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The heritage of Harvard’s female “computers”

By 26th February 2018 No Comments

A team of women is working on piecing together the history of women astronomers. Between 1885 and 1927 female “computers” studied images of the stars. They discovered galaxies and created ways to measure the distance between stars. And they were famous, people wrote about them and they were published. However, they ended up forgotten in the years to come.

A recent discovery of their calculations has sparked new interest in the women. Unfortunately, for decades, no one kept track of the women’s names until Smith Zrull started a spreadsheet of their names. She has about 130 names and 40 which are unidentified as of yet.

Not all of the names are female computers, some belong to assistants and astronomers wives. Many women worked on the images which is astounding considering the social issues at the time.

The intention is to build a database of the women and their specific contributions to science. This is to give these women the credit they deserve. If you search “Williamina Flemming” you would find out that she discovered the Horsehead Nebula and developed a classification system for stars that are based on their hydrogen content.

But Fleming was just the first computer to make her mark on astronomy.

Pickering hired Henrietta Swan Leavitt in 1895. She was tasked with measuring and cataloging the brightness of the stars. Her major discovery – a way to allow astronomers to measure distance in space, now known as “Leavitt’s Law”.

It’s time now that credit is given where credit’s due.

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