - Dava Sobel
Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? - Frans de Waal
The Day the Universe Changed - James Burke
How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World - Steven Johnson
Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space - Janna Levin
Seeing Further - Bill Bryson
Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life - Helen Czerski

In no order whatsoever (except "as I thought about it"):



Nonfiction Science Bookclub on booklikes is at http://booklikes.com/book-clubs/90/buddy-read-for-the-invention-of-nature 

Source: booklikes.com/book-clubs/90/buddy-read-for-the-invention-of-nature
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review 2017-01-21 00:00
The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars
The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars - Dava Sobel God only knows why this book is an incredibly dry read, but it really, really was. In comparison to another book about female mathematicians and scientists, [b:Hidden Figures|25953369|Hidden Figures The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race|Margot Lee Shetterly|https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1481844518s/25953369.jpg|45855800], this book both dragged and didn't drag enough. It throws people and lives at you in fast motion, leaving you unable to settle or focus on anyone except Pickering and arguably Draper to some extent. I can pick out some other names, such as Maury, Cannon and so on, but ask me about anecdotes about them specifically or their daily lives and I come up flat. Other than that they were prodigious minds of their generation and field it's hard to remember them as personal figures, which makes them hard to keep track of.

That's the main problem - when it talks about the glass, a lack of visual assistance makes it difficult to keep interested. When it talks about people, people are introduced, married, ignored, forgotten, reintroduced with such speed that it's hard to tell what's going on and who we're focusing on in the current moment. This may not be a problem for some people, but I found myself drifting off and having to reread pages over and over again. This book would have taken me half the time if I had been able to focus on it, but it did almost everything it could to make it impossible. I felt like I could replace names with variables like in algebra and it would have made MORE sense, and I don't feel like I need a backstory to x, y, and z to appreciate their importance.

Hidden Figures fixates on three particular people, and in doing so manages to weave in everyone's lives. Glass Universe, in whatever way, made it difficult for me to keep track of what had happened. Considering the several deaths that happen in the book - that I had to go back and reread because I was a paragraph into mourning and didn't notice that Pickering's wife had passed away, for example? This was one of the most damning realizations - that the book hadn't kept me focused enough to notice that people had died. I had a hard time visualizing or feeling any interactions - they were merely things that happened. And one thing just happens after another and another - one could argue, I suppose, that this is all history is, but it lacked any dimension, and the connections would stray so far from the central point that it would all seem a little pointless.

The chapter titles seem loose and broad, making the book seem even more scattered than it was. There were huge portions of chapters that I didn't feel were focused to the title at all, diverging so much that I would just stare at the top of the page wondering what was happening and if this had anything to do with anything.

A fascinating topic, to be sure, and this isn't to say there wasn't stuff about it was interesting. I retained a lot more than I initially thought I did, but I felt like I was reading this book in a stupor, like I was going in and out of sleep even while I stared directly at the page.
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url 2016-12-04 02:46
The Best Science Books of 2016
Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space - Janna Levin
The Polar Bear - Jenni Desmond
Time Travel: A History - James Gleick
The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It . . . Every Time by Maria Konnikova (2016-01-12) - Maria Konnikova
Being a Dog: Following the Dog into a World of Smell by Alexandra Horowitz (2016-10-04) - Alexandra Horowitz
Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World - Rachel Ignotofsky
The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars - Dava Sobel
Felt Time: The Psychology of How We Perceive Time (MIT Press) - Marc Wittmann,Erik Butler
I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life - Ed Yong
The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries From a Secret World - Peter Wohlleben

Listen to the best books of science 2016. Nice introduction. 


There are more books that I could link, so have a listen. 

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