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Women in astronomySuper Novas

Looking at the Sky Through a Glass Ceiling

Women in Astronomy
by Liza Gross

Everyone loves to gaze at the stars, and women are no different--except they've historically had a harder time getting paid to do it. Even so, women have studied the heavens for millennia. Aglaonike, considered the first woman astronomer, figured out how to predict lunar eclipses as far back as 200 B.C.

Today, though women make up only about 15 percent of astronomers worldwide, they are far more visible in astronomy than in the other "hard" sciences. And more young women are entering the field than ever before, accounting for some 25 percent of astronomy doctorates in the United States. Despite these advances, few of them win top positions: only 5 percent of full professors in astronomy at U.S. universities are women.

Some say we're entering a new golden age of astronomy, with remarkably sensitive telescopes capable of revealing phenomena never seen before. That's a prospect likely to inspire any astronomer, man or woman.

Pioneers of the Past

Henrietta LeavittHenrietta Swan Leavitt
In the early 1900s, women were not allowed to operate telescopes. Instead they were hired as "computers" to analyze and compile data from the telescopes. As a computer at the Harvard College Observatory, Henrietta Swan Leavitt categorized stars that varied in brightness called "cepheids." While studying cepheids, she noticed that there was a difference between how bright these stars appeared and how bright they really were. Her discovery has become one of the fundamental methods of calculating distance in the universe.

Cecilia Payne-GaposchkinCecilia Payne-Gaposchkin
The first person to earn a Ph.D. (from Harvard in 1925) in the new field of astronomy, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin had a distinguished forty-year career at the Harvard College Observatory. Studying the relationship between a star's distinctive spectrum--lines of color that reveal its elemental composition--and the temperature of its atmosphere, Payne-Gaposchkin pioneered a method for determining the surface temperature of a star from its spectral lines. This research led to her critical discovery that the sun's atmosphere is composed mainly of hydrogen.

Jocelyn BurnelJocelyn Bell Burnel
A s a graduate student at Cambridge University in 1967, Jocelyn Bell Burnell was instrumental in discovering pulsars. Analyzing data collected by Cambridge's new radio telescope, Burnell noticed regularly spaced signals that she couldn't explain. Astronomers around the world studied this mysterious phenomenon, finally identifying it as the output of a rapidly rotating neutron star--the compact core left behind when a massive star explodes. In 1974, Antony Hewish, Burnell's advisor during her work on pulsars, won the first Nobel prize in astronomy for her discovery.

What is it like to be a woman in astronomy today?

Megan DonahueMegan Donahue
Archive Astronomer
"The good news is that I think there's a big difference between now and fifty years ago. There's no question that I can apply to an observatory like Palomar and get time, and visit and go do observing. Fifty years ago, women couldn't observe on Palomar. And they heard, 'You're a woman, education would be wasted on you.' Or 'You're a woman, you're not eligible for this fellowship.' So the overt barriers to being a woman in astronomy are not there anymore."

Christine Cottingham
Hubble telescope thermal engineer
"There are a lot more females now. In fact, there are more females in the Thermal Engineering Department at Goddard than there are men. And that's great to see."

 

 

Lisa FrattareLisa Frattare
Image Processor, Hubble Heritage Project
"You didn't see a lot of women in the thirties, forties, and fifties. But now you see women showing up, women [who grew up in] the sixties and seventies. Still, the classrooms are not fifty-fifty. "When I was in school, I was the only girl in several classes. But you just have to plow through and say, 'I can do this.' Maybe it came from having brothers who always picked on me, and I'd have to say, 'I can do it. You can't tell me what to do.' "

Further reading:

Four Thousand Years of Women in Science
http://crux.astr.ua.edu/4000WS/4000WS.html

The History of Women in Astronomy
http://cannon.sfsu.edu/~gmarcy/cswa/history/history.html

Committee on the Status of Women, Women in Astronomy
http://www.stsci.edu/stsci/service/cswa/women/

 

 

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