Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Women “Computers” Explored the Cosmos – Part 12 SUMMARY

Even though Pickering’s objective was to pay as little as possible, he created unprecedented opportunities for a generation of female astronomers.

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, an astronomer who came to the observatory after the women in this series and was a female professor at Harvard University, describes how difficult but rewarding a career at Harvard could be:
“On the material side, being a woman has been a great disadvantage. It is a tale of low salary, lack of status, slow advancement. But I have reached a height that I should never, in my wildest dreams have predicted 50 years ago. It has been a case of survival, not of the fittest, but of the most doggedly persistent.”1
A Boston Globe reporter concluded in 1893, “These young women deal with difficult problems quite as successfully as do the men in other observatories. To be sure, not all women are capable of working in this field for the work demands special mental qualities.”
“In American Astronomy, the dual labor market that emerged by the end of the nineteenth century relegated women to the lower tier or secondary labor markets, thus sharply restricting their chances for mobility. At the same time men’s perception of women as scientists denied them access in power and in the reward system.”2
Because of forerunners such as Henrietta, Mina and Annie, today nearly half of all astronomy graduate students in the United States are women.

Whether reading or writing women’s history, it is often hard to get beyond the unfair limitations and low compensation given them to see their strength in refusing to let such unfairness stop them from accomplishing their goals. One has to wonder what other discoveries these brilliant women would have made without these restrictions.

The three scientists were actually at the Harvard Observatory at the same time.
Williamina Paton Fleming – 1881 – 1911 (30 years)
Henrietta Swan Leavitt – 1893 – 1921 (28 years)
Annie Jump Cannon – 1896 – 1941 (45 years)

1Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin. Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: an Autobiography and other Recollections. (Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, 1984) 227

2Harry G. Lang, Bonnie Meath-Lang. Deaf Persons in the Arts and Sciences: A Biographical Dictionary. (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1995), 358

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Women “Computers” Explored the Cosmos – Timeline of Annie Jump Cannon's Career

When tracing the progression of Annie’s career from when she joined the “computers” by cataloguing her awards and accomplishments, it is astounding that it was not until 1938 Harvard finally recognized her as an astronomer and a professor.

1884 – Annie graduated from Wellesley College with a degree in physics.

1893 – Annie’s pamphlet of prose and photographs, “In the Footsteps of Columbus” were published and distributed at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition.

1896 – Annie Jump Cannon became a “computer” at Harvard College Observatory.

1911 – Annie took over the duties as Curator of Astronomical Photographs

1916 – Annie directed the fellowship given to Pickering by Nantucket Maria Mitchell Association.

1918 – Annie considered the first person to systematically classify the heavens.

1921 – Annie was the first to receive an honorary doctorate in astronomy from the University of Groningen, Netherlands.

1925 – Annie received the first honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford to be awarded to a woman.

1931 – Hard work paid off when Annie was the first woman to receive Henry Draper Medal of the National Academy of Sciences.

1932  - Annie won the Ellen Richards Research Prize of the Association to Aid Scientific Research for Women

1933 – With the funds from her research prize, stablished the Annie Jump Cannon Award, which is given to a North American female astronomer for contributions to astronomy.

1938 – Annie appointed to the Harvard faculty, when she was named William Cranch Bond Professor of Astronomy.\

1940 – Annie officially retired but continued to research.

By her death in 1941, Annie had been classifying stars at the rate of up to 300 per hour culminating in 350,000 classified stars.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Women “Computers” Explored the Cosmos – Part 10

 “Although she encountered the same discrimination that challenged other women of her time, Cannon was a deaf woman during the heyday of Social Darwinism, and she faced additional attitudinal barriers to her advancement and professional recognition;…”1

Here is the perfect example: “In 1923 Raymond Pearl corresponded with E. B. Wilson, Harvard School of Public Health on the question of electing a woman, in general, and the fitness of astronomer Annie Jump Cannon, in particular. Both agreed that her scientific accomplishments were more than sufficient for the honor, but Pearl, a eugenicist, said he could not vote for her because she was deaf. It was hard enough, he joked, to run the Academy meeting with the misfits already there without adding any more ‘physical defectives’! But it was not up to Pearl or Wilson to nominate her. That was the task of the astronomy section of the Academy which never did put her name forward (not one woman astronomer was elected to the Academy until 1978).”2

John Lankford and Ricky L. Slavings in American Astronomy: Community, Careers, and Power, talk about how men were able to detach women from progress: “Frequently, the isolation of women resulted from the dual action of men.”3

An example of this is when a major career decision was made for Annie without her input or approval. “William Wallace Campbell wrote to acting HCO director Solon I. Bailey concerning the appointment of Annie Jump Cannon as a member of the American delegation to the first meeting of the International Astronomical Union.”4

Campbell was not worried about the other delegates welcoming her, but his worry was “’I do not feel like encouraging her as she would be the only woman on the delegation and probably the only woman of the meeting… I fear she would not feel at home.’”5

Who can say what she might have learned or what knowledge she might have shared with the other delegates.

Cannon had a more positive outlook on the opportunities for women to advance in a career. In addressing her fiftieth Wellesley class reunion “Cannon insisted that ‘the chances were really excellent in those days… the roads were not crowded.’ Cannon’s views were colored by her own remarkable talent and good fortune. In fact, the chances for a satisfying career in science depended on the gender of the intending scientist.”6

“This makes Annie Cannon a complicated figure – a feminist and traditionalist in one.”7
1Harry G. Lang, Bonnie Meath-Lang. Deaf Persons in the Arts and Sciences: A Biographical Dictionary. (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1995), 67.
2Margaret W. Rossiter. Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies to 19940. (Baltimore, Maryland: The John Hopkins University Press, 1982) 286.
 3, 4, 5, 6John Lankford, Ricky L. Slavings. American Astronomy: Community, Careers, and Power, 1859-1940. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 333-34, 322.

7Julie Des Jardins. The Madame Curie Complex: The hidden history of women in science. (New York: Feminist Press, City University of New York, 2010), 96

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Women “Computers” Explored the Cosmos – Part 9

After her graduation, during her travels, Annie had a bout of scarlet fever, losing some of her hearing. “She experienced a progressive loss of hearing that became very severe by middle age.”1

Annie was not happy with her life after her travels were over. “I am sometimes very dissatisfied with my life here. I do want to accomplish something, so badly. There are so many things that I could do if I only had the money. And when I think that I might be reaching and making money, and still all the time improving myself it makes me feel unhappy and as if I were not doing all that I can.”2

Annie did not settle for doing nothing. In 1894, after her mother’s death, Annie returned to the physics department at Wellesley to work as an assistant. At the same time, she took advanced astronomy classes at Radcliffe.

This led to her being hiring by Pickering to be one of his “computers.”

In 1916, The Nantucket Maria Mitchell Association presented to Pickering a fellowship of which the income was to be awarded to a graduate of a woman’s college, who planned on working in astronomical research. The holder of the fellowship worked under the direction of Annie, “one of the only two women, outside of England, who have ever been made members of the Royal Society.”3

In 1932, Annie won the Ellen Richards Prize of the Association to Aid Scientific Research by Women. This prize emphasized “the best thesis, written by a woman, on a scientific subject – a thesis embodying new observations and new conclusions based on independent laboratory research.” She donated this prize of $1,000 to the American Astronomical Society to support women astronomers.

While working as a “computer” researcher, Annie traveled frequently charming audiences with her enthusiastic lectures on the field astronomy. Her enthusiasm inspired many to pursue careers in astronomy.

Next we’ll look at the discrimination she faced and overcame.

1Harry G. Lang, Bonnie Meath-Lang. Deaf Persons in the Arts and Sciences: A Biographical Dictionary. (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1995), 63.

3The Journal of the Association of Collegiate Alumnae, Volume X, September, 1916-June 1917. (Ithaca, N.Y.: The Association of Collegiate Alumnae, 1917) 341

Monday, February 2, 2015

Women “Computers” Explored the Cosmos – Part 8

The female scientists, or human “computers” as they were referred to, held the title of assistants not astronomers according to Harvard University’s rules at the time. Obviously, Henrietta felt she deserved the title. “A possible insight into Henrietta’s private thoughts is offered by her reply to a census taker who, in January 1920, the year before her death, asked her to state her occupation. There might have been a hint of defiant pride in her answer, ‘Astronomer’.”1

Henrietta’s proof of a direct correlation between the time it took a star to go from bright to dim to how bright it actually was helped other astronomers, such as Edwin Hubble and Edward Pickering, to make their own groundbreaking discoveries.

After her death on December 2, 1921, the observatory was approached about nominating Henrietta for the 1926 Nobel Prize in physics but she was not nominated because the prize is not awarded posthumously. At that time, Pickering’s replacement Harlow Shapley tried to take credit for her discoveries saying that the real work was his interpretation of her notes.

After Williamina Paton Fleming, Annie Jump Cannon took over the duties as Curator of Astronomical Photographs in 1911, along with the work of the Henry Draper Catalog. Annie had come to the crew of “computers” in 1896.

Annie Jump Cannon was born in 1863 to Wilson Lee Cannon, a successful shipbuilder and state senator, and Mary Elizabeth Jump.  Annie had learned her love of the stars from her mother. She spent many hours with her mother in the attic in their homemade observatory.

At the age of 16, Annie entered Wellesley College, where the distinguished professor of physics and astronomy, Sarah F. Whiting, mentored her. Sarah had, in turn, been mentored by Edward Pickering. Annie was valediction at her graduation from Wellesley College in 1884, with a degree in physics.
In my next blog, we will look at what happened to this young intelligent woman.

1http://www.aavso.org/henrietta--leavitt-celebrating-forgotten-astronomer (Accessed January 20, 2015)