Thursday, August 3, 2017

Guiding Stars in Astronomy: Helen Sawyer Hogg

In celebration of the solar eclipse later this month, I am sharing stories of amazing women in astronomy in my series of Guiding Stars in Astronomy. The first post featured Maria Mitchell, the first woman to work as a professional astronomer in the United States. Today's post shares the story of Canadian-American astronomer Helen Hogg, who spent her career researching variable stars and spreading the love of astronomy to students and the general public throughout her remarkable career.

Image description: Photo of Helen Sawyer Hogg sitting at a table with shelves of astronomy and science magazines behind her. Caption: Helen Sawyer Hogg (August 1, 1905 – January 28, 1993) Dr. Hogg’s career as an astronomer spanned six decades. She discovered 132 new variable stars, and published astronomy catalogues still in use today. She wrote a regular column in the Toronto Star as well a popular book The Stars Belong to Everyone, sharing  her love of astronomy with the general public.


Helen Sawyer Hogg (August 1, 1905 – January 28, 1993)

Helen Sawyer Hogg standing in front of a large telescope at the David Dunlap Observatory, University of Toronto. Photo source: University of Toronto Archives
I love that Helen Sawyer Hogg's middle name was Battle. What a great middle name, right? I can't help but wonder what kind of role it played in her life. Did she feel a little bit extra inspired to keep fighting when things got hard? Did it give her an extra burst of energy when she was pushing for more opportunities for women in astronomy, both when she was a young researcher who couldn't get a paid position, and again when she was an established icon of science working to open doors for younger women to follow their own guiding stars?

Helen Sawyer was a smart young woman who graduated from high school at the age of 15, and went off to Mount Holyoke College at the age of 17. She had originally planned on becoming a chemist, but her career path changed dramatically in her junior year after attending introductory astronomy classes with Dr. Anne Sewell, and then an event with Annie Jump Cannon, the acclaimed astronomer from Harvard. She was inspired by these two women and their love of the stars, and changed her major to astronomy in her junior year. Despite a late arrival to the subject, she graduated magna cum laude in 1926.

(Photo of the cast of Harvard Observatory's production of H.M.S. Pinafore, dated December 31, 1929. Harlow Shapley is in the center of the back row. The women in the front row are (left to right) Mildred Shapley, Adelaide Ames, Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin, Henrietta Swope, Sylvia Mussels Lindsay, and Helen Sawyer Hogg. Source: Harvard College Observatory History in Images)

With the help of Dr. Cannon, she found a place at the Harvard Observatory for her graduate studies, although she was technically a student at Radcliff College because Harvard didn't allow women to earn graduate degrees in science at the time. She work with internationally renown astronomer Dr. Harlow Shapley -- a task master who expected precision work from his students. Helen performed well, spending long hours studying globular clusters, measuring their size and brightness and cataloging them as part of her research. Through her intense dedication she earned her master's degree in two years, and three years later she had a Ph.D. All while also teaching classes at both Mount Holyoke and Smith College.

Photo caption: Dr. Helen Sawyer Hogg '26 with Mount Holyoke's new reflecting telescope. Photo source: Mount Holyoke Digital Collection.
After graduation, she married Frank Scott Hogg and together they moved to British Columbia where he had a position with the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory. Because Dominion, like many other research organizations of the era, would not hire both husbands and wives using the excuse of avoiding accusations of nepotism, Helen was forced to work as a volunteer, with only a small stipend to help pay for childcare. While it wasn't the situation was completely unfair to female scientist who were married to men who worked in the same field, she made the best of it, pushing forward to make a name for herself. Using their 72-inch reflecting telescope she photographed variable stars and tracking their cycles of change in brightness. Overall, she found a whopping 132 new variable stars in the Messier 2 globular cluster, and published her findings in astronomical catalogues that are still in use today.

In 1935, the Hoggs moved to the University of Toronto, working at the David Dunlap Observatory. She continued her research on globular clusters, but also used began studying Cepheid variable stars based on discoveries by another pioneering female astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavittin, with the idea that they could help scientists understand the age, size, and structure of the Milky Way Galaxy.

She also took several international trips to work at different observatories where there were better views of her globular clusters. She was one of the first astronomers who did so, and through her travels she was able to build an extensive network of international astronomers. Over the next few years, she established herself as a leading authority in astronomy with her dedication to precise measurements and detailed reports. Among other prestigious awards, in 1950 she was awarded the Annie J. Cannon Award in Astronomy, a prize named in honor of her former mentor.

Members of the U of T astronomy department in 1962 with the David Dunlap Observatory in the background: from left to right, S. Van den Bergh, Helen Hogg, D.A. MacRae, Ruth Northcott, J.D. Fernie and J.F. Head (director). Photo source: The Canadian Encyclopedia
But her work as an astronomer was only one aspect of her remarkable career in science. She was also passionate about sharing her love of astronomy with others, both as a teacher as well as a public figure. Upon the outbreak of World War II, she was took over classes that had originally been reserved for male professors who were now off serving in the military. These classes were her opportunity to pass on the spark of inspiration she had received so many years before in that first astronomy class she took at Mount Holyoke.

Over the course of her 60 year career, she published over 200 papers, as well as more accessible publications for non-astronomers. She wrote a wildly popular weekly column in the Toronto Star, "With the Stars," as well as a series of columns in the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada filled with historical astronomical information.

In the 1970s, she expanded her outreach efforts. Her 8-part series on Canadian television in 1970 and the publication of her widely successful book The Stars Belong to Everyone in 1976 sparked an even greater interest in astronomy by the general public, and she used her notoriety to continue advocating for better science education and increased understanding of astronomy. She served as board-member or president of nearly every Canadian society associated with astronomy, often as the first woman in whatever position she held. And when she realized there wasn't an organization dedicated solely to promoting astronomical research and education she founded the Canadian Astronomical Society.

Plaque text: The Helen Sawyer Hogg Observatory. Recognized the world over for her contribution to professional astronomy, Dr. Helen Sawyer Hogg is much loved and respected for introducing the mysteries of the heavens to others. Few have done as much as Dr. Hogg to encourage and inspire the public to enjoy astronomy and to share her lifelong interest in the history of astronomy. A sought-after lecturer and frequent guest on radio and television, she also wrote a weekly newspaper column for many years. Through The Stars Belong to Everyone, her popular book on how to enjoy astronomy, Helen Hogg has brought her love of the stars to thousands of Canadians. She is the recipient of many awards, among them the Order of Canada. The National Museum of Science and Technology is proud to dedicate its Observatory to Dr. Helen Sawyer Hogg. Dedicated 23 September 1989.
There's not telling how many countless future scientists were inspired by her teachings, writings and outreach efforts. In particular, it would be difficult to judge how many young women entered science research based on her tireless efforts to promote better opportunities for women in astronomy. For this, she is considered an exceptional Self-Rescuing Princess Society role model!

Check out this great television interview from 1981


For more info about her life, you can read "She Walks in Beauty" from the University of Toronto Magazine 

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