Tag Archives: Caroline Herschel

Has Science Been Fair to the Fair Sex?

I know Women’s History Month is almost over, but the points raised in this post are still very valid.

The film, “Hidden Figures” has been in the news quite a bit recently.  It is a dramatization of the real-life story of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, three African-American women who did heavy-duty mathematical calculations at NASA in the 1960s. Even though computers did exist in those days, they were the size of large refrigerators and had far less computing power than even the lowly Commodore VIC-20 (a nearly 40-year old personal computer).  Thus, humans were still needed to do the mathematical work that the early manned space missions required.

However, those women had several things going against them.  One was that they were women.  Another was that they were African-American.  On top of that, NASA facilities were mostly in the South.  In the case of Kennedy Space Center (though it wasn’t called that until after the assassination of John F. Kennedy), it was due to considerations of orbital mechanics.  As for the other NASA centers, it was to placate influential politicians.  As a result, segregation was in full force at the time.  Johnson and her team worked in a separate office, had a separate lunch area, and were treated as second class people by most at NASA.  However, John Glenn judged them by their work and treated them well.  In fact, he demanded that Johnson personally handle the computations for his orbital flight.

This got me to look back at other women in the history of science.  It turns out that the snubs and treatment that Johnson and her team got were not new.

One famous example was Caroline Herschel.  Due to her growth being stunted in childhood by disease, she was quite short.  On top of that, her parents told her that she would amount to nothing.  However, she helped out her brother, William Herschel, the greatest observational astronomer of his era.  Eventually, she learned enough that she became an observer herself, discovering several deep sky objects as well as a few comets.  Despite her superb training, her contributions were largely forgotten.  Even among modern astronomers, she is little known.

Another case was Maria Mitchell.  She was born into a Quaker family and, since the Quakers believed in equal education, she received far better education than most women of that era.  Mitchell developed an interest in astronomy early in life and became one of America’s first professional astronomers and the first female one.  During the 1840s, the King of Denmark gave an annual award to people who discovered comets.  In 1841, Mitchell discovered a comet and was up for the award.  However, there were astronomers who felt that she did not deserve to get it and raised quite a furor over the matter.  Finally, the Danish authorities intervened and Mitchell got her medal.

Jumping forward to the early 20th century, Harvard Observatory hired a number of women to do mathematical work and measurements of images on glass photographic plates.  Much like Katherine Johnson and her team, these women were referred to as “computers”.  Unlike Johnson, these computers earned sweatshop wages.  But, it was far safer than most of the work women got in that era, working in dangerous mills as well as garment manufacturing (anybody recall the Triangle Shirtwaist fire?). One of these women, Henrietta Swan Leavitt was assigned the task of studying stars on glass photographic plates.  Her job was to locate stars in the Magellanic Clouds that varied in brightness.  Doing so, she discovered that one class of stars (what we call Cepheid variables) had a brightness that was proportional to their period (cycle of variability).  This became known as the period-luminosity relationship and laid the foundation for finding distances to nearby galaxies.  Since she was just a lowly computer, her bosses took credit for the discovery.  But the truth eventually won out and the story is well known in astronomical circles today.

I could go on and on with other examples, such as the career of Lise Meitner, who had to contend with sexism as well as the rise of Nazi Germany, the story of how Watson and Crick might have “borrowed” information from a female colleague to aid their discovery of the structure of DNA, but here is a case of how a woman scientist made a discovery, only to have it stolen from her.

In 1968, Jocelyn Bell was working at Cambridge when she made an odd discovery.  When the radio telescope was pointed at a spot in the constellation of Vulpecula, a rapid pulsing signal was detected.  The pulses were very precise, enough that some people thought it was an alien radio beacon.  This idea soon fell by the wayside and it was learned that the object responsible was a pulsar, a rapidly rotating neutron star that emitted radio energy like the beam of a lighthouse.  Once the significance of this became apparent, Anthony Hewish and Martin Ryle, Bell’s bosses, took credit for the discovery.  Though she did win a Michelson Award (along with Anthony Hewish) in 1973, she was totally ignored when the Nobel prize in physics was handed out in 1974 with Hewish and Ryle getting the prize.  Despite protests from other prominent physicists, Bell was denied Nobel recognition.  While the history books got things right in the end, it was too late for Bell to get the prize.  But she was made a Dame by Queen Elizabeth II some years later.

Sometimes, the side of good wins.  In 1979, Voyager 1 passed through by Jupiter and made many observations.  About three days after closest approach, navigation engineers were poring over the images sent back.  This was to refine the position of the spacecraft as well as the orbits of the Galilean moons.  One of those people, a woman by the name of Linda Morabito, noticed something odd in an image of Io.  It appeared that there was a limb of another moon peeking out from behind Io. Instead of jumping to conclusions, Morabito enhanced the image and, probably echoing the thought of Han Solo when he first saw the Death Star, found that was no moon.

converted PNM file

The first image of Io’s volcanism

It was actually the plume from a volcanic eruption on Io, the first display of active volcanism outside Earth.  Morabito was determined to get credit for this find and pushed her case.  Finally, with the mainstream media on her side, she was credited with the find, securing her place in scientific history.

These days, Morabito is involved in advocating for science.  In additon to her personal website, she also maintains a Facebook group, Linda Morabito’s Space Place where she offers commentary on various scientific issues.

So, as Women’s History Month draws to a close, remember the contributions women have made in science and let’s hope for the day when science gives credit where it is due without regard to whether it was a man or a woman who made the discovery.