In the middle of the 19th century, the Harvard Observatory began to employ women as ‘human computers’ who did the tedious but crucial work of interpreting stellar images captured on glass plates. Over time, more and more women with degrees were employed who then began to truly study the stars and soon made groundbreaking and invaluable contributions to our understanding of the universe.
I had high expectations for this book but in the end, it was a bit of a disappointing read. It is weirdly unfocused, in that it often seems to be more about the history of the Harvard Observatory in general than about the women who worked there. There is also a lot of science because the various discoveries about the composition and nature of stars are discussed extensively but in a way that requires at least some prior knowledge about these things. In that aspect, it is very dry and technical.
Furthermore, I found the human element to be lacking. There are so many amazing women in this but I did not feel that I really got to know a single one of them. I learned about their contributions to science and the great things they did, but there was very little else. How did they feel about forgoing marriage and children for their work? What did they think about earning very little or about the fact that for the longest time they were excluded from certain positions in the universities and astronomical societies just because they were women? What did the male scientists think of them and their work? Sadly, there are only glimpses and short mentions of these and other issues I am interested in when I think of women in science in general, but especially at that time.
To sum it up, it was informative about certain scientific discoveries and about the crucial role women played in these. It is a recognition of their brilliance and hard work despite being underpaid and underappreciated. However, I can’t help but feel that these women deserved a better book.