Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Stretching the boundaries

Be honest, can you tell me anything about the following people?
  • Annie Jump Cannon
  • Jocelyn Bell Burnell
  • Henrietta Swan Leavitt
  • Willamina Fleming
  • Maria Mitchell
  • Ruby Payne-Scott
  • Nancy Roman
  • Vera Rubin
Okay, what about the following?
  • Nikolaus Copernicus
  • Johannes Kepler
  • Neil DeGrasse Tyson
  • Stephen Hawking
  • William Herschel
  • Christiaan Huygens
  • Carl Sagan
  • Edwin Hubble
My guess is that the typical reader recognized six or seven people on the second list, and could probably have named a major contribution for at least five of them.  I'd also wager that the average recognition for the first list is one or two -- and that most people couldn't tell you what the accomplishments were for the ones they did recognize.

Okay, I admit, it's pretty obvious what I'm driving at, here.  I'm not known for my subtlety.  And lest you think I'm deliberately comparing some chosen-to-be-minor female astronomers with a list of male Big Names, here are the major contributions for the women on the first list.

Annie Jump Cannon (1863-1941) is responsible for the current stellar classification system, in which stars are categorized by their spectral output and temperature -- an achievement that was critical for our understanding of stellar evolution.  So when you're watching Star Trek: The Next Generation and Commander Data says, "It is a typical M-class star" -- yeah, that was Annie Jump Cannon's invention.  Oh, and did I mention that she wasn't just female in a time when women were virtually prohibited from becoming scientists, but she was almost completely deaf?  Remember that when you think about the obstacles you have to overcome to reach your goals and dreams.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell (b. 1943) is an astrophysicist from Northern Ireland who was responsible for the discovery and explanation of pulsars in 1967.  Her claim that they were rapidly-rotating neutron stars was at first dismissed -- some scientists even derided the data itself, calling her discovery of the flashing star "LGM" (Little Green Men) -- and she wasn't included in the 1974 Nobel Prize awarded to scientists involved in the research that confirmed her hypothesis.  (Her other awards, though, are too numerous to list here, and she showed her typical graciousness in accepting her exclusion from the Nobel, but it pissed off a slew of influential people and opened a lot of eyes about the struggles of women in science.)

Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868-1921) was an American astronomer who discovered a seemingly trivial fact -- that the bright/dark periodicity of a type of variable star, Cepheid variables, is directly proportional to its intrinsic brightness.  She very quickly realized that this meant Cepheids could be used as "standard candles" -- a light source with a known actual brightness -- to allow astronomers to figure out how far away stars are.  This understanding was half of the solution to the question of the age of the universe, which added to red shift proved that the universe is expanding, and ultimately led to the Big Bang theory.

Willamina Fleming (1857-1911) was a Scottish astronomer who discovered (literally) thousands of astronomical objects, including the now-famous Horsehead Nebula.  She was one of the founding members of the "Harvard Computers," a group of women who took on the task of doing mathematical calculations using data from the Harvard Observatory -- after Fleming noted that the work their male counterparts had been doing could have been bettered by her housekeeper.

Maria Mitchell (1818-1889) was an American astronomer whose accomplishments were so many and varied that I could go on for pages just about her.  She was the first female professor of astronomy at an American college (Vassar), the first female editor of a column in Scientific American, was director of Vassar's observatory for twenty years, came up with the first good explanation for sunspots, pioneered investigations into stellar composition, and discovered (among other things) a comet before it was visible to the naked eye.  She was an incredibly inspiring teacher -- twenty-five of her students went on to be listed in Who's Who.  "I cannot expect to make astronomers," she once said to her class, "but I do expect that you will invigorate your minds by the effort at healthy modes of thinking.  When we are chafed and fretted by small cares, a look at the stars will show us the littleness of our own interests."

Ruby Payne-Scott (1912-1981) was an Australian scientist who became the first female radioastronomer, who was responsible for linking the appearance of sunspots with radio bursts from the Sun and was also instrumental in developing radar for detecting enemy planes during World War II.  She was not only an astronomer but a gifted physicist and electrical engineer, and made use of all three in her research -- but opportunities for women in science were so limited that in 1963 she resigned as an astronomer and became a secondary school teacher.  But she never ceased fighting for women's voices in science, and in 2008 the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization began the Payne-Scott Award in her honor to support women in science, especially those returning to the research world after taking time for maternity leave.

Nancy Roman (1925-2018) was an American astronomer who was one of the first female executives at NASA, and who has been nicknamed the "Mother of Hubble" for her instrumental role in developing the Hubble Space Telescope.  She did pioneering work in the calculation of stellar velocities -- all this despite having been actively discouraged from pursuing a science career, most notably by a high school counselor when she suggested she'd like to take algebra instead of Latin.  The counselor sneered, "What kind of lady would take mathematics instead of Latin?"  Well, this lady would, and went on to be the recipient of four honorary doctorates (as well as the one she earned), received an Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal from NASA and a fellowship with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and was the recipient of many other awards.

Vera Rubin (1928-2016) was an American astronomer whose observation of anomalies in galactic rotation rates led to what might be the weirdest discovery in physics in the last hundred years -- "dark matter."  Her work, according to the New York Times, "usher[ed] in a Copernican-style change in astronomy," and the Carnegie Institute said after her death that the United States had "lost a national treasure."

Honestly, it's Rubin who got me thinking about all of this gender inequity, because I found out that last month the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope was renamed the Vera C. Rubin Observatory, and when I posted on social media how awesome this was, I had several people respond, "Okay, cool, but who is she?"  We like to pride ourselves on how far we've come in terms of equity, but man, we have a long way to go.  Famous straight white male scientists become household names; equally prestigious scientists who are women, LGBTQ, or people of color often become poorly-recognized footnotes.

Don't you think it's time for this to change?

The amazing Vera Rubin in 2009 [Image is in the Public Domain]

I know this is a battle we won't win overnight, but the dominance of straight white males in science has resulted in the stifling of so incredibly much talent, hope, and skill that we ought to all be working toward greater access and opportunity regardless of our own gender, skin color, or sexual orientation.  My little exercise in considering some female astronomers probably won't count for that much, but I'm hoping that it might open a few eyes, invert a few stereotypes, and stretch a few boundaries -- and whatever motion we can have in that direction is nothing but positive.


This week's Skeptophilia book of the week is simultaneously one of the most dismal books I've ever read, and one of the funniest; Tom Phillips's wonderful Humans: A Brief History of How We Fucked It All Up.

I picked up a copy of it at the wonderful book store The Strand when I was in Manhattan last week, and finished it in three days flat (and I'm not a fast reader).  To illustrate why, here's a quick passage that'll give you a flavor of it:
Humans see patterns in the world, we can communicate this to other humans and we have the capacity to imagine futures that don't yet exist: how if we just changed this thing, then that thing would happen, and the world would be a slightly better place. 
The only trouble is... well, we're not terribly good at any of those things.  Any honest assessment of humanity's previous performance on those fronts reads like a particularly brutal annual review from a boss who hates you.  We imagine patterns where they don't exist.  Our communication skills are, uh, sometimes lacking.  And we have an extraordinarily poor track record of failing to realize that changing this thing will also lead to the other thing, and that even worse thing, and oh God no now this thing is happening how do we stop it.
Phillips's clear-eyed look at our own unfortunate history is kept from sinking under its own weight by a sparkling wit, calling our foibles into humorous focus but simultaneously sounding the call that "Okay, guys, it's time to pay attention."  Stupidity, they say, consists of doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results; Phillips's wonderful book points out how crucial that realization is -- and how we need to get up off our asses and, for god's sake, do something.

And you -- and everyone else -- should start by reading this book.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

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