On Paradise Pond

The back-to-school season finds me once again at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. My appointment as the Joan Leiman Jacobson Visiting Nonfiction Writer was supposed to end after the 2015 spring term, but, most fortunately for me, I've been asked back for a third academic year. In addition to the interaction with truly motivated students, I enjoy my friendships with a few faculty members and the physical beauty of the campus, including Paradise Pond. The pond, which is really a dammed section of the Mill River, got its name from Jenny Lind, who sang at Northampton's Old First Church in 1851 (before the college existed) and declared the village "the paradise of America." A path that runs from campus around the pond and along a good stretch of the river provides the ideal hour-long daily walk.

The incoming first-year students have been asked to read The Collapse of Western Civilization by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, a book I assigned as required reading for my science-writing class last semester. It takes a grim view from the future at the current failure of nations to address the consequences of climate change.

I read a few books myself this summer, including Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver, The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery, and H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. All three will come up in conversation in this year's classes, as they offer, respectively, a fictionalized account of organisms affected by climate change, a scientist's appreciation of a misunderstood mollusk, and the bonds between humans and other animals.

I spent most of May through August writing my own book about the female "computers" of the Harvard College Observatory, The Glass Universe, which I hope to finish by the publisher's November deadline. To keep the project moving forward through the summer, I turned down an invitation to attend a week-long conference on European Women in Mathematics, convened at a palazzo in Cortona, Italy, where I would be right now had I agreed to go.

But I'm happy to be at my work, and to be here, on Paradise Pond.

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.