On National Astronaut Day, Remember These Female Scientists Who Helped Us Understand Space
Feeling a little Sally Ride today? It's National Astronaut Day, the holiday on which every whippersnapper with an interest in the stars gets herself excited about the potential to one day be floating among them. There is, however, more to getting into space than just putting on a suit and jetting off into the stratosphere. While Hidden Figures highlighted the achievements of women of color in the early days of NASA, and figures like engineer Margaret Hamilton (who coded Apollo 11 by hand) are becoming more widely known for their contribution to space history, the reality is that female involvement in our understanding of the world beyond ours didn't begin when we started building spaceships. In fact, women have been some of the greatest movers and shakers in astronomical science for centuries.
Some women who were likely prominent figures in their era are, alas, largely lost to time; for instance, all we know about the 10th century astrolabe maker Mariam al-Astrulabi is that she lived in Aleppo and made astronomical instruments for the Emir.
Others, however, have made their mark more potently — often while working in environments of grotesque sexism that physically and educationally placed barriers in the way of their achievements. When it comes to our understanding of the stars, there are a lot of women to thank.
The Qing dynasty was not exactly a great time to be a prominent female intellectual in China — but Wang Zhenyi, from what we know of her life, managed to change astronomy anyway. She was a true polymath; surviving works include mathematical theorems, explanations about gravitational pull, and widely-praised poetry. However, the thing that would bring her fame, and garner her so much renown that she was allowed to take on male pupils in an exceptionally conservative period in Chinese history, would be her theories on lunar eclipses and the procession of equinoxes.
She wrote papers on everything from the rotation of the planets to the Pythagorean theorem, but these days, she's mostly famous for the experiment she did to show how lunar eclipses actually worked, using a mirror, a globe and a table. Alas for the entire cause of science, she passed away at the age of 29. What had you done by the time you turned 30? Changed the way we look at the heavens? Thought not.
Aglaonice & Her Witches
When you're sufficiently important in women's history to have a seat at Judy Chicago's famous Dinner Party installation, you know you're a heavyweight. Aglaonice fulfilled it in style; the first recorded female astronomer of ancient Greece, it seems that she used her ability to predict solar events and lunar eclipses to convince people that she was a witch and controlled the sky. Which, you know, makes sense.
She was one of a group of women called the "witches of Thessaly", and Plutarch wrote that she was:
What she was actually doing remains a mystery, though. Was she posing as a sorceress, or was she merely a skilled astronomer who impressed and frightened people with her abilities to foretell lunar events? Unfortunately she left no record herself, so we'll never know. However, a crater on Venus is named after her for her achievements.
Herschel came from one of the most astonishing astronomical dynasties in history; her brother, Sir William Herschel, was famous in his own time for his discovery of Uranus, and they worked together to make new notations of the night sky for many years. Caroline made a name for herself with her own pioneering work, despite being hugely constrained by her circumstances; never married, she was forced to live in external buildings and attics while her brother took up the more comfortable rooms of their various houses.
Nevertheless she was, for lack of a better word, awesome. She became an honorary member of the Royal Society, the first woman to do so, largely because she was also the first woman to discover a comet. She discovered 14 new nebulae, added 550 new stars to existing star catalogues, and was one of the greatest astronomical geniuses of any age, despite working with lesser instruments than her brother.
Elisabeth Hevelius, or the "Mother Of Moon Charts", was the second young wife of the brilliant astronomer Johannes Hevelius, who had once taught her the art of star-watching as a child. Before they married (she was 17, he was 52), he had already made a name for himself as an observer of the heavens, making gigantic maps of the moon and running his own observatory in Danzig. When Elisabeth came along, though, she and her husband would form one of the great scientific partnerships in the history of research.
She became his partner in creating the giant Prodromus Astronomiae, a collection of star catalogues and atlases, which was only published after his death. Elisabeth would work tirelessly to complete their combined work, including 600 new stars that they had discovered together. Technically speaking, Elisabeth is the first female astronomer in European record, and would be renowned as a powerful scientific mind in her own right.
Annie Jump Cannon
Annie Jump Cannon was part of the group that Smithsonian Magazine called "The Women Who Mapped The Universe." Employed as a "computer" by Harvard's Observatory in the late 1800s, she came up with a system that should by all conventional reason be named after her: the Harvard Classification Scheme, which describes and catalogues stars based on their spectral emissions, and is still in use. The group of women, who were known as "Pickering's Computers" after of their employer, astronomer Henry Pickering, were basically paid star-discoverers; they pored over data of every section of the night sky and noted everything they found. "Miss Cannon is the only person in the world—man or woman—who can do this work so quickly," Pickering commented.
She would, gradually, receive a collection of honors: the discoverer of over 300 stars, she would be the first woman to receive an honorary doctorate from Oxford and to be elected into the American Astronomical Society. And her classification system still holds. Not bad for a woman who was paid only 30 cents per hour.
Henrietta Swan Leavitt
Swan Leavitt has two points of commonality with Jump Cannon; she was also one of Pickering's women (working first for free and then for a paltry 30 cents an hour), and, interestingly enough, both women were deaf.
However, Swan Leavitt's contribution to astronomy was a different one: she discovered a method that would help later astronomers determine the distance between galaxies through tracking the pulsation rates of various stars.
Leavitt's discovery, known as "Leavitt's Law," would mean that people could estimate distances between the Earth and other galaxies for up to 10 million lightyears, shifting astronomy massively. Leavitt herself was frequently ill and died without much recognition in her own era; she was even forbidden for her entire time at Pickering's observatory from using the telescopes.
And there's another infuriating sexist chapter in her treatment: in 1925, four years after her death, a scientist became interested in nominating her for a Nobel Prize and wrote to the new head of the Harvard Observatory to ask about her. Not only did the head explain that she was dead (thus ruling her out for the Nobel), he then tried to get it himself by claiming credit for all her ideas. Fortunately, nothing came of it. And though she never got that Nobel, today we can honor her, and the rest of the women on this list, by remembering that space has never been a man's world.