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The pioneering women who helped us picture the stars


Edward Pickering and female staff — including Margaret Harwood, Arville Walker, Ida Woods, Florence Cushman, Annie Cannon and Evelyn Leland — circa 1911.
Harvard University Archives

Long before the Hidden Figures “human computers” of NASAthe black women mathematicians whose pioneering work in the 1950s made America’s Space Age possible – came “the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory” whose work laid the basis for how we classify stars today.

These women in the early years of the 20th century maintained and analysed early images of the stars recorded on delicate glass negative plates under the direction of then-director of the Harvard College Observatory Edward Pickering.

The women’s work is documented in a new book by Dava Sobel called The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars.

One of the astronomers, Williamina Fleming, began work as Pickering’s maid but went on to identify hundreds of stars, while Henrietta Swan Leavitt’s observations about the luminosity of stars would shape later ideas about the expanding universe.

There’s a fascinating interview with Sobel here.

Hat tip Science Friday.

The stars of the Small Magellanic Cloud appear as black dots on this negative plate.
Harvard University Archives
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