Just Read: Hidden Figures & The Glass Universe – Pioneer Female Scientists In Astrophysics

Hidden Figures And The Glass Universe On Novels And Nonfiction

I’m an avid reader of anything having to do either with the history of scientific progress or with astronomy/astrophysics, so any book combining both is a perfect fit for my reading palate. When in addition you add in the element of pioneering women, making strides in a field previously forbidden to them due to gender or racial discrimination, I’m so on board, it’s not even funny.

I first heard about Hidden Figures because I work in the entertainment industry and I found out that the movie version that came out in December was based on a true story. I haven’t watched the movie yet, so the review below is only for the book, though now that I’ve read about the spunk of Katherine Johnson (the character portrayed by Taraji P. Henson), I’m sure Taraji’s performance is going to be a slam dunk.

Soon after deciding that I wanted to read Hidden Figures in advance of watching the movie, I learned that Dava Sobel (who wrote the excellent albeit nerdy Longitude) was coming out with a new book on a different group of female pioneers in science. Several characters in The Glass Universe have a connection to my alma mater, Wellesley College, and the rest is history. Here are my reviews of both titles. If you have any recommendations of more similar books about female contributions to scientific progress, please send them my way!

Hidden Figures Book Review On Novels And NonfictionHidden Figures

by Margot Lee Shetterly

Published: September 6th 2016


Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)

Before John Glenn orbited the Earth or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of professionals worked as “Human Computers,” calculating the flight paths that would enable these historic achievements. Among these were a coterie of bright, talented African-American women. Segregated from their white counterparts by Jim Crow laws, these “colored computers,” as they were known… helped write the equations that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space. Drawing on the oral histories of scores of these “computers,” Hidden Figures recalls America’s greatest adventure and NASA’s groundbreaking successes through the experiences of five spunky, courageous, intelligent, determined, and patriotic women: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, Christine Darden, and Gloria Champine.

What I Liked

The diversity of the female African American mathematicians and engineers whose stories are told in this book. Each of the women whose inspiring and motivating life history of scientific pursuit is detailed in this book came from different realities. Some arrived at Langley straight out of college while others worked for years in other professions before realizing their dream to use their mathematical abilities. Some had children and husbands while others were single. Some were shy and retiring, and others spunky and daring. Some ended up pursuing careers in astrophysics until retirement, while others deviated to different pursuits or returned to their previous lives as homemakers. I appreciated the differences in their stories because they demonstrated that their mathematical abilities were not the the product of a specific type of upbringing, but rather inherent in their natures. I also grew to like each of the women individually for their different personalities and quirks. I can’t wait to watch Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe bring these women to life on the big screen.

The way in which Shetterly discusses the racial and gender discrimination of the female computers but also the progress they were able to make through the years. It was difficult to read of the humiliations that these African American women were subjected to all while they were making important contributions to science and to the war effort. From segregated work groups, bathrooms and cafeteria tables to being overlooked time and time again for overdue promotions, NASA took advantage of these womens’ superior intellects while continuing to treat them as inferiors on the basis of the color of their skin. Shetterly is able to show how treatment the female computers, through advocating for themselves and by demonstrating strength and professionalism in the face of adversity, were able with time to gain the recognition of appropriate titles and compensation for their work. Ultimately, I felt uplifted in seeing the progress the women were able to make in being accepted both as female and as African American in their scientific field, while still realizing that even today there’s still much room for improvement.

What I Didn’t Like

Not enough detail about the actual scientific and mathematical work. The book was justifiably focused on the discrimination experienced by the African American female computers, but as a lover of scientific nonfiction, I wish it included more detail about the work these women actually accomplished. Shetterly briefly discusses wind tunnels used to test aerodynamics and the first attempts to send man into orbit and eventually on the moon, but she keeps the actual scientific details on the light side. I think providing more information on the types of projects to which these women contributed would have added more context and increased the reader’s understanding of the importance and complexity of their work.

Final Verdict

4 Rabbits Rating On Novels And Nonfiction

The inspirational story of a group of brilliant African American women who made hugely important contributions to the development of modern planes and to early space exploration at NASA, all while fighting against appalling racial and gender discrimination.

The Glass Universe Book Review On Novels And NonfictionThe Glass Universe

by Dava Sobel

Published: December 6th 2017


Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)

In the mid-nineteenth century, the Harvard College Observatory began employing women as calculators, or “human computers,” to interpret the observations made via telescope by their male counterparts each night. At the outset this group included the wives, sisters, and daughters of the resident astronomers, but by the 1880s the female corps included graduates of the new women’s colleges—Vassar, Wellesley, and Smith. As photography transformed the practice of astronomy, the ladies turned to studying the stars captured nightly on glass photographic plates. Elegantly written and enriched by excerpts from letters, diaries, and memoirs, The Glass Universe is the hidden history of a group of remarkable women who, through their hard work and groundbreaking discoveries, disproved the commonly held belief that the gentler sex had little to contribute to human knowledge.

What I Liked

The focus on the scientific breakthroughs and contributions to astronomy/astrophysics accomplished by the female scientists in the book. By reading The Glass Universe I learned a lot about the evolution of the science of stellar spectroscopy, which was absolutely fascinating. From advances in telescope size and power, to the first photographs taken of stars, to the discovery that these photographs could reveal so many of the hidden mysteries of the universe like star composition, distance and the size of the universe itself – I soaked up all the scientific details with glee. Most of the discoveries made in this history were either wholly or in part the work of the female scientists that make up the book’s principal cast, several of whom actually attended the same liberal arts college I went to (Wellesley) though over a hundred years before me. If you’re interested in learning about the early history of modern astronomical investigation, The Glass Universe is a beautifully written and accessible source of information.

The detailing of the personal lives and friendships of the scientists. The Glass Universe primarily revolves around the work done at the Harvard Observatory in the late 1800s and early 1900s by a group of increasingly tight-knit men and women who developed both professional and personal relationships through the years. Sobel brings these historical characters to life, including their animosities, their envies, their friendships, their love affairs and their eccentricities. I loved the inclusion of segments of letters sent from one scientist to the other, providing a primary source through which to witness their now long-past interactions. Despite writing about people who lived over a hundred years ago, Sobel was able to make them feel real and relatable to me. I desperately wanted to sit overnight at the Harvard Observatory with these women and help them glean secrets from the stars.

What I Didn’t Like

Not enough analysis of the ways in which the female scientists struggled against societal expectations in the atypical path they chose. Unlike Hidden FiguresThe Glass Universe is not light on scientific details. On the other hand, The Glass Universe fails to provide a real analysis of the gender discrimination these female astronomers experienced in the pursuit of their scientific careers. Beyond a few mentions of it taking longer for a female astronomer to be awarded a particular medal or position and two paragraphs of hurried analysis at the end, the book misses the opportunity to delve into what difficulties these women experienced that their male counterparts never had to face. They must have struggled to reconcile a busy career life with having a family and children. They must have faced skepticism from parents, friends and strangers about their very unusual life choices for the times. They must have struggled economically from being paid so much less than their male counterparts. There’s very little discussion of any of this unfortunately in the book and I found it a glaring omission.

Final Verdict

4 Rabbits Rating On Novels And Nonfiction

A beautifully written history of the development of stellar spectroscopy and of the work of the female scientists who contributed to the discoveries that it enabled. Unfortunately lacking in analysis of the gender discrimination experienced by the women involved.

Have you read Hidden Figures or The Glass Universe? What did you think of them? Let me know in the comments.

If you’d like to keep up to date with posts on Novels And Nonfiction, make sure to follow me on WordPress, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Pinterest.

You can also read other recent reviews on the blog including for medical memoir Working Stiff by Judy Melinek MD and T.J. Mitchell, thriller The Twilight Wife by A.J. Banner or classic Villette by Charlotte Brontë.

Please note this post contains affiliate links from Book Depository. I received an advanced review copy of The Glass Universe from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.

  20 comments for “Just Read: Hidden Figures & The Glass Universe – Pioneer Female Scientists In Astrophysics

  1. January 4, 2017 at 4:47 pm

    What a great combo! And how interesting they each lacked what you loved about the other. I’ve been meaning to read Hidden Figures, but I’ll definitely be adding The Glass Universe to my list!

    Liked by 1 person

    • January 5, 2017 at 7:12 pm

      I know! I was surprised by how it turned out they differed, but they were both very enjoyable and inspiring reads.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. January 5, 2017 at 5:27 am

    These sound like they’d balance each other out well, covering both the science and the social issues. I read and loved Hidden Figures and I definitely need to pick up The Glass Universe as well!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. January 6, 2017 at 5:31 pm

    I love your review for Hidden Figures. I’m so glad I read it, too! I thought that Rise of the Rocket Girls by Nathalia Holt was the basis for the film, not a book with the same title. Oops! Ignorance corrected.

    I agree with Katie above that these books seem to balance each other in their deficiencies. If you had to recommend one book over the other, which would you choose?


    • January 6, 2017 at 5:58 pm

      Hmmm they’re actually kind of different so that’s hard. I think as a science nerd I would recommend The Glass Universe – for Hidden Figures you can always just watch the movie 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  4. January 7, 2017 at 1:53 am

    I’ve seen Hidden Figures around, but this is the first time I’ve seen The Glass Universe. From what you say about both, I think I might like The Glass Universe even better!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. January 13, 2017 at 8:07 pm

    Came back to read your reviews. I found a lack of who the scientists were in Universe (I did not get to finish Hidden Figures). I did find the level of detail of their cataloging/classification fascinating (I am an old school librarian). Here’s my review, by comparison, since I’m not a science person https://hopewellslibraryoflife.wordpress.com/2017/01/11/glass-universe-or-glass-ceiling/

    Liked by 1 person

    • January 13, 2017 at 9:08 pm

      Thanks for linking to your review! I’ll check it out. I agree that The Glass Universe was lighter on the details of the scientists’ lives, though I do feel like I got a pretty good sense of their personalities through the letters included.


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