Issue of May 1, 2009
eds. Joan Schmelz, Caroline Simpson & Michele Montgomery
This week's issues:
1. History of Women in Astronomy – Part 2
From: Joan Schmelz [jschmelz_at_memphis.edu]
[Several weeks ago, we featured several famous ‘computers’ from Harvard College Observatory. As these women began to retire, the next generation followed a new trail blazed by Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin – four of the earliest PhDs in Astronomy from Harvard-Radcliffe went to women! Their lives and careers took very different paths. Here are some highlights -- Eds.]
Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (1900 - 1979) was born in England and studied at Cambridge University. Since Cambridge did not grant degrees to women at that time, she left in 1923 to work for Harlow Shapley, the director of the Harvard College Observatory. Shapley put the Harvard plate collection at her disposal. In 1925, she became the first person to earn a PhD in astronomy for her thesis: "Stellar Atmospheres, A Contribution to the Observational Study of High Temperature in the Reversing Layers of Stars". By applying the Saha equation, she was able to relate the spectral classes of stars to their temperatures. She showed that the variation in stellar absorption lines was due to differing amounts of ionization, not to different elemental abundances, and that stars were made primarily of hydrogen. Astronomer Otto Struve characterized it as "undoubtedly the most brilliant PhD thesis ever written in astronomy."
For more, see, e.g., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cecilia_Payne-Gaposchkin
Emma Williams Vyssotsky (1894 -1975) was born in Philadelphia and received her PhD in 1930. She spent her career at the McCormick Observatory of the University of Virginia, where her specialty was motions of stars and kinematics of the galaxy. She married the Russian-born astronomer Alexander Vyssotsky in 1929 and had one son, Victor. She won the Annie J. Cannon Award in Astronomy in 1946. The asteroid 1600 Vyssotsky was named in her honor; it was discovered by Carl Wirtanen, who received his MS while working at McCormick Observatory.
For more, see, e.g., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emma_Vyssotsky
Carol Anger Rieke (1908 – 1999) earned her PhD in 1933. She established the relationship between absorption line width and luminosity for A and B stars in M7 and the Pleiades. She compared the absolute and apparent magnitudes of these stars in 54 clusters to measure their distances. Her work inspired a newspaper article with the headline “Girl Measures Light from Stars,” but the real news, according to the article, was that a girl had done the work. She married in 1932 and followed her husband from city to city, eventually settling in Chicago where she raised her family and worked teaching mathematics and astronomy at a local community college.
For more, see, e.g., http://adsabs.harvard.edu/full/2000BAAS...32.1685R
Ellen Dorrit Hoffleit (1907 - 2007) was born in Alabama and earned her PhD in 1938. She was hired as an astronomer at Harvard in 1948 and moved to Yale in 1956. She was the author of the Bright Star Catalogue, a compendium of information on the brightest stars in the sky. She co-authored The General Catalogue of Trigonometric Stellar Parallaxes, which contains information critical to understanding the kinematics of the Milky Way and the evolution of the solar neighborhood. With Harlan Smith, Hoffleit discovered the optical variability of the first-discovered quasar 3C 273. She was a director of the Maria Mitchell Observatory on Nantucket Island. In 1988, Hoffleit was awarded the Biesbroeck Prize by the AAS for a lifetime of service to astronomy. She lived long enough to celebrate her 100th birthday.
For more, see, e.g., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorrit_HoffleitBack to top.
2. Note on Beta Lyrae
From: Linda M. French [email@example.com]
I greatly enjoyed the brief biographies of pioneering women in astronomy in a recent email. Without quibbling, I'd like to point out one slight misstatement in the biography of Williamina Fleming. I am not an expert on Fleming, but the statement that she "...discovered...the first spectroscopic binary, Beta Lyrae" is not correct. The star, of course, was known far earlier, and its variability was established by John Goodricke of York, England, the discoverer of the periodicity of Algol and Delta Cephei. He reports on the star and gives a good estimate of its period in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Vol. 75, (1785), pp. 153-164. Goodricke's accomplishments are even more impressive when one remembers that he was totally deaf and lived less than 22 years. I suspect the intent was to say that Fleming established the binary nature of Beta Lyrae through interpretation of spectroscopic data, a fine accomplishment in itself.
[Note: this was indeed the intent. The most challenging part of writing these biographies was to keep them short. There is so much to say about these amazing women! With this goal in mind, however, I was less precise in my wording than I might have been. The emphasis was intended to be on the _spectroscopic_ nature of the discovery -- Ed.]Back to top.
3. Women in Early British and Irish Astronomy
From: Geoff Clayton [firstname.lastname@example.org]
Women in Early British and Irish Astronomy: Stars and Satellites By Mary Brück
Jointly published with the Royal Astronomical Society
Careers in astronomy for women (as in other sciences) were a rarity in Britain and Ireland until well into the twentieth century. The book investigates the place of women in astronomy before that era, recounted in the form of biographies of about 25 women born between 1650 and 1900 who in varying capacities contributed to its progress during the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries. There are some famous names among them whose biographies have been written before now, there are others who have received less than their due recognition while many more occupied inconspicuous and sometimes thankless places as assistants to male family members. All deserve to be remembered as interesting individuals in an earlier opportunity-poor age. Placed in roughly chronological order, their lives constitute a sample thread in the story of female entry into the male world of science.Back to top.
4. Mothers in Science: 64 Ways to Have it All
From: Hannah_at_Women in Astronomy Blog, April 26, 2009
Here is a review by Astronomum_at_Astronomoms of
Mothers in Science: 64 Ways to Have it All (available as a pdf download):
I recently had my attention drawn to Mothers in Science: 64 Ways to Have it All, which is a Royal Society publication made up of one page career/family timelines and profiles of 64 different mothers in science.
The idea behind the book I think is a great one - that we spend a lot of time with depressing statistics about women in science, and often "blame" the disproportionate burden of childcare women often face for the lack of women at the higher levels of science. This has given young women the idea that if they want children they cannot have a science career, or that they must have children at only very specific times to succeed (I cannot count the number of times I have heard that having babies as a postdoc is a death sentence for your career). This book then presents a random selection of women with children who work in science as a move towards "dispelling these myths" and being more encouraging (it's all written a lot more fluently in the introduction to the book) . . .Back to top.
5. How to Submit, Subscribe, or Unsubscribe to AASWOMEN
To submit to AASWOMEN: send email to aaswomen_at_aas.org. All material sent to that address will be posted unless you tell us otherwise (including your email address).
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If you experience any problems, please email itdept_at_aas.orgBack to top.
6. Access to Past Issues of AASWOMEN
Past issues of AASWOMEN are available at
Each annual summary includes an index of topics covered.Back to top.