Category Archives: Historical WomanAstro

Search for a #WomanAstro, Somerville, and a Death

The most widely received tweets I post on Twitter (@WomanAstronomer) are obviously about women astronomers, particularly historical. People want to know about them. They want to know who they were, what they accomplished, and why they mattered.

That’s a lot to know about someone, especially someone hidden by history. But science needs female role models.

The day before Christmas, I pulled up my WomanAstro calendar to see who to share on Twitter. Flora McBain Saddler (1912-2000), a googled name added to my list, previously shared, but not recently researched.

I wikied her. No Wikipedia entry. Always disappointing. I know most academics aren’t particularly fond of Wikipedia, but it’s an easy search for the public and the record should be complete.

Sadly, it isn’t.

It takes time and a good deal of searching sources to write about a woman astronomer – deciding validity, determining facts, finding an image, reading a lot, googling some more. Wikipedia is easy, and relatively reliable. It’s discouraging when I stumble across another WomanAstro who hasn’t been given her Wikidue.

I thought I would write about Flora here, put together a little bio. At least that’s how this blog started out.

Here’s the draft of the first paragraph:

Flora, a Scottish woman born of limited means – her father a cart pusher, her mother a maid – obtained a physics and mathematics degree in 1934 from the University of Aberdeen where she later worked as a researcher and lecturer. A solar eclipse trip to Siberia in 1936 ignited her interest in astronomy.

But as I was writing this happened:

Flora, a Scottish woman born (brothers, sisters?) of limited means – her father a cart pusher (name? had to look up “carter”), her mother a maid (name?) – obtained a physics and mathematics degree (why these subjects) in 1934 from the University of Aberdeen (archives?), where she worked as a researcher and lecturer (archives?). A solar eclipse trip to Siberia in 1936 lit her interest in astronomy (why did she go?).

There was still so much to learn about her. In one reference, Flora was described as “a thin quiet, unmarried woman who smoked a good deal. She was somewhere in her forties.” Her sudden marriage to Donald Sadler was also described as “a sensation.” Most intriguing. And no photograph of her to be found either.

That’s as far as I got. I saved Flora for another day. Christmas was coming, and I had spent too much time on research, so I didn’t tweet anything. I should have.

 

The day after Christmas, Mary Somerville (1780-1872) was born. Widely known, she does have a Wikipedia page. Easy tweet.

The summer 1998 issue of theWoman Astronomer newsletter also ran a feature story about her. I pulled out a copy.

Serendipity struck on the front cover. At the bottom of the page, an article on how to research “the elusive woman astronomer.” As I read the article, my Twitter feed began to rush by like a raging river. I put aside Somerville for another day.

 

Vera Rubin had died.

Such a sad day. Such a loss for science, for astronomy. Such a loss of a graceful mentor, smart scientist, role model, mother, all the people a woman can be. And, sadly, the loss of her due, a Nobel Prize.

Her loss was devastating.

I checked my files for Vera. No file. I knew somewhere in my vast collection of “To Be Filed” was an old letter from a student who had sent a copy of her report on Vera.

More serendipity. I found the March 1999 correspondence within seconds. In her letter, the student wrote:

rubin-vera-resume-scan-161228“Hello again! This is a copy of my final report on Vera Rubin. You can keep it – I am going to turn in the other copy on Monday. The assignment was to write a resume for a woman or minority scientist, following a certain format. We drew names, and I drew Vera Rubin. I actually enjoyed doing the research (for once) because I had never heard of her before and I do have an interest in astronomy.”

I wonder if this student knows Vera died. I wonder how much this report influenced her life choices. Is she an astronomer now? Was Vera the role model that set her life in a new direction? I should do some research. Another day.

Back on Twitter, the most endearing posts about Vera were personal. People shared their anecdotes of her, their pictures, and the ways she influenced their life. It was heartwarming to see how much she meant to her community, what she gave to science, and why she mattered.

Vera’s Wikipedia page updated the day she died. I have no doubt there will be plenty of research, articles, maybe a new book written about this remarkable astronomer.

In the meantime, Flora deserves her page in history, too.

See Me Soar, Day 3: Charlotte Emma Moore Sitterly

Charlotte Emma Moore Sitterly. Image courtesy AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

“In complete ignorance of the requirements needed for this job, I reported for duty and was cordially received, but without fanfare assigned my first task, the photographic determination of the position of the moon.”

So began the career of Charlotte Moore upon graduating from Swarthmoore College in 1920. As was the case for many woman astronomers in that era, she was a “mathematics computer” for Princeton University, tasked with making calculations used in astronomical research. It was “women’s work” dating back to The Harvard Computers. While at Princeton, Moore worked with Henry Norris Russell, the co-developer of the Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram.

After five years at Princeton, Moore moved to California to work at Mount Wilson Observatory researching solar spectra. In 1928, she returned to Princeton for a year before resigning to continue her education at the University of California at Berkley. Upon completion, she again worked with Russell at Princeton on atomic spectra.

It was during this period that Moore met her husband, Dr. Bancroft Walker Sitterly, an astronomer, physicist, and faculty member at Wesleyan University. They married on May 30, 1937. The couple did not have any children and remained married until his death in 1977.

In 1945, after recommendation from Russell, Moore went to work at the National Bureau of Standards in the Spectroscopy Section of the Atomic Physics Division. This work culminated in Atomic Energy Levels, volumes published from 1949 to 1958, which were “the definitive reference sources used for decades in such fields as astronomy, laser physics, and spectral chemistry.”

Moore received many awards during her long career, including:

1937 – Annie J. Cannon Prize
1951 – Silver Medal, Department of Commerce
1960 – Gold Medal, Department of Commerce
1961 – Federal Woman’s Award, U.S. Civil Service Commission
1963 – Annie Jump Cannon Centennial Medal, Wesley College
1966 – Career Service Award, National Civil Service League
1968 – Honorary Doctorate, Universitat zu Kiel, Germany
1972 – William F. Meggers Award, Optical Society of America
1990 – Bruce Medalist, Astronomical Society of the Pacific

Moore was born on September 24, 1898 in Ercildoun, Pennsylvania. Her parents were George Winfield Moore, a school superintendent, and Elizabeth Palmer Walton Moore, a schoolteacher. Moore worked until her death at age 91 on March 3, 1990 from heart failure at her home in Washington, D.C.

Other links:

Charlotte E. Moore
Charlotte E. Moore Biography
Sitterly, Charlotte Emma Moore
Charlotte Emma Moore Sitterly
Charlotte Moore Sitterly

I Am Woman, See Me Soar!

Harvard “Computers”, image courtesy Harvard University.

Today begins National Women’s History Month in the United States, as declared by presidential proclamation. This month we recognize and honor the accomplishments of women throughout the ages which will, in turn, empower our daughters with endless possibilities for their future.

In 1970, Helen Reddy released the song I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar, a thunderous statement on the women’s liberation movement. It was a time when women were burning their bras, freely expressing their sexuality, and moving out of the kitchen into the workplace. After 40 years, Reddy’s lyrics still rings true, we still have “a long, long way to go.”

As I am writing this blog, the White House also released Women In America: Indicators of Social And Economic Well Being, the first such report since 1963. Women have made great strides and today many women hold powerful positions in careers once solely the domain of men. There is still, however, much work to be done and the space sciences are no exception.

The one question from young girls I’ve received over the years that has caused me the most dismay is, “Who was the first woman on the Moon?” It always makes me sad to answer, “No woman has ever been there.” I still have hope that, within my lifetime, there will be a different reply: that I will be able to answer with the name of the first woman to have taken that step.

Unfortunately, women and girls still lag behind men in STEM subjects and careers, for a variety of reasons which will not be discussed today. What I will say is that I have long believed in the need for more role models for girls, especially in the sciences. It’s why I started WomanAstronomer.com.

So, in celebration of Women’s History Month, I will be blogging and tweeting about the amazing women in space, planetary science, and astronomy. I invite you to join me in celebrating the accomplishments of these wonderful women, to spread the word of their incredible work. (If you know of someone I should include, please let me know.)

First up is Lori B. Garver, Deputy Administrator of NASA. You can check out her biography here, which also has links to follow her on Facebook and Twitter. I think she is a truly inspirational woman and a role model for anyone, especially girls, interested in space.

With the recent surge of activity in the commercial space industry, the future holds even more opportunities for women in the space sciences, the chance to work on spacecraft, to design systems for humans in space, to find planets orbiting distant stars, “to go where no one has gone before.” My generation was “I am woman, hear me roar.” Your generation can be…I am woman, see me SOAR!

Clear skies!
Debra