Required reading

This month I'm drawing up two required reading lists. One is for the students in the science-writing seminar I'll start teaching in September at Smith College. It covers a wide range of subjects and genres, from the planet poems of Diane Ackerman to the DNA play by Paul Mullin, plus chapters from classic works such as Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and Charles Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle, along with clips from The New York Times Tuesday science section and recent pieces in The New Yorker, New Scientist, and Scientific American. The other reading list is for myself. It's narrower in focus but much longer and will keep growing over the next two years as I research and write my current book, tentatively titled The Glass Universe, for Penguin Random House. The story takes place at the Harvard College Observatory, beginning in the 1870s, when Edward Pickering, the institution's third director, approached some of the biggest questions in astronomy by hiring a large number of women to work as computers.

My reading list includes several histories of the American observatory -- not just Harvard's but also its contemporaries and competitors such as the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington (admirably chronicled by Steven J. Dick in Sky and Ocean Joined). Then there are the state-of-the-science accounts from a contemporary perspective, my favorite of which so far is Agnes Clerke's Popular History of Astronomy During the Nineteenth Century (Third Edition, 1893). I feel a kindred spirit-hood with Agnes, a once popular science writer whose colorful idiom describes "matter that thrills the ether into light."

The best part of the reading awaits me in the Harvard University Archive, among the many boxes of letters to and from the former Observatory staffers. Much of their correspondence is available in digitized copies on-line, where I've gotten started going through it. "Dear Edward," the director's brother addresses him from an astronomy outpost in Peru, then pours out twelve hand-written pages of news before signing off stiffly as "W. H. Pickering." There's a story there.