Johnson: Miss Leavitt's Stars (2)

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George Johnson, Miss Leavitt’s Stars : The Untold Story of the Woman who Discovered How to Measure the Universe. New York : W.W. Norton, 2005. xiv + 162 pages; illustrated, with bibliographic references and index.

I wanted to like this book, I really did. The author does give us fair warning at the beginning that there’s not a lot about Henrietta Leavitt herself in this book, because, though he tried, there isn’t much known about her outside of her work. Still, I wanted a scientific biography and, despite the heads up, was disappointed.

Miss Leavitt was a “computer” — computers were women (mostly) whose job it was to count and categorize stars from photographic plates, a task generally considered menial. Miss Leavitt, however, excelled at this task, counting hundreds of them. And in the process she developed a yardstick that could be used to determine how far away from earth stars were, which fed the controversy at the time of just how big the universe actually is.

I’m not much interested in astronomy/cosmology and my interest waxed and waned throughout the short book (so much so that I had to renew the book at the library in order to finish it) and, sorry to say, much of the science went over my head as a consequence. Still, I was interested in this tiny glimpse into the contribution this mostly unknown woman made.

-- Notes by DC

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