Monday, January 19, 2015

Women “Computers” Explored the Cosmos – Part 5

Annie Cannon, an astronomer we will hear more about in upcoming blogs, said of Mina, “Industrious by nature, she was seldom idle, and long years of observatory work never unfitted her for the domestic side of life. As much at home with the needle as with the magnifying eyepiece, she could make a dainty bag, exquisitely sewed, or dress a doll in complete Scotch Highland costume. She was never too tired to welcome her friends at her home or at the observatory, with that quality of human sympathy, which is sometimes lacking among women engaged in scientific pursuits. Her bright face, her attractive manner, and her cheery greeting with its charming Scotch accent, will long be remembered by even the most casual visitors to the Harvard College Observatory.”1

Of course, Mina’s most important work published was the Draper Catalogue of Stellar Spectra in 1890, but she also published A Photographic Study of Variable Stars in 1907, Spectra and Photographic Magnitudes of Stars in Standard Regions in 1911, and Stars Having Peculiar Spectra was published in the Annals of Harvard College Observatory in 1912, after her death.2

In 1906, Mina became the first American woman elected to the Royal Astronomical Society in London. Soon after, she was appointed honorary fellow in astronomy of Wellesley College. Shortly before her death, The Astronomical Society of Mexico awarded her the Guadalupe Almendaro medal for her discovery of new stars. Mina died of pneumonia on May 21, 1911, still doing the work she loved.

Even though, a non-astronomical minded person (such as myself) might not understand the importance of these discoveries, it is quite evident Mina should be honored for being one of the first in her field and paving the way for other women.

Nearby, in her senior year at the Society for the Collegiate Instruction for Women, (which later became Radcliffe College), Henrietta Swan Leavitt became interested in astronomy. Health problems kept her from joining Pickering’s crew for some time after graduation but finally in 1893, when she was 25 years old, she arrived at the observatory as a volunteer wanting to learn more about astronomy. Her knowledge thus far had been classes she took after graduation before she became ill.

In 1902, Pickering hired Henrietta to be one of his “computers.” The job paid $10.50 a week. The environment at the observatory was cold and damp, not the best place for someone who already had health problems.

1Annie J. Cannon, “Minor Contributions and Notes. Williamina Paton Fleming,” The Astrophysical Journal, Vol. 34 (July 1911), 314-317.

2 (accessed December, 29, 2014).

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