So, I've been playing around with the new Kinja and the new functionality — the better to bore you with, my dears. The above picture is of "Pickering's Women," the group assembled by Edward Charles Pickering, director of the Harvard Observatory. With the grant from a tycoon's estate, his plan was to photograph the entire night sky and classify every single visible star — a mammoth undertaking by any standard. He'd need as many assistants as possible to process such a massive amount of data, and as a practical matter, he could employ multiple women for the price of a single man. Pickering's name is also invoked as a prime example of the so-called "harem effect," a scientific phenomenon where an eminent male researcher surrounds himself with female subordinates.

In their spectral analysis, the Harvard Computers, as they came to be known, would graph a star's color type versus its luminosity. It's the sort of thing you're either good at or you're not — I, for one, would quickly go blind or shoot myself. As a group, they were quite good indeed, and produced results with phenomenal speed and accuracy. The idea was that the Computers would handle the grunt work, leaving the real scientists free to draw broader conclusions from the collected minutiae. The thing of it is, the minutiae actually WAS the science, and the women squinting away in the back room were the ones building the framework for understanding the larger universe. Meanwhile, the grand and broad theories debated in lecture halls were often wrongheaded to the point of laughability.

The Harvard Spectral Classification Scheme was the work of Annie Jump Cannon, who needed a way to corral the data into a logical format. She divided the stars into their familiar O, B, A, F, G, K, and M categories. It wasn't understood at the time that she was charting the surface temperatures of distant suns, but her creation is still in full use today, with only minor adjustments.

Cannon was the privileged daughter of a Delaware shipbuilder and state senator. She was a gifted student, but repeated bouts of scarlet fever during her time studying physics at Wellesley left her almost completely deaf. In the years after graduating, it became apparent that New England society didn't have a place for a highly-educated deaf woman older than the rest of her unmarried peers, so she devoted herself entirely to academia. She was a BEAST when it came to stellar classification — close to 350,000 stars total, with a top speed of 300 an hour. Her results were often challenged, but always substantiated. Though her Harvard career spanned four decades, she only received a regular appointment three years before her death in 1941.

Supposedly mired in the drudgery of simple work, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, another of Pickering's Women deaf from early adulthood, saw patterns in variable stars. She determined an extremely precise relationship between a Cepheid variable's luminosity and its pulsation period, which provided one of our basic yardsticks for cosmological scale. Edwin Hubble would later use her research to prove his theory of an expanding universe. I can't help but include the following quote: "Just to put these insights into perspective, it is perhaps worth noting that at the time Leavitt and Cannon were inferring fundamental properties of the cosmos from dim smudges on photographic plates, the Harvard astronomer William H. Pickering, who could of course peer into a first-class telescope as often as he wanted, was developing his seminal theory that dark patches on the Moon were caused by swarms of seasonally migrating insects."

Advertisement