By Aimee Lusty
Last week, Pioneer Works held a lecture discussing Dava Sobel’s new book The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars, as part of a series of events bridging the arts and sciences. In a collaborative conversation with artist Lia Halloran and the center’s director of science Janna Levin, Sobel took to introduce the audience to the untold story of Harvard’s first female computers.
Referred to as “Pickering’s Harem,” the group of women worked at the Harvard College Observatory from the 1870s through the mid 1900s, under the direction of Edward Charles Pickering. Pickering hired the women to compute and catalogue astronomical data as captured on photographic glass plates. The process, known as astrophotography, revolutionized the study of astronomy. After decades of dedication, collaborative conquests include the discovery and classification of thousands of stars, nebulae, and novae. Outstanding individual accomplishments include Henrietta Leavitt’s formula for calculating distances among the stars and Annie Jump Cannon’s system of spectral classification, both of which are still used today.
Dava Sobel’s The Glass Universe provides an unparalleled profile of the group, weaving a historical narrative studded with quotes from diary entries, letters, and photographic ephemera from the observatory archive. The archive, now housed at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, has amassed some 500,000 glass plates capturing decades of photographic data from our sky. Concurrent to Sobel’s research, artist Lia Halloran, was also using the archives as source material for her work. "Your Body is a Space That Sees" is a series of large scale cyanotype prints using historical imagery and narratives to illuminate the contributions of women in astronomy. The works begin with a visit to the archives, and subsequent observations are recorded with ink onto drafting film. These initial drawings act as negatives which are exposed onto large paper treated with photosensitive emulsion, and exposed outdoors using sunlight.
The conversation offered two unique accounts and appreciations for the women and their work, from varying backgrounds in history, science, and the arts. This event was held as part of a series of lectures, workshops, artist residencies and exhibitions highlighting collaborative efforts in the arts and sciences. Pioneer Works, located in Red Hook, Brooklyn, is a non-profit organization dedicated to exhibiting research and experimentation in contemporary culture. For more information about upcoming events visit www.pioneerworks.org.