Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Guiding Stars in Astronomy: Maria Mitchell

Later this month, folks all across the US and most of Canada and Mexico will be treated to a total or near-total solar eclipse, the first time since 1918 according to the news reports I keep seeing about it. In honor of this exciting event, I'm declaring August to be a month full of guiding stars in Astronomy. I have a long, long list of women who have contributed to our understanding of how the universe works, and I'm planning on running special posts all month celebrating them.

It's especially appropriate to start off with Maria Mitchell, whose birthday was August 1, 1818.

Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818 – June 28, 1889)

The 19th century was full of amazing women who blazed trails in science, math, medicine and literature. Many of these women had parents who fought convention to make sure their daughters were given a good education and supported them in their interests. Others lived in a community that encouraged women to be independent or self-sufficient.

In Maria Mitchell's case, she had both. Her parents were Quakers, a religion that valued education and required equal opportunities for girls and boys to learn. Her father was a teacher, and Maria would attend classes at his school during the day, and then learn astronomy from him at night as the two gazed at the stars through his personal telescope. In fact, when she was 12, she and her father calculated the exact moment of an annular eclipse -- the kind where the moon is centered over the sun, giving the appearance of a ring of fire around it.

Living in Nantucket, Massachusetts, Maria was surrounded by the wives of sailors who spent much of their time running the household and whatever business interests the family was involved in. This atmosphere of relative equality must have certainly played an equally important role in her understanding of what women were capable of as well as giving her the self-assuredness needed to pursue her passion for astronomy and to take a stand when she encountered injustice. She spent her life doing both -- looking at the stars at night, and looking at the world around her during her days. She was a ardent abolitionist, giving up wearing cotton to protest slavery, and opening the first desegregated school in the area.

She also had strong feelings about the rights of women, and was the friend of many suffragists, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton. During her tenure as professor of astronomy at Vassar College she learned that, despite her decades of work in the field and her international reputation, she was earning less than many male professors with less teaching experience. She insisted on an increase in her salary and, incredibly, won.

Her reputation was well deserved. In 1847, while working as the first librarian of the Nantucket Atheneum, she spent her evenings looking through her own telescope, taking note of what she saw. On October 1, at 10:30 pm (we know because she took notes), she made a tremendous discovery: a new comet. "Miss Mitchell's Comet," as it became known (modern designation: C/1847 T1), was a "telescopic comet, meaning it could only been seen through a telescope. Her discovery earned her a gold medal from the King of Denmark, and brought international fame, launching her astronomy career. (She wasn't the first woman to earn one of these prestigious medals, though. She was preceded by astronomers Caroline Herschel and Maria Margarethe Kirch.)

In 1848, she was appointed a computer for the American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac, a paid position calculating the tables of positions of Venus, making her the first American woman to work as a professional astronomer, and was presented with a new telescope by a group of American women in recognition of her achievement.

That same year, she was the first woman elected Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1850 she was the first woman to join the American Association for the Advancement of Science. And in 1869, the American Philosophical Society opened its doors to women, electing Maria Mitchell along with Mary Somerville, astronomer and mathematician, and Elizabeth Cabot Agassiz, naturalist.

Not content to simply do her own research, she wanted to improve the opportunities for other women to study science as well. In 1865, she was the first person appointed to the faculty in the newly developed Astronomy Department at Vassar College, where she also served as the director of the Vassar College Observatory.

Later in life, continuing her push to include more women in the sciences, she co-founded the American Association for the Advancement of Women (AAW), where she served as president in 1875, and founded and chaired its Science Committee.

"Does anyone suppose that any woman in all the ages has had a fair chance to show what she could do in science? ... The laws of nature are not discovered by accidents; theories do not come by chance, even to the greatest minds; they are not born of the hurry and worry of daily toil; they are diligently sought, they are patiently waited for, they are received with cautious reserve, they are accepted with reverence and awe. And until able women have given their lives to investigation, it is idle to discuss the question of their capacity for original work."
"The Need for Women in Science," presented by Maria Mitchell at the 1876 Congress of the AAW.
Indeed. Just think what could women achieve in science if given a fair chance! While I'm sure Maria Mitchell would be absolutely thrilled to see how much things have changed for women in science in the last 141 years, I'm sure she would join with us in demanding even greater representation.

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