Monday, January 5, 2015

Women “Computers” Explored the Cosmos – Part 1

(Note: This is the beginning of a series of blogs about female astronomers who made history. I invite you to come along on the journey through the universe, with the sincere wish that you will ask questions and make comments.)

Have you ever looked up at a clear sparking night sky and considered counting the stars? I would never consider such a huge undertaking but many women, with scientific minds, did.

Galileo’s work on amplification in order to view the stars advanced by huge leaps in the late 19th century with the use of the Great Refractor in the new Harvard College Observatory, run by young physicist Edward Charles Pickering. Now in retirement, the Harvard telescope in 1847 was one of the most powerful in the world. The telescope came to be because of the embarrassment of the wealthier citizens of Boston when Harvard did not have a telescope strong enough to join in the excitement of the March 1843 comet.

With the potential discoveries this new refractor provided, the Harvard Observatory embarked on a project to catalog the position, color and brightness of every star in the sky. Pickering, director, from 1877 to 1919, needed bright, meticulous and dedicated human number crunchers he called “computers” to do thousands of complex astronomical computations that followed a painstaking process of manually counting and computing the images revealed in thousands of photographs of star fields. AND he needed them to work for low wages.

“A great savings may be effectuated by employing unskilled and therefore inexpensive labor, of course under careful supervision,” Pickering reasoned.1 

Women accepted this challenge because it provided them an avenue into the field of astronomy. Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Annie Jump Cannon and Williamina Paton Fleming were three of these women.

1George Johnson. Miss Leavitt’s Stars: The Untold Story of the Woman Who Discovered How to Measure the Universe. (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2005). 18.

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