Monday, February 2, 2015

Women “Computers” Explored the Cosmos – Part 8

The female scientists, or human “computers” as they were referred to, held the title of assistants not astronomers according to Harvard University’s rules at the time. Obviously, Henrietta felt she deserved the title. “A possible insight into Henrietta’s private thoughts is offered by her reply to a census taker who, in January 1920, the year before her death, asked her to state her occupation. There might have been a hint of defiant pride in her answer, ‘Astronomer’.”1

Henrietta’s proof of a direct correlation between the time it took a star to go from bright to dim to how bright it actually was helped other astronomers, such as Edwin Hubble and Edward Pickering, to make their own groundbreaking discoveries.

After her death on December 2, 1921, the observatory was approached about nominating Henrietta for the 1926 Nobel Prize in physics but she was not nominated because the prize is not awarded posthumously. At that time, Pickering’s replacement Harlow Shapley tried to take credit for her discoveries saying that the real work was his interpretation of her notes.

After Williamina Paton Fleming, Annie Jump Cannon took over the duties as Curator of Astronomical Photographs in 1911, along with the work of the Henry Draper Catalog. Annie had come to the crew of “computers” in 1896.

Annie Jump Cannon was born in 1863 to Wilson Lee Cannon, a successful shipbuilder and state senator, and Mary Elizabeth Jump.  Annie had learned her love of the stars from her mother. She spent many hours with her mother in the attic in their homemade observatory.

At the age of 16, Annie entered Wellesley College, where the distinguished professor of physics and astronomy, Sarah F. Whiting, mentored her. Sarah had, in turn, been mentored by Edward Pickering. Annie was valediction at her graduation from Wellesley College in 1884, with a degree in physics.
In my next blog, we will look at what happened to this young intelligent woman.

1 (Accessed January 20, 2015)

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