Unsung heroes of astronomy

Star gazing has always been a romantic pastime of poets and philosophers. But what about Star gazing as a science of astronomy? It has produced its own compelling stories about passionate and spirited contributors during the 18th &19th centuries. These are the stories of contributors who dared their physical limitations in quest of knowledge. In this post, I thought I will share with you interesting examples of three significant contributors who belong to this genre.

John Goodricke,Annie jump Cannon,Henrietta Leavitt – one might not have heard these names,but these were the unsung heroes who made significant contributions in the development of science of astronomy during the late 18th,19th and early 20th centuries. What did they have in common? Physical handicap – one was a deaf-mute while the other two were completely deaf. Needless to stay,lots of passion,hard work and simplicity in life accounted for their excellence. They never bothered to show off or talk much about their contributions and preferred to let the work speak for itself!. In fact one of them(Leavitt) was being considered for the Nobel prize in the year 1924. But as the committee was searching for her research interests (apart from her contributions),they learnt that she passed away 3 year before due to cancer.
Let me briefly mention here about their contributions:
John Goodricke(a very good mathematician),at the age of 18,came up with very impressive observations,analysis and explanation of binary variable stars. Very briefly,a binary star is a system of two stars orbiting mutually around each other. One of them is bright and the other is dim. They are called variable stars because their brightness varies periodically – going from very high brightness to very low with time. Goodricke explained this saying that the dim star,while orbiting around the bright star would eclipse(block) the same at some point in its orbit and hence show dimness. He was awarded the prestigious Copley medal by the Royal Society for the year’s most significant discovery in science. Goodricke died at the young age of 53 due to pneumonia which he contracted during long freezing nights spent gazing at stars.
The good work of Goodricke led to further study at Harvard Observatory in the USA by Edward Pickering(its director)and his team in late 1800s.
Two important members of his team were two female astronomers – Annie Jump Cannon and Leavitt. Both became deaf due to scarlet fever and meningitis respectively. Around the time they started their work,the technology of photography was already developed and ready for exploitation. Their job was to analyze thousands of photographs of stars every month for their location,brightness and variation of brightness over a period of time. Cannon immortalized herself by stellar classification of dividing stars into seven classes(O,B,A,F,G,K,M). Even today,undergraduate students of astronomy learn this through the funny mnemonic ‘Oh,Be a Fine Guy Kiss Me’.
Not surprisingly,she was voted one of the twelve greatest American women in 1931 and was awarded the prestigious Draper Gold medal by American National Academy of Sciences.

The other female astronomer in the team of Harvard Observatory was Leavitt (who graduated from one of the colleges of the Harvard university). She made even more significant contributions. She studied almost 2500 Cephid variable stars. (These are another type of variable star exhibiting variation in brightness). The observations and analyses were so complex that any other astronomer would have given up. But Leavitt,through patience,determination and concentration, analyzed the periodicity of their variabilty of brightness and came up with findings which laid the foundation for measuring stellar distances from Earth. Her discovery enabled the well known astronomer Hubble to come up with discoveries on the theory of expanding universe,which,in turn led to the Big Bang theory of the universe. Because of this profound significance,she was considered for Nobel prize in the year 1924.

I am sure there are several such inspirational stories in all fields of human endeavour.

Note: These stories are picked from a book I read recently – “BIG BANG-THE ORIGIN OF THE UNIVERSE”, By Simon Singh.
It’s a very well written book and I would recommend it to anyone interested in reading books on popular science.

Published in: on June 27, 2010 at 2:41 pm  Leave a Comment  
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