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Harvard Computers: The Forgotten Women Who Mapped the Sky

You may have noticed the sudden praise of women throughout history in many forms of media recently. Tweets and articles seem to be popping up everywhere in the hopes of educating the masses on some forgotten heroes and their stories. That’s because we’ve reached March, also known as Women’s History Month, meant for commemorating and encouraging the study, observance, and celebration of women in American History. Those who protested, invented, discovered, and mothered are all celebrated during this time of year and for good reason. Whether that be a women from 1917 or one of 2017; they will be acknowledged.

While the whole month of March is used for celebrating the achievements of these amazing women, March 8th is the main event. International Women’s Day has been celebrated since the early 1900’s, a time when the oppression and inequality they faced was really starting to be vocalized. According to the official International Women’s Day site,  In 1908, 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter hours, better pay and voting rights. This created the grounds to commemorate a day to the celebration of the accomplishments and contributions of women throughout past and present history.

Considering this Women’s History Month theme of “Honoring Trailblazing Women in Labor and Business”, I’d like to acknowledge a group of underpaid and undervalued women who made some of the most impactful discoveries in astronomical history. Before the internet and all it’s fancy technology, a computer was simply one who computes or does calculations. In the early 1900’s there was a group of women working at the Harvard Observatory, being overseen by Dr. Edward Charles Pickering, titled the Harvard Computers. They’re job was to book keep the stars. All different women from completely different backgrounds and levels of education put into the same job of looking at photographic plates of the night sky and comparing the positions of the stars between plates, making them able to repeatedly look at the sky and help establish which stars were brighter.

Over 80 women were a part of “Pickering’s Harem”, a ridiculous nickname for the group of women that shows the status of the girls at the time. The work the girl’s were doing was tedious and took much of their time, but for those whose passion was truly in that field, it’s the best they could get. While Pickering’s hirement of women was a step in the right direction, it wasn’t the be all end all, as the women only made 25 to 50 cents which was half what a man would have been paid. These jobs were often clerical and these women were entrusted the responsibility of analyzing and classifying rather than observing. Regardless, These women’s work was crucial then and has become important in the world today.

One of Pickering’s first computers was his very own house keeper Williamina Fleming, an immigrant from Scotland who served as observatory director for 42 years. She also served as the observatory’s production manager, proofreading and editing annual reports, data tables, and journals. She discovered the Horsehead Nebula in Orion and recognized the existence of hot, earth sized stars later dubbed white dwarfs.

Unlike other most fellow computers, Annie Jump Cannon previously studied physics and astronomy at Wellesley and Radcliffe. Cannon developed a system for classifying stars by temperature which was universally adopted as the standard. This system involved putting the stars into the spectral classes of “OBAFGKM”, O being the bluest and hottest stars, and M being the coolest and red stars. The mnemonic device “Oh! Be A Fine Girl – Kiss Me!” was developed by Cannon to learn the star classifications. A colleague of hers later discovered the relation of color too temperature of star using her system.

That colleagues name was Henrietta Leavitt, a women who may have made the most important contribution to her field. Leavitt was deaf due too illness, but this did not hold her back in her discoveries. Leavitt worked with variable stars, specifically Cepheids, pulsating stars that change from bright too dim regularly. She came to the discovery of the cepheid variable period-luminosity relationship, which stated that the time it took for a star to pulsate was related to the stars magnitude, how bright the star is overall. Her method made it possible to tell how far away and bright a star was from the period of it’s brightening and dimming cycle. This became the “yardstick of the universe” and would go on to eventually be used by Edwin Hubble and others who would use her work to help us further understand the universe we are a part of.

Despite these remarkable discoveries, little to no recognition has been given where it is deserved. In her lifetime, Henrietta Leavitt was never acknowledged for her brilliant discovery. Annie Cannon’s classification system was named the “Harvard” system of spectral classification in a field where galaxies and stars are names after the men who discover them. This Women’s History Month, think about all the incredible, yet tragically unrewarded, feats that women have accomplished in all fields, including everyday life. Because even when hindered by every possible obstacle thrown their way; women are incredible.

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Alicia Wilson
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Hi i'm Alicia and i'm 18 years old with an incredibly big passion for writing. As I grow older, i learn more and more about who I am and i'm still learning. As of right now I know that i'm a huge superhero nerd, I'm panromantic asexual, Theatre (specifically tech) and journaling take up most of my time, and i'm excited to have a place where my writing can be seen by many others. Twitter: @melancholy_al

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