Henrietta Swan Leavitt always wanted to be an astronomer, but at the time she graduated from Radcliffe College in 1892, such careers were not feasible for women. Instead, Leavitt found a job at the Harvard College Observatory in Cambridge as one of group of all-women human “computers.” These “computers” worked to measure and catalog the brightness of stars in photographic plates from the observatory telescopes, which women were not allowed to operate. (Edward Pickering, a noted astronomer who was head of the Harvard College Observatory, apparently hired women for this job to save money; he would have had to pay men more for doing the same job. Notably, other women in this group also became well-respected astronomers, including Annie Jump Cannon and Williamina Fleming.)
Leavitt received 30 cents an hour for her painstaking work studying plates with “variable stars,” those with luminosity that varied over time. Leavitt’s perseverance led to her discovery of how to measure the galactic distances using these so-called Cepheid variables. Overall, she discovered over 2,400 variable stars, approximately half the known total in that era. Edwin Hubble, who used her findings to establish that the universe was expanding, often said she deserved the Nobel Prize. By working out the “distance key,” Henrietta Swan Leavitt made possible all of the subsequent discoveries in astronomy of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Leavitt was made head of stellar photometry in 1921 by new director Harlow Shapley, but she died late in the year from cancer, at age 53. Shapley later said, “If she had been free from those necessary chores [as a “computer”], I feel sure that Miss Leavitt’s scientific contributions would have been even more brilliant than they were.”
This book begins when Henrietta was a young girl, gazing at stars and dreaming of learning more about them, a trait that did not diminish over time but rather grew stronger:
“At work she looked and looked and looked, until her eyes blurred. When she closed her eyes, she could still see the star dots, dancing across the inside of her eyelids.”
When Henrietta had her breakthrough, she was [amazingly enough] able to publish her findings, proving, as the author states, “that the smallest observation, the tiniest discovery, often leads to something very important.”
An Afterword includes quotes by famous people about the stars, some additional background about Henrietta Leavitt, the names of some other women astronomers, and a glossary.
The prose isn’t all that remarkable, but the illustrations by Raúl Colón, done in his trademark style of watercolor washes, colored pencils and lithograph pencils, are lovely, and go much farther than the text in conveying the wonder of the night skies.
Evaluation: The concepts in here are a little difficult for the intended audience of 4-8, but the general idea, of a woman making important discoveries through a combination of dreams and persistence, is quite clear. The author never mentions that Henrietta became deaf (from an illness) after graduating from Radcliffe – an interesting omission, since that fact makes her accomplishments at that time all the more unusual.
Published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, 2015