Astronomy is often viewed as a man’s pursuit, and, regrettably, it still is a field where women are in the minority. However, both their numbers and visibility have been increasing in recent years. While exact figures are hard to come by, about 15% of the world’s astronomers are women, and in the USA about one third of young astronomers are now female. In Argentina, 35% of astronomers are women, the highest percentage for any country.
In the past, women’s impact on astronomy frequently went unacknowledged, and their discoveries were often credited to their male colleagues. This is gradually changing, and today many of the field’s brightest stars are female.
One such shining star is Carolyn Porco, the lead imaging scientist for the Cassini mission to Saturn that lasted from 2004 to 2017. She also served as an imaging scientist on the Voyager missions to the outer solar system in the 1980s, and is currently an associate member of the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. A prolific writer and researcher, Porco is often profiled in the media. She is a world expert on the interactions between the moons and planetary rings that orbit the outer planets. One of her most exciting discoveries is that of over 100 giant geysers of icy particles on Saturn’s moon, Enceladus. This and other Cassini findings on Enceladus suggest an organic rich ocean beneath its surface that could potentially harbor life.
Another bright light in this field is Jocelyn Bell Burnell, credited with co-discovering the rapidly spinning neutron stars now known as pulsars. In 1967, while studying for her PhD at Cambridge University, she detected regularly pulsing signals coming from space through the university’s radio telescope that she had helped build, together with her thesis adviser, Antony Hewish, and astronomer Martin Ryle. It took some persistence for her to convince Hewish that the signals she’d discovered were not caused by human interference, and eventually a paper was published documenting the discovery of pulsars, listing Bell Burnell as second author. Despite her major role in the discovery the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Hewish and Ryle, but not to Jocelyn Bell Burnell, a decision considered unfair by many. However, she has since received many other prestigious awards and worldwide recognition.
Astronomer Sandra Faber’s career has been spent seeking answers to some of the questions that intrigued me from an early age: What is the universe, what is it made of, and how was it formed? A professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California in Santa Cruz, Faber researches the evolution of structure in the universe and how galaxies form. She was instrumental in designing the world’s largest optical and infrared telescopes at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii and leads the Hubble Telescope project to understand galaxy formation close to the time of the Big Bang. She was awarded the National Medal of Science by President Barack Obama in 2013.
Another area dear to my heart is the search for exoplanets. A pioneer in this field is MIT’s Sara Seager. Referred to by NASA as “an astronomical Indiana Jones,” Seager aims to understand the atmospheres and interiors of planets beyond our solar system. Her novel space mission proposals and innovative theories about what life might be like on other worlds instill in us a sense of wonder at the extraordinary universe we live in, and challenge us to keep exploring. We need more explorers of our universe, and we need more of them to be women.
Join the Springfield stars Club on Tuesday, March 27th at 7:00pm at the Springfield Science Museum for a talk by Paul Cardone, “Planetary Missions Update.” Cardone is an amateur astronomer and telescope maker who is active in astronomy outreach locally. Refreshments will be served, and the public is welcome. The meeting is free of charge for members, with a suggested donation of $2 per non-member.
Also, on Friday, April 6th at 7:30pm, the Stars Club and the Springfield Science Museum will host Stars over Springfield,” an astronomy adventure for the whole family. Amateur astronomer Kevin Kopchynski will give a talk on “Black Holes.” A fee of $3 for adults and $2 for children under 18 will be charged.
Copyright © Amanda Jermyn