In connection with the publication of Dava Sobel’s latest book, The Glass Universe, about the women who photographed the sky in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries at Harvard University, here’s an appreciative sketch of their discoveries, and of the discovery of the paper traces of their work they left behind.
This is good work going on, the recounting of the contribution of these women to science. We’ve had told to us in recent times the story of the women who worked at NASA in Hidden Figures; now this, from Sobel. One can find without too much trouble books about women’s contributions in industry during World War II. About the only story I can think of that hasn’t been told in full is the story of the women who turned the dials at Oak Ridge, TN, during the early days of the race to develop a nuclear bomb. Richard Rhodes and Nuel Pharr Davis have a few paragraphs on them in The Making of the Atomic Bomb and Lawrence and Oppenheimer, but that’s about all. They were there, too.
Books like The Glass Universe and Hidden Figures offer positive encouragement to women to enter into (and stay in) the STEM fields, if that is their desire. I say “positive encouragement” because there is such a thing as “negative encouragement,” as in, “Do this, or there won’t be any women in science at all,” or “Study this subject, because we need more work on it.” Graduate students are subject to such “encouragement” all the time. Some of it is well meant, but a great deal of it is motivated by the desire of academic departments to show increased enrollments in certain fields and to maintain funding. The actual wishes of the students may be ignored.
As researchers, women are more patient and determined than men, qualities that must come to the forefront when studying time-lapse photographs of star fields or the slides of a microscope. Add to these qualities the general sense that women know their own bodies better than most men know theirs, and one can see (at least from my point of view) why having more women in fields like astronomy and biology–two fields I love–would be an enormous benefit to all of us as we learn more and more about how the body works. The only rule I have for such matters is the rule I would apply to myself: women must choose the work freely, without coercion. That’s the only way to foster the free and happy minds that make the intuitive leaps to relativity theory, string theory, or to the thousands of discoveries of the processes and the materials that have shaped the modern world.