Common Thread

Here are three uncommon astronomers with a common thread that runs through their story. Even better, the plot has a twist.

John Goodricke was an English astronomer credited with the discovery of the variable stars beta Lyrae and delta Cephei. More notably, he was the first to explain the variability of Algol, the Demon Star, in Perseus. He proposed that it was a binary system and we were witnessing the eclipses of one of the components by the other, which resulted in the dimming of the starlight. Goodricke tragically died very young, at the age of twenty-two, 14 days after being named a Fellow of the Royal Society. It would be a hundred years before his theory of Algol's variability would be proved.

Annie Jump Cannon also discovered variable stars, over 300 of them in her career. She was one of 'Pickering's Women' who worked at Harvard College on the Henry Draper Catalog of 230,000 stars. She is most famous for helping develop the modern stellar classification system based on spectral type. Anyone who has studied stars knows the mnemonic 'Oh be a fine girl, kiss me' representing the spectral classifications O,B,A,F,G,K,M. Among the many honors and awards she earned in her illustrious 40 year career, she was the first woman elected an officer of the American Astronomical Society.

Henrietta Swan Leavitt worked tirelessly for years examining the photographic plates of the Harvard College Observatory. In the process of this work, she discovered and observed the variations in brightness of thousands of variable stars in images of the Magellanic Clouds. Many of these turned out to be Cepheid variables, named for Goodricke's delta Cephei, the prototype of this class of variable star. Leavitt discovered the relationship between the absolute magnitude and the period of these Cepheid variables. The brighter stars had longer periods and the fainter stars had shorter periods. This period-luminosity relationship formed the basis for one of the most important astronomical yardsticks for measuring the distance to stars, eventually proving that Andromeda and other galaxies were indeed island universes much farther away than previously imagined.

Yes, they were all impressive, intelligent people. Yes, they were all astronomers. Yes, they all were involved in variable star research and discovery. But what you probably didn't know is they achieved all this in spite of being deaf.


Geminijk said...

Very neat facts. Thanks for sharing! Kudos to Annie and Henrietta for also overcoming the gender challenges they most certainly faced in those days. Its a shame, but I have read that woman's contributions in astronomy were often disregarded or shunned by the male dominated field. Stupid, but it happened.

A Sky Full of Stars said...

I didn't know that Cannon and Leavitt were deaf. And that's a actually a good thing in a world of so many prejudices.

Geminijk makes a good point about women in astronomy. Consider Jocelyn Bell or Caroline Herschel. Certainly, both received "nods," but it was the men with whom they worked who received the accolades.

Mike Simonsen said...

I just happened to stumble across this information while researching my 'women in astronomy' blogs. I plan to write several pieces about these incredible pioneering women of the 19th and early 20th century, and the prejudices they overcame with sheer determination and a good dose of brilliance.
For the record, I found two more astronomers who were deaf or partially deaf while doing this research. Robert Grant Aitken, who calculated orbits of double stars, comets and satellites of planets; and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a Russian scientists and pioneer in rocket science and astronautics. Both have craters on the Moon named after them.