Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Happy Birthday - Dr. Dorrit Hoffleit

"All the hardships taught me something, and they taught me how to cope. So, I was prepared to fight back. If it had all been good, I wouldn’t have known how to fight."
Ellen Dorrit Hoffleit was born on March 12, 1907, in Florence, Alabama, but the family soon moved to Newcastle, Pennsylvania.

Her interest in astronomy started quite early, when she watched the Perseid meteor shower with her family.
"My mother and brother and I used to sit in the backyard, especially during the Perseid meteor showers, and look for meteors," she said. "What impressed me was the sheer beauty of the event."
The family moved to Cambridge, Mass., so that her brother could attend Harvard College. She graduated from Radcliffe College but never seriously considered astronomy until she got a job in 1929 working for noted astronomer Harlow Shapley at the Harvard College Observatory. 
Hoffleit described herself as no better than an average undergraduate, but she showed a zeal for examining Harvard's vast collection of photographic plates of the skies. In her spare time, she wrote a paper on meteors and dropped it on Shapley's desk. Shapley was so impressed that he encouraged her to pursue a Ph.D. 
"I have never been as happy as that day," she said.  
(source: Hartford Courant
During World War II, she went to work at the Aberdeen Proving Ground ballistics laboratory in Maryland. Not unlike many women working for the war effort, she was forced to take a position below her status while she watched men who had less experience take higher level jobs. Frustrated that women weren't getting the training they needed and the promotions they deserved because of a fear that they would "run off and get married," she complained to a visiting inspector general, who helped improve the situation and get them the professional ratings they were entitled to.

She returned to the Harvard Observatory but didn't stay long. When Harlow Shapley retired, he was replaced with someone who did not appreciate her research, and even went so far as to have one-third of the photographic plates destroyed. It broke her heart to leave, but she could not stay under those conditions.
Dorrit went job hunting, and, when the dust had finally settled, she was ensconced in two positions that she would occupy officially for the next twenty years (and unofficially long beyond that). It was in those two contexts that most of us came to know her. Hoffleit became, half-and-half, both director of the Maria Mitchell Observatory from 1957 to 1978 and a research astronomer at Yale (1956 to official 1975 retirement) under its long-term director Dirk Brouwer, where her primary task was to be preparation of astrometric catalogs.  
(source: Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society
In 1956, she took a position at Yale, and in 1957 began spending the summers on Nantucket, teaching programs at the Maria Mitchell Observatory, named after the first female American astronomer Maria Mitchell. Over the years she taught there, she worked with young students, mostly women who became known as the "Girls."

While at Yale, Hoffleit taught the most basic course on Astronomy to Undergraduates. Her passion for the subject was inspiring to these young men and women who were probably only in the class to fulfill a GE requirement. She retired from teaching in1975, but continued to work until her death in 2007, at the age of 100.

Most notably, she was the author and editor of several editions of the Bright Star Catalogue, an extensive compilation that lists all the stars visible with the naked eye from Earth. She also co-authored The General Catalogue of Trigonometric Stellar Parallaxes, which contains precise distance measurements to nearly 9000 stars, information critical to understanding the history and workings of our solar region.

In 1988, she was awarded the George Van Biesbroeck Prize by the American Astronomical Society for her lifelong contributions to astronomy. In 1993, she was the second astronomer to receive AAS-Annenberg Prize for science education. The first recipient was Carl Sagan.

Among her many other awards and recognitions, she served as a past president of the American Association of Variable Star Observers; a Hoffleit Assistantship was established at the Mitchell Observatory; and asteroid 3416 Dorrit was named after her.

Happy Birthday, Dorrit!

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