Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Miss Henrietta Leavitt

Norton, c2006.

As the first book I am reviewing for the Science Book Challenge, I chose this brief biography. A small book to ease myself into science reading, I had thought. I was impressed with this one, a tale of a female "computer" at Harvard, when that job was the highest women could aspire to, no matter how intelligent they were. And Henrietta Swan Leavitt was very bright indeed; she performed research and computations which the "Real" scientists relied upon for their resultant discoveries. Her lengthy study proved that cyclical changes in the size of Cepheids, giant variable stars, could be correlated with their luminosity, and that once luminosity was known, a star's distance from Earth could be calculated. This became the basis for much further research by many astronomers. She continued on with her studies of photographic plates of star clusters, and as the author says about her final work, the North Pole Sequence, "PhDs have been awarded for less".

This was an excellent book on the subject of astronomical discoveries, though as a biography it was merely an outline of a life. As Johnson states near the beginning, "Henrietta Swan Leavitt deserves a proper biography. She will probably never get one, so faint is the trail she left behind." There is just not very much information about this woman, though we get as much as could be discovered in this tale. Leavitt was apparently quite sickly and as an unmarried daughter, much of the work of caring for her parents was left to her. Thus she had lengthy periods when she was away from Harvard, and the work had to wait. Johnson creates a wonderful picture of the era and of the other scientists working at Harvard. He takes Leavitt's major discovery -- how to measure the distance of stars -- and makes it intelligible to the basic layperson. He also explains how and why this discovery had an effect on the direction of astronomical research, and makes clear what such research entailed. It's a fascinating look at the research which must have absorbed Leavitt for most of her working life. Although the biographical information on this important woman is faint, I came away from this book feeling that I knew quite a bit about her. Though her physical life was sketched in broad outlines, it felt as if I had shared in her mental life for a while. Johnson succeeds in making this a fascinating story featuring other well known astronomers of the era. like Edwin Hubble (of telescope fame) and Harlow Shapley (Henrietta's Harvard boss). The story begins with Henrietta and moves on into the wider world of her working life. Johnson also takes care to point out both the neglect and the more recent fawning recognition Leavitt 's memory has endured. He does not assume that Leavitt deserves recognition simply because she was a woman at a time that science was not a very friendly field for women, rather he shows more respect by illuminating exactly why she was such a good scientist and deserving of a biography. The biographical information was certainly interesting, and yet Johnson also made the science of the story just as thrilling and informative.

This is highly recommended to anyone interested in astronomy and cosmology, and it would be a good book to provide to high school students in need of cross-curriculum book report material. The tale of Leavitt's discoveries and the infighting in the astronomy world in this era is as good as a soap opera!


  1. Too bad there is not much information about her, she seems like a fascinating woman. I'll have to look out for this book, you've made it sound very enjoyable!

  2. Thanks for the informative notes on what sounds like a very useful and interesting book. Sure, it serves my own purposes but your review is now an official book-challenge book note, too.

  3. This is going straight on my list. I've been doing more science reading as I get older, and also more reading about women; this looks delicious!

  4. Stefanie & Jenny - this was a very enjoyable read! The author was very good at presenting what little there was to know about Leavitt.

    Jeff - thanks for doing all my work for me! ;)


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