Reach for the Stars

Hey guys, its Bryce again, for what may be my last blog post (at least for my English class), and this time we students were given a topic to talk about: a forgotten woman who made great achievements in STEM research. By all rights, many women should have been given the credit they deserved for their amazing discoveries, but in our patriarchal society, the majority of the time the accolades went to men who either stole their work or made the same discoveries at slightly later dates.

Okay, so the guidelines said to talk about one woman, but I just couldn’t limit myself to that and I’ve decided to bring up two wonderful women and their awesome discoveries. Don’t look at me like that, okay; if you were in the same position you’d feel the same as I do. At least they’re in the same field: astronomy. And let’s admit it, by the amount of sci-fi films and books, we’re all at least a little bit interested in the galaxy. As soon as I heard what these women found out, I was so awed I just had to include them both. Just . . . keep in mind that a lot of concepts will probably go way over my head, so I’m gonna be keeping things simple here. So, friends, join me as we venture into space, the Final Frontier.

First, let’s discuss Miss Cecilia Payne,-Gaposchkin who found out what stars are made of. That’s right, folks, the reason we know that the Sun and stars are giant balls of gas are all because of her. I mean, for such an important and well-known fact, you’d think we all would know who figured it out, right? But I’m going to bet that this is the first time many of you have even heard of her name. No judgements, I was in the same boat. Anyway, Cecilia’s story is basically this: she decided to pursue a career in astronomy, where she excelled in the science department at college. Despite the fact that the scientific community believed the Sun and stars were composed of the same elements as the earth’s crust, Cecilia chose to challenge this notion thanks to her great understanding of astronomy and her awareness of the work of Meghnad Saha, a physicist who dealt with atoms (I honestly can’t explain it in an easily understandable way. Just read the article).

Lo and behold, applied Saha’s theories to determine that the Sun and stars were majorly comprised of hydrogen and helium. Unfortunately, physicist Henry Norris Russel, who was one of the major proponents of the theory that the composition of the Sun and stars were similar to Earth, managed to convince Cecilia not to include this theory in her thesis because—as you all probably know already—people have a habit of making assumptions without relying on scientific evidence and tend to not like it when someone comes up with a contradictory theory, especially when it proves to be correct. Which was exactly the case in this instance, as we’re all aware, since the Sun and stars are made up of mostly hydrogen and helium. To add insult to injury, four years later Russel discovered the same thing Cecilia did, and although he gave her some credit, he was the one who was recognized for this discovery. Absolutely unfair.

Next is Henrietta Leavitt, who also had a love for astronomy and studied it at university. Even her health issues couldn’t keep her from being involved in the field, and she joined the staff at an observatory after volunteering for years. She was given the task of studying images of stars, which is what gave her the opportunity to make her discovery. Henrietta noticed that stars varied in their brightness, and could predictably tie it to their magnitude. This may not sound significant, but her discovery paved the way for Edwin Hubble and other astronomers to realize the actual distance of objects and landmarks in space. Essentially, Henrietta’s discovery made it possible for everyone to find out just how big space is, and that not everything in it is limited to our galaxy; there are countless others that exist all around us.

As you’d imagine, this is a pretty incredible and important discovery. But, as you can imagine, because Henrietta was a woman, she was not given the credit she deserved. Sadly, Henrietta’s position at the observatory is usually compared to that of a computer, since her role was simply to record information and complete the tasks her employers gave her. Which only makes her achievement all the more amazing: Henrietta still managed to make an amazing discovery in spite of the fact that she was not given the freedom or resources to do her own research. But this just made it easier for the director of the Harvard College Observatory, Edward Pickering, to publish her work and take most of the credit for it himself.

If you guys are interested in finding about more about these two amazing women, I have a couple more articles for you to read, and I encourage you do your own research. The unfair treatment of women in the scientific field is something that must be acknowledged and changed, and I hope I’ve encouraged at least some of you to raise your voices against this injustice and look into it on your own.

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