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Pickering's women at Harvard Observatory included some of the best astronomers of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries.  I have already discussed Annie Jump Cannon, but at least one other outstanding researcher should be mentioned.  This would be Henrietta Swan Leavitt, the discoverer of the period-luminosity relationship of Cepheid variable stars (Cepheids were originally discovered by John Goodricke in 1784) and thus the yardstick to measure the universe.

Born in Massachusetts into a line of Puritans (her father was a Congregational minister and she was descended from a Deacon of the Puritans in Massachusetts Bay Colony), Leavitt. Leavitt first attended Oberlin College, and finally graduated from Radcliffe College (Society for the Collegiate Instruction for Women), in 1892.  She only took astronomy in her final year. In 1893 Edward Charles Pickering hired her to work at Harvard Observatory (since she had an independent income, he did not pay her at first!) Her studies on stellar physics (Pickering assigned her to study variable stars) led to the discovery of the fact that Cepheid variables (named after the "type" star in the constellation Cepheus) exhibited a period-luminosity relationship that made them "standard" candles for measurements of stellar distances.  Leavitt's discovery, made through an elegant study of Cepheid stars in the Magellanic Clouds (two irregular galaxies that are satellites of our own), inspired research by Ejnar Hertzsprung and later Harlow Shapley and Edwin Hubble, that produced a new and more accurate distance scale for the stars and galaxies, and led to the discovery of the expansion of the universe and an estimate of the age of the universe as well.

Leavitt laid the groundwork on which much of modern cosmology rests and certainly showed that women could contribute in major ways to natural science, including astrophysics.  Hubble, to his credit, said that she deserved a Nobel Prise, and indeed she was nominated in 1924, but had died three years before of cancer.  The Nobel Prize is not awarded posthumously. However, an exception was recently made for a researcher who died between the announcement of the award and its presentation. Leavitt's death at a relatively early age cut short a career that certainly would have produced more important data on the structure of the cosmos.

Literature References:

Johnson, George.  2006. Miss Leavitt’s Stars: The Untold Story of the Woman Who Discovered How to Measure the Universe. W. W. Norton & Company. New York.

Internet References:

Henrietta Swan Leavitt - Lady of Luminosity

Henrietta Swan Leavitt

Henrietta Swan Leavitt

Originally posted to Desert Scientist on Fri Sep 28, 2012 at 11:51 AM PDT.

Also republished by SciTech, J Town, and History for Kossacks.


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