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Word of Mouth

12.13.16: Entanglement & The Glass Universe

Tinker*Tailor loves Lalka via Flickr CC

From Victorian mourning jewelry, to religious sacrifice, to fake weaves, hair is freighted with meaning and one of the most versatile and sought after fibers in the world. Today, the history and logistics behind a billion dollar global hair industry.

Then, much of the information about the universe as we know it - where objects are, what they're made of, how they're classified - was plotted by a group of computers at Harvard University in the mid-19th century, but those computers weren't like any we know today. We'll learn about the women who mapped the universe. 

Listen to the full show.


In 2014, British teenager Jessica Vine shaved her head and donated her hair to raise money for cancer research. Her charitable act was rewarded with an order not to come back to school without a wig - the story speaks to hair as commodity and symbol - both strains are rooted far back in global culture. From Victorian mourning jewelry, to  religious sacrifice, to fake weaves, hair is freighted with meaning and one of the most versatile and sought after fibers in the world. The hair industry is now a billion dollar global business that you probably haven't heard much about - and those in the trade would like to keep it that way. 

Emma Tarlo is professor of anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her book Entanglement: the Secret Lives of Hair  follows her 3 year trek across countries and continents fin search of the global hair trade.


The Secret Art of Hair Replacement

For many, hair loss can be fraught with emotion. The measures people take to replace hair are rarely mentioned out loud, but for Richard Theodore on Cape Cod, it's all in a day's work. This piece was produced by Ellen Payne Smith for WCAI’s creative life series at the Transom Storytelling Workshop.

You can listen to this story again at PRX.org.

The Glass Universe
Credit From The Glass Universe, courtesy Penguin Random House

  Few women worked outside of the home in the mid 19th century. Even fewer dedicated themselves to scientific study, and it was downright rare for women to be making major discoveries at a major university. Yet, beginning in the 1880s to mid-20th century Harvard College Observatory employed women as "human computers" to calculate and interpret observations made by men. 

As stellar photography advanced through the decades, so did these lady astronomers. They developed a system for classifying stars that is still used by astronomers today, discovered  novae, and created a record of celestial observations on half a million photographic plates - a glass universe. Yet the story of their contribution to astronomy is little known. Just the kind of hidden history that Dava Sobel excels at.

She's author of the best-selling books Longitude, Galileo's Daughter and The Planets. Her most recent is The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars

The Glass Universe


This story uncovers another groundbreaking discovery, one that shaped how see our place in the universe. Nate DiMeo of The Memory Palace has the story.

You can listen to this story again at PRX.org