Brain Pickings

October 1, 1847: Miss Mitchell’s Comet and How Scientists Stand in Solidarity

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A heartening story of misfortune made right by the collective integrity of the scientific community.

Maria Mitchell was the first recognized female astronomer in America and is considered the very first woman employed for a non-domestic specialized skill by the U.S. federal government. A champion of women’s education and civil rights, she reached worldwide celebrity by the time she was forty. What catapulted her into scientific fame, however, was her discovery of the comet C/1847 T1, known today as Miss Mitchell’s Comet. Its story, a heartening tale of misfortune made right, is relayed in Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals (public library; free download) — the wonderful tome that gave us Mitchell’s timeless wisdom on science and life and the inspiring record of how she pioneered women’s education.

In 1831, when Mitchell was still a curious girl of thirteen, the King of Denmark had offered a gold medal valued at 20 ducats — a fortune by today’s standards — to the first person to discover a telescopic comet. By the time one was at last discovered on October 3, 1847 by the famed Italian astronomer Francesco de Vico, the king was dead — but his son, though uninterested in science, had resolved to make good on his father’s promise. But just as the new king was readying to grant de Vico the prized medal, it turned out that Maria Mitchell — a young woman on the small island of Nantucket across the Atlantic — had discovered the same comet two days earlier, on October 1.

That fateful October evening, Mitchell’s parents were hosting a party. When darkness fell, Maria slipped out, as she did every night, and ran to her tiny telescope to gaze at the cosmos. Before long, she ran back to the parlor in cautious excitement and told her father, who had gotten Maria interested in astronomy, that she thought she’d seen a comet. He rushed upstairs, stationed himself at the telescope, and soon declared that the object his daughter had seen was indeed a comet. Maria, with her characteristic caution, thought it best not to announce the discovery until they had observed the object longer in order to be absolutely certain — but her father intuited the importance of the occasion and immediately wrote to the head of the Harvard observatory. The weather, however, played a cruel joke — storms delayed the departure of the mail until October 3. That day, on the other side of the Atlantic, de Vico had claimed the discovery and, along with it, the gold medal.

But in a testament to the collective integrity of the scientific community, as soon as the letter arrived on October 7, Edward Everett, the president of Harvard, took it upon himself to right the injustice, urging the Chargé d’Affaires of the United States at Copenhagen that “it would be a pity that she should lose the medal on a mere technical punctilio.” (Ironically, twenty years later another Harvard leader would tell Mitchell that the university was decades away from accepting women.) Soon, news spread across Europe and Mitchell’s priority of discovery was widely welcomed, with even de Vico himself acknowledging it. The King of Denmark eventually reversed his ruling and awarded the medal to Mitchell instead. The following year, she became the first woman elected, unanimously, to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Portrait of Maria Mitchell by Lisa Congdon for The Reconstructionists project. Click for details.

But Mitchell, as celebrated for her scientific genius as for kindness and reflective wisdom, didn’t rest on her laurels. Instead of reveling in her accomplishments, she reveled in the beauty of not-knowing, that eternal driver of curiosity that propels all science. Writing in her diary seven years later, she beautifully articulates the notion that science is driven by ignorance, which is a source of infinite wonder rather than a deficiency:

I have just gone over my comet computations again, and it is humiliating to perceive how very little more I know than I did seven years ago when I first did this kind of work. To be sure, I have only once in the time computed a parabolic orbit; but it seems to me that I know no more in general. I think I am a little better thinker, that I take things less upon trust, but at the same time I trust myself much less. The world of learning is so broad, and the human soul is so limited in power! We reach forth and strain every nerve, but we seize only a bit of the curtain that hides the infinite from us.

Complement with this celebration of Mitchell’s life and legacy in science and education.

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