From Publishers Weekly
In the early 1900s the "computers" at the Harvard University Observatory were women, paid 25 cents an hour to pore over photographic plates taken with the university's telescope and to catalogue changes in the sizes and locations of stars. Henrietta Leavitt was an unmarried clergyman's daughter who began working at the observatory soon after graduating from Radcliffe. The director quickly recognized her skill and made generous allowances for the long absences occasioned by her apparently delicate health and family problems. New York Times
science writer Johnson (Strange Beauty
) relates that Leavitt's singular contribution to astronomy came when she recognized that cyclical changes in the size of Cepheids, giant variable stars, could be correlated with their luminosity. Once luminosity was known, a star's distance from Earth could be calculated. Leavitt wasn't interested in pushing her discovery to its logical conclusion, but other astronomers quickly grasped the ramifications for calculating the size of the Milky Way and the universe. In recent years, Leavitt has joined Rosalind Franklin in receiving long overdue recognition. Scant documentation exists for Leavitt's life aside from correspondence with the observatory, so readers shouldn't be surprised to discover that this excellent book is more about the search to measure the universe than about Leavitt's life. Nevertheless, it's a fine tribute to a remarkable woman of science. 10 illus. not seen by PW
. Agent, Esther Newberg.(June)
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From Scientific American
In the early 20th century, colorful, strong-willed astronomers debated the size of the universe: Was the Milky Way just one galaxy among billions, or did it constitute the entire universe? At the same time, in the backrooms of the Harvard Observatory, a not-so-colorful, rather plain young woman was hard at work. Henrietta Swan Leavitt was paid 25 cents an hour as a human "computer": she examined photographic plates, concentrating on variable stars--those that periodically change brightness--looking for anomalies. Eventually she discovered a direct correlation between the time it took a star to go from dim to bright and how bright it actually was--and thus a way to use these stars as a cosmic measuring stick. On the shoulders of her accomplishment, Edwin Hubble was able to prove that the Milky Way is but one galaxy among many. Little information about Leavitt exists--a few grainy photographs, some letters, no diary. From such scraps, the well-known science writer George Johnson fashions a fascinating picture of her life: her passion for astronomy, the humiliations at the hands of her male colleagues, the constant interruptions of illness, including her growing deafness, and finally her death from stomach cancer at age 53. His grace in bringing her to life is matched by his lucidity in explaining difficult scientific concepts. Unfortunate in life, Miss Leavitt is very fortunate in her biographer.
Editors of Scientific American