Tag Archives: Astronomy

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.

On The Shelf: The Messier Album

Charles Messier's emblem.

As I pack my books in anticipation of moving next month, I realize what a great collection I have. My dear tomes live on two tall bookshelves, five shelves each. One bookshelf is dedicated entirely to science fiction, a lot of which I still need to read; the other holds my non-fiction. I thought I would share with you some of my favorite books about the science I love so much as a way to ignite the astronomy bug for those who may not know where to start.

If you are a novice to observing, one of the must-have books is The Messier Album, written by John H. Mallas and Evered Kreimer. First published in 1978 by Sky Publishing Corp (they also publish Sky & Telescope magazine), this book had its fifth printing in 1994 and now is only available from Amazon.com used resellers.

Why would I cherish such an old book about the Messier objects when there are newer ones with prettier images taken by bigger and better telescopes? I’ll admit I’m a little sentimental about this book, my primary reference when I first observed the glorious gems of the northern hemisphere. Night after star-filled night my little tome sat by my side during my quest for my Messier certificate from the Astronomical League.

During the day at many a star party, I would peruse my little companion for the objects I intended to bag after dusk. I read the “basic data,” “NGC description,” and “visual appearance” for each of the 110 Messier objects. I studied the black-and-white photographs and, sitting at my telescope after dark, I compared what I saw to the drawings made by Mallas.

Users of small telescopes will get the most benefit from The Messier Album. Mallas used a 4-inch f/15 Unitron refractor for his observations and his drawings offer an accurate view of what can be seen through a smaller aperture scope by the human eye. Trying to compare an object seen through a small telescope to the fabulous color pictures from light buckets like Hubble is nearly impossible for the novice.

Also included in The Messier Album are essays written by Owen Gingerich titled “Messier and His Catalogue” and “Hints for Beginning Observers,” as well as a checklist, a chapter on Mallas’ and Kreimer’s process, additional reading, and “Messier’s Own Catalogue” which is written in French. The best thing about this little book as an observing aide is that it’s available for as little as $2.38US from Amazon.com.

With today’s technology, you can spend hours searching the Internet for lists, photographs, and data about Messier’s objects. I even found an Android app that looks interesting. To be honest though, I’d much rather be sitting at the eyepiece with a red-lensed flashlight and my little book in hand.

Women of the UofA Lunar Planetary Lab

Commencement time at my alma mater, the University of Arizona (UofA), always brings to mind my wonderful tenure in Tucson. It also reminds me that there are not enough women in astronomy and planetary science; all of my professors in these subjects were men.

Today I would like to highlight the women faculty members of the Lunar Planetary Lab at the UofA. You can click on each name to be directed to their web site for more information about their research at the UofA.

Caitlin Griffith – Professor, Planetary atmospheres. I had the pleasure of hearing her at one of several talks given by the department on current research about Titan. Something you may not know is that she was in Thailand during the 2004 Indian earthquake.

Renu Malhotra – Professor, Solar system dynamics.

Ilaria Pascucci – Assistant Professor, Planetary formation and evolution.

Tamara Rogers – Professor, Planetary atmospheres.

Elizabeth Roemer – Professor Emerita, Comets, minor planets; astrometry.

Marcia Neugebauer – Research Scientist (Adjunct). Her website at the UofA is limited, so check out the UANews article Physicist Honored for Discoveries About the Sun and Wikipedia here.

Elisabetta Pierazzo – Lecturer (Adjunct). Her website at the UofA is limited, so please check out her page at the Planetary Science Institute.

Elizabeth P. Turtle – Assistant Research Scientist (Adjunct). Again, she has a limited website at the UofA, so find out more about her here. I also had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Turtle speak on several occasions, including during my “Mars” class, at the local astronomy club, and other talks at the UofA. She is definitely one of my favorite women astronomers.

And, because I just can’t help myself, I noticed that out of the 52 individuals listed on the faculty index at the Lunar Planetary Lab, there are eight women, a mere 15.38% of the total. Is there a problem there? I don’t know. What I do know is that in the majority of the classes I attended, the ratio of women/men students seemed to be fairly even.

While writing this blog, I also searched the web for additional information on these women. The lack of biographical information is, to say the least, discouraging. Why? Because they are doing tremendous work in an exciting field and they are role models, yet even today their stories are not readily available.

It seems to me that this could be a core issue with the problems surrounding girls and STEM. Any thoughts?

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

Exoplanet Pleasure

Kepler 11 exoplanetary system.Image courtesy of NASA/Kepler.

 When I began my studies at the University of Arizona, I was under the impression that astronomy was the study of everything that the night sky had to offer. Though that is mostly true, it did not take me long to discover that planetary science was its own discipline and quickly became my favorite area of study. So, needless to say, all things exoplanets are especially interesting to me.

Today NASA announced the discovery of over 1,200 new potential exoplanet candidates. (Note: These are candidates and have yet to be confirmed.) This discovery is so incredible because of the number of potential exoplanets discovered by one telescope in such a short period of time in such a small field of view. The approximately 500 exoplanets discovered prior to Kepler took a span of nearly 20 years to find. Kepler found its astounding number of exoplanet candidates in less than two years.

Kepler telescope field of view. Courtesy NASA/TheSky.

Kepler was launched in March 2009 and is the 10th mission of NASA’s Discovery Missions. Kepler saw “first light” a month later when its dust cover was blown off with its optics pointed towards the constellations of Cygnus and Lyra. Its three-and-a-half-year mission objective is “to explore the structure and diversity of planetary systems.” I certainly hope this is one mission that will be extended.

Artist rendition of Kepler 10b. Image courtesy of NASA.

An especially exciting element of the Kepler mission is that the data, released ahead of schedule, is available to citizen astronomers at PlanetHunters.org where anyone with a little time and patience can assist Kepler astronomers in confirming the potential candidates as true exoplanets. (You do not need to be an astronomer, or own a telescope, to participate.) Imagine how exhilarating it will feel when your “favorite” exoplanet is officially added to the Planetary Society’s Catalogue of Exoplanets.

In addition to watching the NASA news conference today, I read a number of articles in the media from links on Twitter (thank you to all my astro-tweeps), along with a little extra research of my own. Below you’ll find a list of those for your exoplanet pleasure.

NASA Kepler Mission Page from NASA.gov

Kepler Home Page from Ames Research Center

Kepler’s “First Light” Images from UniverseToday.com

Astronomy: Exoplanets on the cheap from Nature.com

NASA Finds Earth-size Planet Candidates in Habitable Zone, Six Planet System the official NASA press release with PowerPoint slides

Motherlode of potential planets found: more than 1200 alien worlds! from Discover.com/Bad Astronomy

Extrasolar planet from Wikipedia.com, a lot of what you need to know about exoplanets

Wide Angle: The Age of the Exoplanet from Discovery.com

Kepler announcement today: More than a thousand exoplanets including one 6-planet system from the Planetary Society Blog

NASA spots scores of potentially livable worlds from MSNBC.com

Kepler-11 NEW EXOPLANETARY SYSTEM DISCOVERED from YouTube.com, an artist’s video rendition for the new system

Interview with Dr. Debra Fischer, Planet-Hunter from WomanAstronomer.com, my interview with favorite planet hunter of them all

Clear skies & happy exoplanet hunting!
Debra L. Davis