Women in the stars

Pushing the limit of the cosmos, understand the movements of the stars since their creation, a fascinating exploration in which women take part.

Pickering’s Women

Pickering women
Pickering’s women.
Source: Wikimedia commons

Pickering’s women are a group of women hired by Harvard Observatory director Edward C. Pickering in the early 1900s, to complete a catalogue of nearby stars.

Their mission was to complete the Henry Draper Catalogue, with the goal of mapping and defining every star in the sky to a photographic magnitude of about 9.
Men at the laboratory did the labor of operating the telescopes and taking photographs while the women examined the data, carried out astronomical calculations, and cataloged those photographs during the day. Pickering made the Catalogue a long-term project to obtain the optical spectra of as many stars as possible and to index and classify stars by spectra.

Source: Wikipedia, taking sources from John Dvorak: “The Women Who Created Modern Astronomy”, Catherine Shteynberg: “Pickering’s Women”, Helen Fitzgerald “Counted the Stars in the Heavens” and Encyclopædia Britannica.

Among them were Henrietta Swan Leavitt and Annie Jump Cannon.

Henrietta Swan Leavitt
Henrietta Swan Leavitt.
Source: Wikimedia commons

Henrietta Swan Leavitt discovered a relationship between the period of a star’s brightness cycle to its absolute magnitude. The discovery made it possible to calculate their distance from Earth.

“Some of those closer to the heart of Leavitt’s discovery profited too – not least Edward Pickering, who as director of the Harvard College Observatory claimed the right of superiority over his minion by publishing her findings in his own name, effectively taking most of the credit. The statement, which appeared in a Harvard Circular in 1912, referred to Leavitt only as the person who had ‘prepared’ it. Pickering’s successor at the observatory, Harlow Shapley, gained fame six years later when he built on Leavitt’s discovery of the period-luminosity relation to redefine our knowledge of the Milky Way. Leavitt, without whose findings his would have not been possible, was once again barely mentioned.
Little is known of Henrietta Leavitt’s personal feelings about the way she had been overstepped. Hers was a shy and somewhat unassuming personality, and women at that time, even highly educated and brilliantly talented women who in a fairer world would have been respected as equals by their male peers, were all too often resigned to taking a lesser role, and were often just quietly grateful to be given any sort of role at all.”

Source: “Henrietta Leavitt – Celebrating the Forgotten Astronomer” by Gael Mariani
Annie Jump Cannon
Annie Jump Cannon.
Source: Wikimedia commons

Annie Jump Cannon, in 1901, first noticed that it was a star’s temperature that was the principal distinguishing feature among different spectra.

Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin (1900 – 1978)

Cecilia Gaposchkin
Cecilia Gaposchkin.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin demonstrated for the first time from existing evidence on the spectra of stars, that they were made up almost exclusively of hydrogen and helium.

Hydrogen and helium spectra
Hydrogen and helium spectra

A spectrograph takes light from a source and separates it by wavelength. The appearance of the spectra gives information on the object that emitted the light.


Cecilia Payne – Gaposchkin, British Astrophysicist, was interested in astronomy since she was a child and although she completed her studies in Cambridge, she did not receive a degree because she was a woman. In his time it was thought that the sun had approximately the same proportions of elements as the earth, but it was she who discovered that the stars had an abundant amount of Helium (He) and Hydrogen (H), then taught at Harvard but paid less for their sex than the men. Finally, she was the first woman to be recognized as a professor in that department at that university.

Source: “12 Women who have made science progress” by José L, 2018

Sandra Moore Faber (1944 – …)

Sandra Moore Faber
Astronomer Sandra Faber, with the Hubble Deep Field in the background.
Photo by R. R. Jones. Source: https://news.ucsc.edu/2009/02/2739.html
Faber-Jackson relation
Faber-Jackson relation.
Source: Wikipedia

She made important discoveries linking the brightness of galaxies to the speed of stars, providing a means for estimating distances to galaxies.

Sandra Moore Faber, astrophysicist, has made important discoveries linking the brightness of galaxies to the speed of stars within them. The Faber–Jackson relation provided the first empirical power-law relation between the luminosity and the central stellar velocity dispersion of early-type galaxies, and was presented by the astronomers Sandra M. Faber and Robert Earl Jackson in 1976.
Faber was also instrumental in designing the Keck telescopes in Hawaii.
In 1983, she published original research showing that dark matter was not composed of fast-moving neutrinos (“hot dark matter”) and that instead, it was likely composed of slow-moving particles yet to be discovered (“cold dark matter”).
Around 1984, Faber collaborated with Joel Primack, George Blumenthal, and Martin Rees to elucidate their theory of how dark matter was part of galaxy formation and evolution. This was the first proposal of how galaxies have formed and evolved from the Big Bang to today.
During the later 1980s, Faber got involved in an eight-year project called the “Seven Samurai” collaboration, which attempted to catalogue the size and orbital speeds of 400 galaxies. Though this goal was not met, the group developed a way to estimate the distance to any galaxy, which became one of the most reliable ways to measure the total density of the universe.

Source: Wikipedia, taking sources on articles from the American Astronomical Society and the magazine “Nature”.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell (1943 – …)

Jocelyn Bell Burnell
Jocelyn Bell outside the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory at the University of Cambridge in 1968. National Media Museum/ Science & Society Picture Library.
Source: spsnational.org

Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered the first pulsar in 1967. A pulsar is a rapidly spinning neutron star, a small and dense remnant of a much more massive star.

Vela Pulsar
Vela Pulsar.
Source: NASA

The Nobel prize was attributed to her professor Antony Hewish and to Martin Ryle in 1974.

More famous women astronomers

On the website of the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences of Sydney: A Celebration of Women in Astronomy, by Melissa Hulbert, 2018
On Wikipedia: List of women astronomers
On Mother Nature Network: 10 female astronomers everyone should know, by Sidney Stevens, 2016