Thursday, January 8, 2015

Women “Computers” Explored the Cosmos – Part 2

As we continue exploring how women became so important to the study of astronomy, we must remember that because today we have so much information about the stars shining above us that it is easy to forget that most of that knowledge was discovered in the last century.

Until the early nineteenth century, even astronomers thought that the Milky Way was the extent of our universe. Referring to a story about how residents in a village triangulated distance, George Johnson said, “We were like the villagers in the canyon. Then we discovered a new way to measure.”1

As discussed in Part 1, Edward Pickering, Director of the Harvard Observatory, wanted his human “computers” to use the photographs provided by the Great Refractor to measure precisely the brightness (a clue to distance) and color (a clue to composition) of every star in the sky. A monumental undertaking. They were to do this by studying photographic plates of star collections.

Scottish-born Williamina (Mina) Patton Stevens Fleming, came to Boston from Scotland with her husband James, who abandoned her. This left Mina alone in a strange country, pregnant with no means to support herself. Pickering hired Mina as his housekeeper.

There is an unsubstantiated story about why Pickering hired Mina to work at the observatory. Supposedly, Pickering became so frustrated with an unsatisfactory male assistant that he said, “My housekeeper could do a better job.” If he, indeed , said this, he was right. I would hope it was at least partly because Pickering found her to be intelligent enough to do the work.

In the fall of 1879, Mina returned to Scotland to give birth to her son. In 1881, she became a permanent employee of the observatory.

In the next blog, we will look at what Mina was able to accomplish as a single-parent, housekeeper and astronomer.

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). 8.

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