World War II was a watershed moment for professional female mathematicians. The coicidence of short labor markets and exploding technology in aeronautics, ballistics and other fields opened doors for large numbers of women to work in fields that had been largely closed to them. But decades before the pioneering war workers helped propel the United States to supremacy in the air, a group of female mathematicians and computers at the Harvard Observatory made fundamental contributions to our understanding of the stars--and that women are able to work at the highest levels of science and technology.
Edward Pickering ran the Harvard Observatory from 1877 to 1919. Frustrated with his male assistants, and encouraged by the fact that he could pay women less than men, Pickering hired a staff of female computers, including his maid, Williamina Fleming, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Williamina_Fleming. The women, often colloquially and pejoratively referred to as "Pickering's Harem", did the calculations that produced the Henry Draper Catalog, a spectroscopic classification of more than 10,000 stars.
Among the standout scientists at the Harvard Observatory were Annie Jump Cannon, who graduated from Vassar in Physics and Astronomy, and Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Radcliffe's first PhD in Astronomy. Payne-Gaposchkin was the first to hypothesize that our sun is primarily composed of hydrogen. Her advisor disputed the conclusion, but four years later derived the same result, and is often given the credit. We'll decline to publish his name here, in order to give maximum space to Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, the woman who deserves the credit for this discovery.
Recognition for these women has been slow coming but recent efforts may change that. Google dedicated its daily doodle to Annie Jump Cannon on December 10. The "Sisters of the Sun" Episode of Cosmos does a great job of profiling Annie Jump Cannon and Cecilia Payne-Gaposckin and their contributions to astronomy. And author Dava Sobel is working on a book tentatively titled The Glass Universe, which tells the historty of the Harvard Computers.
Cosmos "Sisters of the Sun" Episode
The Last Word With Lawrence O'Donnell -
Dava Sobel, author of The Glass Universe