September 26, 2011

Stellar by starlight

Edward Pickering by Sarah Putnam. Harvard University

An earnest discussion recently on NPR bemoaned the fact that we are all becoming data sharks, cruising the media waters constantly for more and more facts while losing the ability to think critically, to analyze what we know.  It’s the fault of the internet, of course, that our knowledge is a mile wide and an inch deep – we should be using actual books and going to libraries and pondering things at length.

Meh. Let’s just admit that the critical faculties in most of the human race are atrophied from lack of use anyway and that the dopamine boost that new information apparently gives is reason enough to keep moving.

Anyway I tried the book thing –  I looked up Edward Pickering at my local library – which like most is not a research facility but a community resource which devotes acres of space to crap since crap is mostly what people want and who can blame them.

In short, they had zip on Pickering except in encyclopedias and I can do that without schlepping. There is only one real biographical source on Pickering and that is a memoir written by his successor. But it turns out that the next best thing is an obituary published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society and that is available – courtesy of the NASA Astrophysical Database – on line.

Edward Charles Pickering was a physicist, appointed director of the Harvard College Observatory in 1877;  he stayed on the job until his death 42 years later. It’s key that he was a physicist and not just an observer of stars – his appointment marked the beginning of rigorous mathematical study of stellar objects.

More important, Pickering seems to have been a man remarkably without prejudice. Here’s how the story goes:

Fed up one day with the shoddy work of his (male) assistant, Pickering lost his temper and yelled at the man, ‘My maid could do better work than this!’  Soon after, he fired the assistant and brought the maid to the observatory to help him.

Granted, it’s highly unlikely that his words and his actions were prompted entirely by whim – Pickering had  probably realized long before just exactly what kind of person was working in his house.

NASA photo of the Horsehead Nebula

Her name was Williamina Paton Fleming.  She was born in Dundee, Scotland, and educated in public school there, becoming a pupil-teacher at the age of 14.  She married James Fleming and the couple emigrated to Boston.  Fleming left her while she was pregnant with their son Edward and she cleaned houses  to support her child.

She became Pickering’s first female ‘computer,’ a person who did mathematical calculations. Over the years, she catalogued more than 10,000 stars, discovered more than 300 variable stars, 59 nebulae and 10 novae.

In 1888, examining a photographic plate produced by Pickering, she realized that what he had dismissed as dark matter was in fact a nebula – it was eventually called the Horsehead Nebula.

Williamina Fleming was the first member of what came to be called ‘Pickering’s Harem,’ a staff of women clerks at the observatory who excelled at cataloguing, calculating and analyzing astronomical data – and his budget allowed for more of them than men, because of course they were paid less.  The going rate was 25-50 cents an hour, or about the pay of an unskilled factory worker.

Tomorrow, more about some of the exceptional women in the photo below and the discoveries they made.

Professor Pickering's 'Harem.' Photo, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics



  1. Can hardly wait!!!!!


    Comment by Carol — September 26, 2011 @ 10:06 am | Reply

  2. This blog certainly goes a long way to encourage reflection. As many of us have grandchildren, or work with kids, we need to encourage them to appreciate about what is around them. When growing up, we often sat outside with my Dad who pointed out and named the planets and constellations. It engendered a lifelong love of stargazing. Your photograph of the Horsehead Nebula from the Hubble is one of my faves!!


    Comment by Celia Carroll — September 26, 2011 @ 10:56 am | Reply

    • what a nice memory to have…have none such myself – having grown up in a pre-NASA world i think kids are really lucky these days.


      Comment by jchatoff — September 26, 2011 @ 11:12 am | Reply

  3. Some purdy hy-fulutin astrophyisic reporting thaaank you I luved it.


    Comment by avery — September 26, 2011 @ 3:03 pm | Reply

  4. wow that is really something! great nebula pic 🙂


    Comment by ninachat — September 29, 2011 @ 11:44 pm | Reply

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