The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars by Dava Sobel (Viking, 2016)
Acclaimed writer Dava Sobel (Longitude, Galileo’s Daughter) has written another fascinating book that brings science to life, this time with the help of historical photos and letters. This book, like the recent movie Hidden Figures, is about women “computers.” Several of the women whose history is told in The Glass Universe are among the few well-known woman scientists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Annie Jump Cannon, Henrietta Leavitt, Cecilia Payne). Initially women were only allowed to serve as underpaid staff at Harvard Observatory who carried out tedious but very important calculations on photographs of stars taken on glass plates. Sobel notes that Harvard’s collection of half a million glass plates that captured the sky on each night between 1885 and 1992 is irreplaceable. As time went on these women astronomers were able to publish papers, present at international conferences, and hold professional titles. They were responsible for key discoveries in optical astronomy, such as the classification of stars and the relationship between brightness and period in variable stars.
The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church (Algonquin Books, 2016)
The cover of this book shows a periodic table of the elements, with birds instead of elements. I wouldn’t call this a great novel, but it was interesting and thought-provoking. Plus you can learn a lot about birds by reading it, since each chapter is prefaced by a set of facts about a particular bird species. The main character is a woman who wants to be an ornithologist, but sadly never achieves this ambition due to the sexist culture of mid-twentieth century America. Meridian does earn a bachelor’s degree and gets accepted to Cornell for graduate school, which has a top ornithology program. But then, she falls in love, gets married, and follows her husband to Los Alamos. She doesn’t even have children, yet she gives up on further education and a career. I thought she was going to publish her many years of bird observation journals, but she doesn’t even do that.
Sweetness #9 by Stephan Eirik Clark (Little, Brown, 2014)
This newly published novel pretends to be the memoir of a chemist in the food science field who once did animal testing on an artificial sweetener. He found that rats and monkeys fed the sweetener gained weight and became depressed, but couldn’t persuade his employer to pull the product from the market. Although he goes on to a successful career with another employer (eventually becoming CEO), he never quite gets over the incident at his first job. It affects his whole life and his relationships with his wife and family. It is a well written book which offers unique insights into the normally hidden world of food chemistry, but not necessarily the most exciting plot or characters. I would like have liked the story to have developed differently, like the protagonist becoming an activist for food safety rather than just regretting not having done more.
Filed under Fiction, Science
The signature of all things by Elizabeth Gilbert (Penguin Audio, 2013)
After investing 22 hours listening to this novel on CD, I’m still not sure how I feel about it. Let’s start with the facts: it’s the story of a fictional woman botanist whose career spans most of the 19th century. She was born into a wealthy Philadelphia family but ended her days as Curator of Mosses in her mother’s family’s botanical garden back in Holland. While her career was unusual for a women of that time, she probably accomplished as much research and publication as she would have in the 21st century. Her brief marriage gave her an opportunity to sail around the world and see places that only men of that time typically saw. She never met Darwin, but she did meet his associate Wallace. Overall this novel paints a very complete picture of what life would have been like for a woman naturalist in the 19th century.
The City and the Coming Climate: Climate Change in the Places We Live by Brian Stone, Jr. (Cambridge University Press, 2012).
The international community is focused on carbon dioxide from fossil fuel emissions as the main cause of global warming. It is, at the global scale, but according to Brian Stone, “the primary driver of climate change in cities is not the global greenhouse effect but rather the loss of trees and other vegetative cover to development and the emission of waste heat from industries, vehicles, and buildings.” In fact, due to the urban heat island effect, cities can be as much as 12F hotter than the surrounding suburbs during summer heat waves. Yet climate scientists discount this effect because annual global mean temperature increase is the primary metric, and seasonal differences can cancel each other out.
Brian Stone, a professor of urban planning at Georgia Tech, makes the case that individuals are not powerless in the face of global climate change, because changes in the cities we live in can make a difference. For example, we know that a city-wide program of planting trees and other vegetation (on the ground or on rooftops) can offer benefits for both temperature and flood control. Stone argues that fighting overdevelopment and deforestation in your metropolitan area is just as important as negotiating a new international climate change treaty, and potentially a lot more effective.
The Information: a history, a theory, a flood by James Gleick (Midwest Tape, 2011)
This comprehensive history of information covers a lot of ground. It’s not just about the history of computers or about we now call “information theory.” Gleick also discusses dictionaries, telegraphy and telephony, quantum mechanics, and the Internet. The sections on African drums, Charles Babbage’s difference engine, memes, and Wikipedia are particularly enlightening. Some of the material is very repetitive or highly mathematical, making it less than ideal for an audio format. But Gleick does give us plenty to think about.