Skip to Content

The calculators: Two tomes uncover how women broke down barriers to explore the universe

The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars

Dava Sobel
352 pp.
Purchase this item now

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race

Margot Lee Shetterly
367 pp.
Purchase this item now

As testimony to the tenacity and bravery of clever women, and the courage of some laboratory managers and directors, the 20th century saw the emergence of women as significant participants in astronomy and space engineering.

In the opening pages of The Glass Universe, Dava Sobel recounts how, in the wake of her husband’s death in 1882, Mary Anna Palmer Draper was determined to ensure that his legacy as a trailblazer in the field of astrophotography was not forgotten. With the encouragement of Edward Charles Pickering, director of the Harvard College Observatory, she established the Henry Draper Memorial, which would support an ambitious new program that sought to classify several thousand stars from a catalog of photographs captured on glass plates. She thus became a benefactor of the observatory, providing funds, and eventually a telescope, to ensure that her husband’s spectroscopic work was continued. In doing so, Draper—herself an active participant in her husband’s research—set in motion events that would firmly establish a role for women in modern astrophysics.

In the year of Henry Draper’s untimely passing, Pickering had issued a plea requesting the help of amateur astronomical observers, who would be responsible for performing calculations on the observatory’s nighttime observations. Noting the aptitude and untapped potential of the gentler sex, he had enlisted the assistance of six women “computers” by February 1883.

Sobel capably demonstrates how Pickering’s cadre of women computers not only standardized the stellar brightness scale to levels fainter than the unaided eye could see but also characterized the detailed appearance of stellar spectra on plates that recorded hundreds of observations at a time. Williamina Fleming, for example, originally employed as Pickering’s maid, created an extensive empirical classification scheme based on the visual appearance of the spectra. The scheme was later augmented by Antonia Maury, none other than Henry Draper’s niece. Astronomers at the time were skeptical of the use of photography as a robust astronomical medium, but the women’s careful analysis helped the field of astrophotography become a cornerstone of stellar astronomy.

Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) offers some help to NASA mission specialist Karl Zielinski (Olek Krupa). Photo Credit: Hopper Stone.Hopper Stone

Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) offers some help to NASA mission specialist Karl Zielinski (Olek Krupa).

Later, we meet Cecilia Payne, an English woman who read chemistry and physics at Cambridge University. Payne arrived at the observatory in 1923, where she would eventually determine that stars are 99% hydrogen, an important breakthrough counter to conventional wisdom at the time. Payne would go on to become the first woman to obtain a Ph.D. in astronomy from Radcliffe College (now part of Harvard) in 1925.

Sobel interweaves the diverse personalities and backgrounds of these and other women with stories about the evolution of the field of astronomy as a whole, including the establishment of the American Astronomical Society, and the International Astronomical Union’s struggle to maintain and then reestablish international research collaborations across national boundaries during World War II (an effort in which the Harvard Observatory was a major player, according to Sobel).

Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly, picks up where The Glass Universe leaves off, highlighting a group of African American women who made important early contributions to the space race during and after World War II. The book follows the career of Dorothy Vaughan, a former high school mathematics teacher, and her fellow female computers in the all-black West Area Computing Unit of Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, who were recruited from around the country to provide computation support for the war effort in the early 1940s.

Contrasting the headline-grabbing exploits of Tuskegee airmen with the understated but no less impressive contributions of the “colored computers,” Shetterly reveals how the women earned the respect and admiration of their colleagues. “They wore their professional clothes like armor,” she writes. “They wielded their work like weapons, warding off the presumption of inferiority because they were Negro or female.”

The women continued their work after the war, during the period when rocketry was born and competition with the Soviet Union was fierce. A film about their contributions to NASA’s Project Mercury and the Apollo 11 mission based on Shetterly’s book is set to be
released on 25 December (1).

Besides being captivating reads, these two books chronicle stories of overlooked contributions of women in space science, astrophysics, and engineering in the 20th century. Both are a testimony to personal perseverance and ingenuity. Such histories enrich our understanding of the value of tapping diverse individuals to advance knowledge in any field.


  1. Hidden Figures, Theodore Melfi, director. Fox 2000 Pictures, 2016.

About the author

The reviewer is at Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, MD 21218, USA.