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Women in Astronomy: The Early Astronomers

Nuwanthika Fernando is an astronomy guide at Sydney Observatory. She recently completed her PhD at the University of Sydney studying the dynamics of satellite galaxy planes. To celebrate International Women’s Day in 2018 Nuwanthika looks at the early astronomers.

‘We have a hunger of the mind which asks for knowledge of all around us.’ – Maria Mitchell, astronomer

With the invention of the telescope over 400 years ago, the field of astronomy progressed in leaps and bounds in the centuries that followed. By the 1800s, the word ‘astronomer’ was used in its current context – to describe a person who studies the celestial objects, space, and the universe. The female astronomers of these times not only contributed to the expanding catalogues and revolutionary ideas, but also led the way for women to be accepted as scholars and scientists in society.

Caroline Herschel (1750 – 1818, Germany)

Caroline Herschel. Image credit: By Ölgemälde: Melchior Gommar Tieleman; Foto des gemeinfreien Gemäldes: unbekannt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Caroline Herschel was a highly decorated astronomer, in 1828 she was the first woman to be awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), and later, in 1835, to be inducted as an Honorary Member (along with Mary Somerville). Herschel’s introduction to astronomy came when she joined her brother, William Herschel, in Bath, England, as an accompanying musician. Caroline was a meticulous record keeper, and this lead to several new objects the siblings discovered together, such as the planet ‘Uranus’. Although William Herschel’s name is remembered as ‘the father of modern astronomy’, Caroline was an integral part of the team, as it was she who created the New General Catalogue (NGC) with their observations. She made her own discoveries, starting with the dwarf galaxy NGC205 (M110), and 8 comets (one that bears her name), all well recorded in her ‘Book of Observations’. Astronomers still use the NGC number of many celestial objects and it’s all thanks to Caroline Herschel ‘sweeping the skies’ for her brother.

Wang Zhenyi (1768 – 1797, China)

Throwing the traditions of feudal China to the wind, Wang Zhenyi learned most of what she knew about astronomy by reading the books of her grandfather. She wrote several books on astronomy and trigonometry, and was a famous teacher in the Qing dynasty, despite being self-taught. Zhenyi’s books showcase her research that demonstrated an explanation for lunar eclipses, calculated the precession of the equinoxes, and consulted old and new observations on the relationship between longitude and stars. She was driven to explain astronomical phenomenon, but she also wrote papers on ‘what holds people to the ground’, which were refined by reading translations of western scientific books on gravity. Zhenyi was also a famous and gifted poet, and achieved all this before her untimely death at the age of 29.

Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868 – 1921, United States of America)

Henrietta Leavitt working at Harvard College Observatory. Image credit: American Institute of Physics, Emilio Segrè Visual Archives [public domain] via via Wikimedia Commons.

Joining Harvard as a ‘computer’ (of whom we shall discuss in a later post), Henrietta Leavitt’s research of variable stars inspired a line of thought that literally changed the size of the universe as we knew it. The 1770 Cepheid variables she studied from the observations of other astronomers lead her to discover the correlation between the periods and brightness of Cepheids. Now known as ‘Leavitt’s Law’ this relation allowed astronomers to calculate the distance to these stars, and to use them as ‘standard candles’ to measure how large the universe is. Leavitt’s research was crucial to astronomers, such as Harlow Shapley who debated that some ‘nebulae‘ (such as Andromeda) are distant galaxies of their own, and Edwin Hubble to determine that the Milky Way is not the centre of the universe. Leavitt was nominated for a Nobel Prize for this monumental work in 1924, but unfortunately the Prize isn’t awarded posthumously.

As we continue our posts, we find that the contributions of these female astronomers to groundbreaking theories were often thrown to the background by their male colleagues who became famous names in science. In our next post, we’ll explore the indispensable work of the many women who were the ‘computers’ in a field where precision calculations are paramount.



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