The One with the Stars
1926. In the United States, the Roarin’ Twenties are blazing ahead.
Women are cutting their hair in short bobs as both a fashion trend, but also as a symbol for their fight for equal rights. Amelia Earhart, one of those women, takes to the male dominated skies. Gösta Mittag-Leffler, a Swedish mathematician, tries to give credit to overshadowed women in science, including helping installing the first female full professor and pushing to give the Nobel Prize to both Pierre and Marie Curie. In this year of 1926, he works to contact Henrietta Swan Leavitt to nominate her for a Nobel Prize in Physics, but as he finds out, she succumbed to cancer four years prior.
If Henrietta Swan Leavitt’s name doesn’t ring a bell, than maybe Edward Charles Pickering and his Human Computers do? Beginning in 1886, after being frustrated by his male assistants, he began hiring women to perform astronomical calculations for low wages. Leavitt was one of those women.
After graduating from Harvard University’s Radcliffe College and beginning her graduate studies, she was hired to work in Pickering’s Harem, as it was so gracelessly named. Along side other intelligent, accomplished women such as Annie Jump Cannon and Antonia Maury who did stellar work in star classification, Leavitt studied variable stars.
Variable stars are the ones whose brightness changes over time. While looking at the Magellanic Clouds, she noticed that the stars that were brighter appeared to have longer periods, or cycles of brightness. She hypothesized that all of the stars would be relatively the same distance from earth, so she was able to rule out that distance was impacting the brightness. After studying some 1,777 stars and finding that her hypothesis held, Leavitt’s Law was born.
Not only was Leavitt a trailblazing female scientist, she also became hard of hearing following an illness subsequent to her undergraduate graduation. Her legacy reminds us that external limitation cannot stop human curiosity once it is piqued. As we continue on in the 20th century, who knows, maybe her law will make way for discoveries of stars unknown and man, or woman, might take a trip to space!
Like sand through a No. 4 sieve, so are the days of our labs.