Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

Host Neil deGrasse Tyson tells the story of 20th century Harvard University astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt and the team of Harvard University female astronomers who cataloged the stars in the all-new "The Sisters of The Sun" episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey." (Fox / April 27, 2014)

Ask most people to name a famous scientist and — assuming they don’t draw a blank — they will likely cite Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Stephen Hawking or possibly Cosmos host Neil de Grasse Tyson. You know, someone with high name recognition. And that someone will probably be male. 

There was a bit of grumbling among the geekerati several weeks ago over the Cosmos episode “A Sky Full of Ghosts.” It featured animated sequences with father-son astronomers William and John Herschel, but made no mention of William’s sister, Caroline, who helped catalog many astronomical observations and discovered a comet all her own.

This struck many as an egregious oversight. As Becky Ferreira, writing at Motherboard, put it, “[Y]ou can't profile William and John Herschel, and make no mention of Auntie Caroline. It simply is not done.”

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Alas, it is done, and far too often. This week’s episode of Cosmos, “Sisters of the Sun,” attempts to rectify the relative obscurity of women in science by focusing on three female astronomers who defied the social conventions of the early 20th century to enhance our understanding of the stars in the sky.

All three worked for Edward Pickering, the director of the Harvard Observatory, who preferentially hired women to pore over photographic plates, mapping and classifying all the stars. It wasn’t quite as enlightened as it sounds: Pickering was partly motivated because that women would work much more cheaply than men. He was also frustrated with the performance of his male assistants and decided that his maid could do a better job. In fact, he did hire his maid, Willamina Fleming, in 1886 as the first of his so-called computers. She did so well he brought in more women, and they became known (somewhat disparagingly) as “Pickering’s Harem.”

Among the brightest of Pickering’s protégés was Annie Jump Cannon, who devised the method of spectral classification of stars we use today, along with a handy mnemonic device to remember them (Oh Be A Fine Girl — Kiss Me!).

She also discovered 300 variable stars while building an extensive catalog. That proved handy for Cannon’s protégé, Henrietta Swann Leavitt, who studied the Cepheid variables in the Small Magellanic Cloud and figured out the relationship between their period and luminosity — a discovery that enabled
Edwin Hubble to calculate the age of the universe a few years later.

And then there was Cecelia Payne, who joined the Observatory under its new director, Harlow Shapley, in 1923, as a graduate fellow. She studied the spectra of the stars to determine their  chemical composition.

At the time, astronomers had noted the presence of heavier elements like iron and calcium and assumed that stars were much like Earth in terms of chemical composition. Payne proved them wrong: Based on their spectra, the stars were primarily made up of hydrogen and helium, the lightest elements, with only trace amounts of heavier elements. This didn’t sit well with one Henry Norris Russell, who reviewed Payne’s PhD thesis and declared her results were “clearly impossible.”
So she added a sentence to that effect. “I caved to authority when I was sure I was right,” she later recalled. Four years later, Russell came around, and the book Payne wrote based on that thesis, Stellar Atmospheres, is now a standard text in astronomy.

The rest of the episode delves more deeply into the birth, evolution and eventual death of various types of stars, keeping the focus resolutely — and fittingly — on the science.

Is all this enough to assuage the wrath of the Caroline Herschel contingent? Perhaps. It might be argued that featuring a few women in a single episode out of 13 is skirting the edge of tokenism, but I’m inclined to cut the writers slack.

They need to cover a lot of scientific ground, generously seeded with historical anecdotes, without adding too many subplots and asides, thereby weakening the narrative focus — a chronic flaw in an otherwise fine series. Sure, we’d like more episodes to feature women, but the harsh truth is that (predominantly white) men have dominated science for centuries. On the whole, I think the series has done admirably well at bringing a bit of diversity to the table.

"Sisters of the Sun” also featured a particularly effective framing device: the star cluster known as the Pleiades, which has inspired various mythologies over the ages to explain its origins.

The Kiowa tribe of the Great Plains, for instance, told of seven young women who sneaked away from their tribe one night to dance freely under the stars. They were attacked by bears and prayed to the Great Spirit to save them. The Great Spirit’s raised the rock on which they were standing to great heights — a formation we now call the Devil’s Tower — and placed the Kiowa maidens forever in the night sky.

The ancient Greeks have a similar myth, whereby Orion became enamored of the seven daughters of Atlas — Sterope, Merope, Electra, Maia, Taygeta, Celaeno and Alcyone — and pursued them relentlessly, until Zeus “took pity” on the sisters, turned them into doves and placed them in the night
sky. (Eventually Orion ended up there too, rather defeating the purpose. The gods are a capricious lot.)

We’re about as likely to remember the names of female scientists as we are to recall those of the seven daughters of Atlas. Kudos to Cosmos and Tyson for raising a glass to these unsung heroines: Annie Jump Cannon, Henrietta Swann Leavitt, Cecelia Payne, and many, many others. (Speaking of which: Give Vera Rubin a Nobel Prize already!)

Science is a human endeavor, not an exclusively male endeavor. You really should remember their names.


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