Pickering’s Harem: Sexism in the Study of Stars

TIL about Annie Jump Cannon and Cecilia Payne, two scientists I have never heard about, probably because of their gender.

At a time when women were expected in the kitchen instead of in a lab, these two scientists were part of an 80-women crew tasked by Edward Pickering to do the grueling work of cataloguing stars – by hand and magnifying glass – in 1896.

There were no computers back then. The women were the computers. Here’s a snapshot of part of the group dated possibly in 1911.

Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics Back row (L to R): Margaret Harwood, Mollie O’Reilly, Edward C. Pickering, Edith Gill, Annie Jump Cannon, Evelyn Leland (behind Cannon), Florence Cushman, Marion Whyte (behind Cushman), Grace Brooks. Front row: Arville Walker, possibly Johanna Mackie, Alta Carpenter, Mabel Gill, Ida Woods.

Annie Jump Cannon developed a stellar classification system, and classified 350,000 stars in her lifetime. At the peak of her career, she could classify 200 stars an hour, down to the 9th magnitude, much fainter than what the human eye is accustomed to, with unbelievable accuracy. Her classification system, a merging of the systems developed by Williamina Fleming and Antonia Maury, is still in use in modern astronomy today, also known as the Harvard Spectral Classification.

Cannon was also deaf, by the way, a result of scarlet fever when she was much younger. But I digress.

Cannon did not understand the significance of her work, until Cecilia Payne joined the crew and figured out that the classifications pointed to how hot the stars were, a breakthrough discovery at the time. Payne explained this in her PhD thesis, Stellar Atmospheres, which she completed at the age of 25.

Alongside that discovery, she also explained and proved that hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe and is pretty much what stars are made of. At the time, it was widely believed that stars share the same make up as the Earth.

Her dissertation proves this to be untrue but the top expert at the time convinced her to omit her conclusions from her thesis. Despite this, her dissertation is widely recognised as an important piece of work in our understanding of the Universe.

Pickering’s Computer Women worked 6 days a week, 7 hours a day and were paid no more than 25 cents an hour. Most would often not be credited or recognised for their work until much later in life and when women in Science became a less alien idea.

Here are some other names with their own contributions to the cause:

  • Mary Anna Draper (Mrs Draper) the wife of Henry Draper, who donated her husband’s equipment and her inheritance to the Harvard College Observatory, subsequently funding Pickering’s crew in their star classification efforts. Although she is not part of Pickering’s Crew, without her monetary involvement and influence, the crew would probably never come to be.
  • Williamina Fleming, was initially Edward Pickering’s maid, but eventually became a major contributor to the Henry Draper Catalog‘s first classification of 10,000 stars. She was also the uncredited discoverer of the Horsehead Nebula.
  • Henrietta Swan Leavitt discovered the relation between “the luminosity and the period of Cepheid variables” and contributed to the understanding of galactic distance indicators. Her work would help many other astronomers (such as Edwin Hubble) make other discoveries.
  • Antonia Maury conducted initial study of the spectroscopic binary orbit. Her work was eventually used by Danish astronomer Ejnar Hertzsprung in his efforts to identify giant and dwarf stars.

The work of these women are far more complex than my small brain can comprehend but the fact that they can get anything done under relatively hostile and demoralising workplace conditions is a miracle in itself.

Nowadays we can find more women doing well in Science even though sexism is still alive and thriving in many corners of the globe. But if sexism couldn’t stop the likes of women like Cannon and Payne, its not going to stop today’s women from making their name in Science either.

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