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29 February, 2008

Book Review: Women Astronomers: Reaching for the Stars by Mabel Armstrong

Read and reviewed for Front Street Reviews

Have you ever looked up at the sky and wondered at what you saw? Who has made discoveries among the stars in the past and present day? Reaching for the Stars provides some answers to questions such as these.

The book is laid out in a way that introduces readers to women who study the stars from ancient times, to current day. Each woman is given an overview of their life, including the influences that drew them towards astronomy. This glimpse into the lives of female astronomers gives readers an idea of why these women fell in love with the stars, and what they accomplished in their lifetimes. Even now, the field of astronomy is still very male oriented, and it is nice to see the past and current contributions and advancements to physics, and how science looks at space and the stars by women scientists, and enthusiasts.

Starting back with the Greek Hypathia, who created the astrolabe that sailors used to measure the positions of the stars while at sea, to Hildegarde of Bigen who as well as the music and medical writings that she is more famously known for believed that the earth rotated around the sun in a time when most people believed otherwise. The book then moves forward, through the dark and middle ages to examine when and how astronomy became a science through the works of Caroline Herschel and her brother in eighteenth century England. From there, the book moves to the period of time from 1890 through the early 1940’s when women scientists who worked low paid jobs processing massive amounts of data for the Harvard observatory. The book finally moves to study the time from the 1920’s, when American universities first started awarding doctorates in astronomy, through the 1980’s when federal legislation opened all university programs to women, and their numbers increased in all the scientific fields. The book concludes with the work of well known women astronomers in the turn of the twenty-first century.

This book is a wonderfully written reference book for anyone who is interested in the backgrounds of the many women who have advanced the study of the stars over the years. It looks at the rigid standards of societies look at a women’s roles, their struggles with running a household, raising children, and their love of the stars. I saw some well known names, among the lesser known women who advanced the study of astronomy in a time where women were not considered to be candidates for advanced degrees in the field. I personally enjoyed the mixture of biographical material with information on the types of tools used, the historical impact of the past on the study of the stars, and the more detailed explanations and illustrations of terms commonly used by astronomers as well as different types of stellar subject studied.

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