Friday, July 4, 2008

Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868 - 1921), astronomer

I have to admit one of my misgivings about this whole "women in science" hurrah thing I'm doing is that the phrase "woman scientist" itself gives me the creeps. It smacks of condescension: "look at how well she did, even for a woman". Is it necessary to modify the noun "scientist" with the adjective "female"? What does it add to the item you're writing?

For instance, this phrase from my textbook The Fifth Kingdom about the treatment of mycoses drives me crazy:

Drs. Brown and Hazen, the two women scientists who discovered this antibiotic, philanthropically gave their profits to establish a foundation that finances research into medical mycology.

Is it necessary to point out they're female? Does it add anything to the article? Would you ever write that sentence with the phrase "the two male scientists"?

But here I go, writing a series of posts about female scientists. Maybe my intention is this case makes it ok?

Speaking of which, the lady up for today is one that helped us figure out how to measure distances to the stars.

She worked for Harvard, acting as a human "computer" for Edward Charles Pickering (the man who apparently was well known for his "harem" of women that did complex calculations for him).

She studied a type of star called a Cepheid Variable. These stars vary in their brightness in a regular pattern: starting dim, they pulsate to bright, and back again. And it turns out that the length of those pulsations is related to the luminosity of the star (how much light it produces).
So..the awesome thing about that is if you have the period of the star, you can calculate the luminosity of the star from the above chart. You can then measure how bright the star looks from Earth (since farther away stars look dimmer), compare it to the luminosity you figured out before, then you can get the distance that star is away from Earth. Voila! Instant intergalatic yardstick!

Henrietta was not only female, but she was deaf. She died young of cancer, but has been posthumously honoured by having the Leavitt crater on the Moon named after her.


University of Oregon


another orphan said...

I strongly recommend Miss Leavitt's stars : the untold story of the woman who discovered how to measure the universe, by George Johnson. Hers would have been an extraordinary story for any scientist.

kem said...

I'll look that up...thanks!