Friday, December 11, 2015

Annie Jump Cannon - astronomer

Over the course of her remarkable career, Annie Jump Cannon (December 11, 1863 - April 13, 1941) analyzed and measured more stars than any other astronomer before or since, created a classification system that is still in use today, and did more to further our understanding of the universe than anyone else of her era. Plus, you know, she has a pretty darn awesome name!

As a child, Annie was fascinated by the stars. Her mother taught her to recognize the constellations using books she'd studied from as a child, and even helped her build a homemade observatory in the attic of their home.

As passionate as she was, at the time there really wasn't much Annie could do with it, sadly. She read, lots. Often late at night after coming down from the roof where she had been look at the stars for hours, lying in bed with a candle and her books. A habit that made her parents to worry she'd cause a fire.

While other young ladies in her social circle were concerned with balls and getting married, at 16 Annie had other plans. Her mother, always supportive of her daughter's interests, encouraged her to attend college, although few women did at the time. She knew Annie was smart and saw no reason a woman shouldn't also pursue higher learning. She wanted Annie to study science and mathematics, and to use her intelligence to follow her interests. Annie and her mother had always been close, and while it would be difficult for her to be away from home for college, Annie listened to her mother and enrolled at Wellesley.

After graduation in 1884, though, she returned home, resuming her close relationship with her mother and enjoying a full social calendar for many years. She may have wanted to work, but there were no opportunities for women in any of the fields that interested her. So she looked for other ways to occupy herself, most notably taking up a new art form called photography. She traveled around Europe in 1892, and when she returned a small booklet of her writings and images from that trip were published and sold at the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, entitled "In the Footsteps of Columbus."



Tragedy struck twice in the next two years, sadly. First, Annie contracted Scarlet Fever, which left her almost completely deaf. This effectively ended her ability to socialize, so Annie spent more time working on her photographs and became even more reliant on her mother's companionship.

Then, in 1894, her mother died. Annie was devastated, and found it nearly impossible to stay at home any longer. The memories of the happier times spent with her mother were too upsetting. She reached out to her former astronomy professor at Wellesley, Sarah Frances Whiting, asking about possible job openings or other opportunities to change her situation. Fortunately for Annie, there was a teaching job available at Wellesley, which gave Annie something to do as well as enabled her to take graduate classes in physics and astronomy. It was during this time she learned about astrological spectroscopy -- the study of stars using electromagnetic radiation to learn more about their make up and other properties.

After a year at Wellesley, she moved to Radcliffe as a "special student" studying astronomy and giving her access to the Harvard Observatory. This, in turn, brought her to the attention of Harvard astronomer Edward Pickering, who hired her in 1896 as his assistant. Pickering was in charge of the daunting task of cataloging each and every star in the sky. Nothing serious, right?

Pickering hired several young women to help with this task, claiming that women were more patient and dexterous while handling the fiddly equipment. In actual fact, it was more likely because he could get away with paying a woman a tiny fraction of what he would have to pay a man, and thus he could hire more women to tackle the work. In any case, this was a fantastic opportunity for Annie and the others who became known as "Pickering's Women." She'd finally found a way to fuse her intelligence and passion in one amazing project.

In the years before Annie and the other women joined the team, Pickering's astronomers used make-shift equipment of a telescope, spectroscope and camera to take spectrograms (photos of the spectrum made by each star's light) and then studied each one to learn about that star -- what elements it contained, what its temperature was, its size, and how fast it was moving. By the time she came along, there was a backlog of images from over ten years that still needed to be analyzed. Annie set to work immediately.

Over the course of her career, she analyzed more stars than any other astronomer -- nearly 500,000 in all. To aid in classifying stars and cataloging the stars she and others were analyzing, she worked with two astronomers with radically different systems to find a compromise that included the best of both, thus creating a new, comprehensive classification system that was quickly adopted by astronomers around the globe. In addition to reading each star's unique spectra, she also calculated its position.

After Edward Pickering retired, she continued their work on her own for nearly 40 years. She traveled extensively, visiting observatories around the world, and building an extensive network of astronomers, encouraging international scientific collaboration and sharing of important information and data. The bulk of her work went into creating the Henry Draper Star Catalog, which is still in use today.

Over her career, she received many awards and honors. But the one honor that is the most impressive to me is her issue of Wonder Women of History. Wonder Woman creator William Marston wanted girls to have great female role models, including actual women in addition to Diana Prince. So he created a series of comics dedicated to sharing the stories of some of the amazing women throughout history. Annie Jump Cannon's story was told in issue #33.

What a remarkable life she led. What I love most about her story is that it was the attention and encouragement she got from her mother that led her to pursue a career in astronomy. So many of the amazing women in history have a similar story of a childhood spent following their interests with the unwavering support of a loving parent. It just proves to me again how integral it is for young people facing immense challenges to feel as though the closest people in their lives are backing them up. That unconditional confidence become the foundation for everything they do later in life.

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