Thursday, January 22, 2015

Women “Computers” Explored the Cosmos – Part 6

(NOTE: You will note that this series of blogs on female astronomers are heavily cited. I have two reasons for giving the reader these citations. 1) I am not a scientist and I often use the words of others to be sure I am giving correct information. 2) I am hoping some readers will have enough interest to go to these cites and find additional information.)

As we continue learning about Henrietta Swan Leavitt, I want to challenge the oft-cited information that she was profoundly deaf. Although it is in almost all sources referring to Henrietta, it is not proven by any citation. The claim is that she became profoundly deaf from an illness she suffered right after her graduation.  There is no evidence of that because she could still hear when she took the position with Pickering. “My friends say, and I recognize the truth of it, that my hearing is not nearly as good when absorbed in astronomical work,” Henrietta wrote to Edward Pickering in a letter.1 It is more likely she lost her hearing progressively during her career.

“She worked diligently away at her job, even as her hearing slowly failed and her health began to suffer.” 2

Since both Henrietta and Annie Jump Cannon suffered illnesses right after graduating college, it is possible she has been confused with Annie, who did lose her hearing from a bout with scarlet fever.
At the time Henrietta began, there was no standard for determining magnitudes. “Leavitt devised a system, using ‘the north polar sequence’ as a gage of brightness for stars during her investigations.”3

Henrietta’s discovery of the period-luminosity during her study of the Cepheid variables in the Magellanic Clouds proved “The longer the time required for the star to go from maximum brightness through its faintest phase back to maximum again, the brighter the star is.”4

The scientific community recognized and adopted this new system as an important standard. In 1913, the International Committee on Photographic Magnitudes adopted Henrietta’s system.

More Monday about Henrietta and the milestones she left behind in the annals of astronomy.

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), 31.
2 (Accessed January 20, 2015)
3 (accessed January 20, 2015).

4James Pickering, 1001 Questions Answered about Astronomy. (Guildford and London: Lutterworth Press, 1958), 173, 175.

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