In the 1870s, before women had the right to vote or a firm standing in the workplace, a lucky few found employment at the Harvard College Observatory. The first female assistants were born to the work—as the wives, daughters, and sisters of the resident astronomers.
Over time other ladies joined the group, thanks to the director’s farsighted hiring practices and the introduction of photography to astronomy. Instead of observing through the telescope by night, the women could analyze the stars in daylight on glass photographic plates. Harvard's female workforce grew accordingly, and its individual members won national and international acclaim for their discoveries.
The most famous among them—Williamina Fleming, Antonia Maury, Annie Jump Cannon, Henrietta Leavitt, and Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin—are the heroines of this story. The work was not only performed by women, but also funded by female philanthropists such as Anna Palmer Draper and Catherine Wolfe Bruce. The half-million glass plates captured through a century’s worth of observing still occupy their own building at what is today the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
“Like the women of the Harvard Observatory, Dava Sobel reveals worlds to us. The Glass Universe is sensitive, exacting, and lit with the wonder of discovery.” —Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction
In one sense, this project represented a complete departure for me, as I’d never written a play before. But drama seemed the ideal medium for recreating the conversations that made Copernicus buck common sense and received wisdom to defend the Earth’s motion around the Sun. And the subject matter reprises a favorite theme of mine: the transformation of humankind’s worldview through science.
While acting on my longstanding desire to write a play about Nicolaus Copernicus, I visited Poland three times and conducted enough research to fill a book. The play at the book’s heart, “And the Sun Stood Still,” portrays the people and events pushing Copernicus to publish his rearrangement of the cosmos.
Writing this book allowed me to link today’s scientific exploration of the Solar System with popular culture—everything from astrology and mythology to science fiction, music, and poetry. The book celebrates Earth and her nearest neighbors at this unique moment in history, when the old familiar solar family yields to a new definition of the word planet, and thousands of recently discovered exoplanets orbiting stars beyond the Sun hold out the tantalizing possibility of extraterrestrial life.
Galileo’s Daughter quoted liberally from the 124 surviving letters that Suor Maria Celeste wrote to her famous father from the Convent of San Matteo in Arcetri, where she lived from age thirteen until her death. Unable to include all my translations in the text, I gave the full set to The Galileo Project. It soon became apparent, however, that the people who most wanted to read all the letters did not want to read them on-line. The compromise was Letters to Father, which presented the original Italian with English translation on facing pages.
The realization that Galileo had fathered two nuns made me question everything I’d been taught about him in school. What if he did everything he did as a believing Catholic? I wondered. Isn’t that a much more nuanced, interesting story? And how would his daughter nuns have reacted to his unorthodox notions about the heavens? To his trial for heresy by the Roman Inquisition?
Roughly one-quarter of the many letters I received after the publication of Longitude complained that the book contained no pictures, maps, or diagrams. This loudly expressed interest in illustrations led to The Illustrated Longitude...
Longitude tells the life-and-death story behind the grid work of lines appearing on every world map and globe. In the early days of sail, mariners had no accurate means of determining their position at sea. Indeed, the entire Age of Exploration was carried out without anyone’s ever knowing where he was.