According to astronomy professor Dr. Marylou West, “A woman’s place is in the dome!” Today this is becoming increasingly the case as more and more women take up astronomy. About 15% of the world’s astronomers are women, and in the USA about one third of young astronomers are now women. Times are changing, though there are still relatively few female astronomers in top positions. Astronomy is often perceived as a man’s pursuit. Though the Springfield STARS Club now has several women members, when I first joined, only one or two women attended meetings, and some members assumed I was only there because my young son had an interest in the subject.
One of the earliest women astronomers was Greek scholar Hypatia, born in Alexandria, Egypt around 370 AD. Taught by her father, she designed astronomical instruments and wrote a book on astronomy. Though widely respected in the Alexandrian community as an astronomer, mathematician and philosopher, she was beaten to death by Christian monks who blamed her for religious unrest and viewed her practice of astronomy as black magic. During the Dark Ages and beyond, women’s impact on astronomy frequently went unacknowledged, and their discoveries and writings were often credited to their male colleagues. Caroline Herschel’s achievements, however, are quite well documented. A paid assistant to her famous brother William, she performed complicated calculations from his observations. When he was away she made her own observations, and in 1786 became the first woman to discover a comet. She went on to discover several more comets, published her star catalogs, and received several honors in her own right. In the late 19th century more women began to work in the field of astronomy but their achievements were often underappreciated. Edward Charles Pickering, the director of the Harvard Observatory from 1877 to 1919, decided to hire women to process astronomical data, in part because they could be paid much less than men. It is said that Pickering became frustrated with his male assistants, declaring that even his maid could do a better job! He promptly hired his maid, Williamina Fleming, and later other women such as Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Annie Jump Cannon and Antonia Maury who became known as the “Harvard Computers.” As a result of their work, Pickering published a catalog with over 10,000 stars classified according to their spectrum, and his female “computers” developed new classification systems, including the one still used today.
This month the Springfield STARS Club invites you to hear distinguished guest speaker Paul Valleli present “Women in Astronomy I Have Known.” Optical engineer, astronomer and telescope maker extraordinaire, Valleli has designed and built optics for NASA’s space program, including infrared telescopes for the Voyager Project. One of his ultraviolet telescopes has flown on the Space Shuttle. He has developed optics for the Keck telescopes and infrared optical systems for military applications. In 2008 Paul retired after 56 years of lens making in order to devote his time to building a home observatory in Burlington, MA and making astronomical observations and instruments. His talk at the STARS Club will be held on Tuesday, May 26th at 7.30pm in the Tolman Auditorium at the Springfield
Amanda Jermyn, of Longmeadow, has been a member of the Springfield Stars Club since 2000 and currently serves on the club's board of directors. For more information, visit the Springfield Stars Club Web site at www.reflector.org or call 1(800)336-9054.
Copyright © Amanda Jermyn