Today, an astronomer has something to teach us. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Nobel prizes weren't given
until 1901. Throughout the 1800s royal medals were
the medium of scientific recognition. Americans
were latecomers to big-time science. Yet we had our
first royal prize in astronomy by 1850. It was the
Danish Royal Medal, and the winner was Maria
Mitchell. She won it for discovering a new comet in
1847, when she was only 28.
Mitchell was raised by a Quaker family in
Nantucket. Her father worked at many jobs by day;
but he was an astronomer by night. It made a
curiously right combination for young Maria.
Nineteenth-century Quakers took the education of
girls seriously. The seafarers of Nantucket took
astronomy seriously. And Maria Mitchell's father
took her seriously. She started helping with his
observations when she was 12.
Maria was working in a library by day and
star-gazing by night when the Danish Medal opened
doors for her. She became the first female member
of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The
Nautical Almanac Office hired her to do
calculations. She went about as far as any woman
could go, 140 years ago.
Then Matthew Vassar set up a
college to provide women with an education as
good as men's. He hired Maria Mitchell, now 47, as
the first astronomy professor at the new Vassar
Up to then she'd been shy and quiet. Now she had to
stand up and talk to people. She took to the new
role. Astronomy, says writer Peggy Kidwell, turned
from an end to a means. It was the means by which
she could stir up her students' minds. And stir
them she did. All the while her interests expanded
to larger questions about women in science. She
helped form the American Association of Women. She
was the second president.
We've all but forgotten Maria Mitchell today. She
didn't make it into our textbooks. But pioneers
seldom get into textbooks. Pioneers help others get
there, while they remain invisible. For example, a
lady named Annie Jump Cannon set out with one of
Mitchell's students to classify stars by spectral
means. That led to a great ordering of the heavens.
Annie Jump Cannon does appear in encyclopedias and
texts. She and others like her followed Mitchell
and gave substance to her dreams.
Astronomy is an odd field. Down through history,
women have been a major but often invisible part of
it. Here's a photo of Mitchell near her 60th
birthday. She sits under the lens of the Vassar
telescope. She looks like Whistler's mother, stiff
and formal under the lens of the camera. But her
face is composed -- the face of a woman who knows
full well what it is she's started.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds