Akashmitra is extremely happy to have Miss Shweta Kulkarni give a talk on “Harvard’s Computers” as the 2nd talk in the “Women in Astronomy” lecture series, started at Akashmitra.

Below is the abstract of the talk given by Miss. Kulkarni:

Unlike other physical sciences, astronomy is largely an observational science which needs exact calculations, particularly of positions of celestial objects. Originally young men performed these tasks but this changed when Edward Charles Pickering became the director of the Harvard Observatory in 1877 and opened the doors of Astronomy to women. He convinced the Harvard Corporation to hire woman for the tedious work of “Computers”.

It was indeed fortuitous that Pickering had hired woman to perform the tiresome task of cataloguing and computing. These women Computers at Harvard College Observatory became known as “Pickering’s Harem”, an unflattering term.

Pickering was increasingly frustrated with his male assistants and declared that even his maid could do a better job. Apparently he was proven right by his maid, Williamina Fleming, who was the first woman that was hired. She undertook her assigned chores efficiently. In 1886, Harvard observatory received generous donation from the widow of Henry Draper and then Pickering decided to hire more female staff and put Fleming in charge of them.

The women were banned from using the observatory telescopes, but that didn’t stop them from making crucial discoveries. Antonia Maury, for example, identified the second binary star — two stars orbiting around a common point — shortly after Pickering discovered the first. She was also the first to calculate the path of these stars’ orbits and the time they took to complete them. The star computer was Annie Jump Cannon, who catalogued 350,000 stars and greatly simplified Maury’s system. The International Astronomical Union adopted her method in 1922 as the official classification system for stars, which astronomers still use today. But they didn’t name it after her. Instead, it’s called the Harvard system of spectral classification. Researchers at Harvard and other institutions used Henrietta Leavitt’s discovery of the Cepheid variable stars for measuring interstellar distances to identify the next-generation cosmic yardstick, called Type Ia supernovae. The faintness of these stellar explosions indicated they were farther away than expected — a sign that the expansion of the universe was accelerating, rather than slowing down as previously thought.  Pickering published Maury’s findings in 1890 but made no further mention of her. A decade later, Danish astronomer Ejnar Hertzsprung used Maury’s system in his method for identifying giant and dwarf stars.

The women known as “Harvard’s Computers” as well as many more were actively engaged in astronomical work at the turn of the century. The period between 1880-1920 saw the creation of a place for women in astronomy. It is important for people today to recognize these women and the contribution they have made to astronomy.

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