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Miss Leavitt's Stars: The Untold Story of the Woman Who Discovered How to Measure the Universe (Great Discoveries) First Edition Edition

4.5 out of 5 stars 21 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0393051285
ISBN-10: 0393051285
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Editorial Reviews

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)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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


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Product Details

  • Series: Great Discoveries
  • Hardcover: 176 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; First Edition edition (June 13, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393051285
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393051285
  • Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 0.8 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,043,163 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWER on July 2, 2005
Format: Hardcover
If you look up at the night sky (unobscured, if possible, by city lights), you cannot help but see that some stars are bright and some are barely perceptible. There are explanations for these differences; a bright star may be an ordinary star but simply closer, or a bright star might be at an ordinary distance but simply bigger. A big part of the challenge of astronomy is trying to figure out just this sort of problem, because it involves basic measurements of our universe. One of the greatest breakthroughs on the way to understanding how to measure stellar distances was made by Henrietta Swan Leavitt, and if you have never heard this name, there are many reasons, all of them a little embarrassing. In _Miss Leavitt's Stars: The Untold Story of the Woman Who Discovered How to Measure the Universe_ (Atlas Books / W. W. Norton), George Johnson has brought Leavitt to us, so that we can consider what she accomplished, and why she remains obscure. There is not actually much material on Leavitt here; this is a small book to begin with, and few of the pages actually have to do with her life. Johnson himself says she deserves a proper biography, but unless some heretofore secret material is found, she won't get one. She didn't leave diaries or memoirs, and there are few letters. What she left astronomers was a celestial yardstick, and it was used to change fundamentally our knowledge of the size and age of the universe we inhabit.

Photography became a great help in astronomy, and eventually Harvard had a half million glass plates that were a precise a record of the night sky. But this was very raw data. To analyze the images, the director of the Harvard observatory, Edward Pickering, employed computers.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This short book (130 pages of text) is an essential addition to the history of astronomy. Very little data is available about Henrietta Leavitt, the woman who made one of the most important discoveries in astronomy. As the author notes, she left no diaries, no boxes of letters, no memoirs, and she did not brag about her work. Given the lack of information available, George Johnson does a great job of weaving what we do know of Leavitt's life and work into the story of astronomy in the early 20th century. Johnson is a gifted writer. Sentences and paragraphs are easy to follow; all the references to the people discussed in the book are clearly explained. His use of the "village in the canyon" analogy to explain the strengths and weaknesses of determining parallax is excellent. The relationship of Leavitt's incredibly detailed work on Cepheids to Hubble and Shapley is developed in a way that shows an often gross omission of credit on their part, yet the book is not about blame. Johnson points out the sexist hierarchical structure in astronomy at the time and the role of women as human computers. (They were actually called "computers.") Hubble and others, who should have gone beyond that social limitation, simply assumed that their human computer was not to be given credit. Johnson lets the facts about Leavitt's work speak for themselves and the reader can draw his or her own conclusion. It is true that we never get to know Leavitt in any deeply personal way but that can hardly be held against the book. Instead of speculating based on nothing, Johnson takes the information that we do have and turns this into a testament to a brilliant woman whose work became foundational for modern astronomy. The book is well worth obtaining for anyone interested in the history of science.
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Format: Hardcover
Allan Sandage, the respected astronomer and protégé of Edwin Hubble, once said: "What are galaxies? No one knew before 1900. Very few people knew in 1920. All astronomers knew after 1924."

Miss Henrietta Leavitt died in 1921. Working for years at the Harvard College Observatory under the noted astronomer Edward Pickering, this nearly forgotten observatory assistant, a 'computer' (one that does computations by hand), provided a tool critical to unraveling the most basic question facing astronomers in the early twentieth century. Was the Milky Way essentially the entire universe, or was the Milky Way just one of many large clusters of stars? These hypothetical clusters went by various names: island universes, nebulae, and galaxies.

How could one demonstrate that some stars were in a nearby cluster, while others were actually much farther away? Triangulation methods, a trigonometric approach, only worked for the sun and a few nearby stars. Is a dim star a bright star that is far away, or is a dim star simply a dim star that is nearby?

This short book, Miss Leavitt's Stars, is less biography, and more history and science than the title might suggest. Too little is known about Henrietta Leavitt herself. We do know that Miss Leavitt carefully analyzed the brightness of variables stars (those that brighten and dim over some period) in the Small Magellanic Cloud. Subsequently, she discovered a remarkable relationship between the brightness of individual stars and the lengths of their periods. The brighter the variable star, the longer the period. Furthermore, since the Magellanic variables are probably all about the same distance from the earth, their periods are apparently associated with their actual light emission.
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