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Posts Tagged ‘Maria Mitchell’

01 NOVEMBER, 2013

How to Watch the Un-sunlike Sun: Solar Eclipse Tips from Pioneering Astronomer Maria Mitchell

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“It is always difficult to teach the man of the people that natural phenomena belong as much to him as to scientific people.”

Rarely does the dated phrase “heavenly bodies” come more vibrantly alive than in the event of a solar eclipse, when the Moon passes in front of the Sun from the vantage point of our planet and leaves our earthy hearts astir with awe for a few fleeting moments of transcendent presence with “the heavens” and their majestic motion. But to observe a solar eclipse is itself an art, one to which pioneering astronomer and reconstructionist Maria Mitchell was particularly privy.

In Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals (public library; free download) — which also gave us the her timeless insight on science and life, the story of her seminal comet discovery, and her reflections on education and women in science — Mitchell recounts with her characteristic blend of good-natured wit and wisdom her experience of observing the 1878 solar eclipse, for which she traveled to Denver along with several of her former female students:

In the eclipse of this year, the dark shadow fell first on the United States thirty-eight degrees west of Washington, and moved towards the south-east, a circle of darkness one hundred and sixteen miles in diameter; circle overlapping circle of darkness until it could be mapped down like a belt.

[…]

Looking along this dark strip on the map, each astronomer selected his bit of darkness on which to locate the light of science.

But for the distance from the large cities of the country, Colorado seemed to be a most favorable part of the shadow; it was little subject to storms, and reputed to be enjoyable in climate and abundant in hospitality.

My party chose Denver, Col. I had a friend who lived in Denver, and she was visiting me. I sought her at once, and with fear and trembling asked, ‘Have you a bit of land behind your house in Denver where I could put up a small telescope?’ ‘Six hundred miles,’ was the laconic reply!

I felt that the hospitality of the Rocky mountains was at my feet. Space and time are so unconnected! For an observation which would last two minutes forty seconds, I was offered six hundred miles, after a journey of thousands.

Mitchell goes on to extract from the experience some practical advice on the art-science of such heavenly observation:

Persons who observe an eclipse of the sun always try to do the impossible. They seem to consider it a solemn duty to see the first contact of sun and moon. The moon, when seen in the daytime, looks like a small faint cloud; as it approaches the sun it becomes wholly unseen; and an observer tries to see when this unseen object touches the glowing disc of the sun.

When we look at any other object than the sun, we stimulate our vision. A good observer will remain in the dark for a short time before he makes a delicate observation on a faint star, and will then throw a cap over his head to keep out strong lights.

When we look at the sun, we at once try to deaden its light. We protect our eyes by dark glasses—the less of sunlight we can get the better. We calculate exactly at what point the moon will touch the sun, and we watch that point only. The exact second by the chronometer when the figure of the moon touches that of the sun, is always noted. It is not only valuable for the determination of longitude, but it is a check on our knowledge of the moon’s motions. Therefore, we try for the impossible.

She goes on to describe the specific process of her team’s observation — one made all the more impressive by the fact that these were all women scientists in an age when the science education of girls was practically nonexistent:

One of our party, a young lady from California, was placed at the chronometer. She was to count aloud the seconds, to which the three others were to listen. Two others, one a young woman from Missouri, who brought with her a fine telescope, and another from Ohio, besides myself, stood at the three telescopes. A fourth, from Illinois, was stationed to watch general effects, and one special artist, pencil in hand, to sketch views.

Absolute silence was imposed upon the whole party a few minutes before each phenomenon.

Of course we began full a minute too soon, and the constrained position was irksome enough, for even time is relative, and the minute of suspense is longer than the hour of satisfaction. [Footnote: As the computed time for the first contact drew near, the breath of the counter grew short, and the seconds were almost gasped and threatened to become inaudible, when Miss Mitchell, without moving her eye from the tube of the telescope, took up the counting, and continued until the young lady recovered herself, which she did immediately.]

What followed was a singular blend of rigorous precision and the kind of transcendence in which Carl Sagan found the spirituality of science. Mitchell writes:

The moon, so white in the sky, becomes densely black when it is closely ranging with the sun, and it shows itself as a black notch on the burning disc when the eclipse begins.

[…]

As totality approached, all again took their positions. The corona, which is the ‘glory’ seen around the sun, was visible at least thirteen minutes before totality; each of the party took a look at this, and then all was silent, only the count, on and on, of the young woman at the chronometer. When totality came, even that ceased.

How still it was!

As the last rays of sunlight disappeared, the corona burst out all around the sun, so intensely bright near the sun that the eye could scarcely bear it; extending less dazzlingly bright around the sun for the space of about half the sun’s diameter, and in some directions sending off streamers for millions of miles.

It was now quick work. Each observer at the telescopes gave a furtive glance at the un-sunlike sun, moved the dark eye-piece from the instrument, replaced it by a more powerful white glass, and prepared to see all that could be seen in two minutes forty seconds. They must note the shape of the corona, its color, its seeming substance, and they must look all around the sun for the ‘interior planet.’

But Mitchell’s most prescient and timeless reflection in observing the eclipse speaks poetically to the spirit of today’s “citizen science”:

It is always difficult to teach the man of the people that natural phenomena belong as much to him as to scientific people.

Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals remains a fantastic read and is available as a free Kindle download, as well as in other free digital formats on Project Gutenberg.

Public domain images via Flickr Commons

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01 OCTOBER, 2013

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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22 AUGUST, 2013

Pioneering 19th-Century Astronomer Maria Mitchell on Education and Women in Science

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“No woman should say, ‘I am but a woman!’ But a woman! What more can you ask to be?”

“We are women studying together,” legendary astronomer and reconstructionist Maria Mitchell said to the senior class in astronomy when it entered upon its last year at Vassar College in 1876, where Mitchell had begun teaching after the Civil War as the only woman on the faculty. These seemingly simple and unremarkable words sprang from a remarkable determination that would come to pave the way for women in science. In fact, Mitchell’s strides towards equality in education are unparalleled by any other figure of the era. From Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals (public library; free download) — which also gave us the beloved astronomer’s timeless wisdom on science and life — comes a fascinating record of Mitchell’s witty, unrelenting spirit and the conviction with which she steered the wheel of science education.

Maria Mitchell. Portrait by Lisa Congdon for The Reconstructionists project.

To get an idea of just how radical the notion of women’s education was in the era’s cultural context, here is an anecdote, equal parts amusing and appalling, that Mitchell relays about one particularly anxious mother who placed her daughter in the astronomer’s care at Vassar:

One lady, who seemed to be a bright woman, got me by the button and held me a long time—she wanted this, that, and the other impracticable thing for the girl, and told me how honest her daughter was; then with a flood of tears she said, ‘But she is not a Christian. I know I put her into good hands when I put her here.’ (Then I was strongly tempted to avow my Unitarianism.) Miss W., who was standing by, said, ‘Miss Lyman will be an excellent spiritual adviser,’ and we both looked very serious; when the mother wiped her weeping eyes and said, ‘And, Miss Mitchell, will you ask Miss Lyman to insist that my daughter shall curl her hair? She looks very graceful when her hair is curled, and I want it insisted upon,’ I made a note of it with my pencil, and as I happened to glance at Miss W. the corners of her mouth were twitching, upon which I broke down and laughed. The mother bore it very good-naturedly, but went on. She wanted to know who would work some buttonholes in her daughter’s dress that was not quite finished, etc., and it all ended in her inviting me to make her a visit.

And yet Mitchell had extraordinary clarity of vision when it came to education in all its dimensions, one she eloquently — if sternly — articulated to her pupils:

You cannot study anything persistently for years without becoming learned, and although I would not hold reputation up to you as a very high object of ambition, it is a wayside flower which you are sure to have catch at your skirts.

Whatever apology other women may have for loose, ill-finished work, or work not finished at all, you will have none.

When you leave Vassar College, you leave it the best educated women in the world. Living a little outside of the college, beyond the reach of the little currents that go up and down the corridors, I think I am a fairer judge of your advantages than you can be yourselves; and when I say you will be the best educated women in the world, I do not mean the education of text-books, and class-rooms, and apparatus, only, but that broader education which you receive unconsciously, that higher teaching which comes to you, all unknown to the givers, from daily association with the noble-souled women who are around you.

Mitchell confronted the issue of women’s education head-on, writing in her diary on January 3, 1868:

Meeting Dr. Hill at a private party, I asked him if Harvard College would admit girls in fifty years. He said one of the most conservative members of the faculty had said, within sixteen days, that it would come about in twenty years.* I asked him if I could go into one of Professor Peirce’s recitations. He said there was nothing to keep me out, and that he would let me know when they came.

At eleven A.M., the next Friday, I stood at Professor Peirce’s door. As the professor came in I went towards him, and asked him if I might attend his lecture. He said ‘Yes.’ I said ‘Can you not say “I shall be happy to have you”?’ and he said ‘I shall be happy to have you,’ but he didn’t look happy!

[…]

The professor was polite enough to ask us into the senior class, but I had an engagement. I asked him if a young lady presented herself at the door he could keep her out, and he said ‘No, and I shouldn’t.’ I told him I would send some of my girls.

* Harvard founded Radcliffe College, its sister school for women, in 1879 — but female scholars remained segregated there until 1999, when the two schools finally merged and Harvard-Harvard began to “admit girls” more than a century after the professor’s prediction.

Upon visiting Glasgow during her European trip five years later, Mitchell notes the dismal state of women’s education there, emblematic of the era’s general disposition — even, most tragically, of the era’s women “in power” themselves:

‘The Glasgow College for Girls.’ Seeing a sign of this sort, I rang the door-bell of the house to which it was attached, entered, and was told the lady was at home. As I waited for her, I took up the ‘Prospectus,’ and it was enough, — ‘music, dancing, drawing, needlework, and English’ were the prominent features, and the pupils were children. All well enough, — but why call it a college?

When the lady superintendent came in, I told her that I had supposed it was for more advanced students, and she said, ‘Oh, it is for girls up to twenty; one supposes a girl is finished by twenty.’

I asked, as modestly as I could, ‘Have you any pupils in Latin and mathematics?’ and she said, ‘No, it’s for girls, you know. Dr. M. hopes we shall have some mathematics next year.’ ‘And,’ I asked, ‘some Latin?’ ‘Yes, Dr. M. hopes we shall have some Latin; but I confess I believe Latin and mathematics all bosh; give them modern languages and accomplishments. I suppose your school is for professional women.’

I told her no; that the daughters of our wealthiest people demand learning; that it would scarcely be considered ‘good society’ when the women had neither Latin nor mathematics.

‘Oh, well,’ she said, ‘they get married here so soon.’

When I asked her if they had lady teachers, she said ‘Oh, no [as if that would ruin the institution]; nothing but first-class masters.’

It was clear that the women taught the needlework.

But the very faculties that suited women for needlework, Mitchell firmly believed, were also what primed them to be great scientists should they choose to pursue that. In another diary entry, she puts the issue in wonderfully poetic terms:

Nothing comes out more clearly in astronomical observations than the immense activity of the universe. ‘All change, no loss, ’tis revolution all.’

Observations of this kind are peculiarly adapted to women. Indeed, all astronomical observing seems to be so fitted. The training of a girl fits her for delicate work. The touch of her fingers upon the delicate screws of an astronomical instrument might become wonderfully accurate in results; a woman’s eyes are trained to nicety of color. The eye that directs a needle in the delicate meshes of embroidery will equally well bisect a star with the spider web of the micrometer. Routine observations, too, dull as they are, are less dull than the endless repetition of the same pattern in crochet-work.

It comes as unsurprising testament to Mitchell’s character, then, that shortly thereafter, she makes a resolution that would guide the rest of her life and encapsulate her greatest legacy:

Resolved, in case of my outliving father and being in good health, to give my efforts to the intellectual culture of women, without regard to salary; if possible, connect myself with liberal Christian institutions, believing, as I do, that happiness and growth in this life are best promoted by them, and that what is good in this life is good in any life.

This undying faith in “the intellectual culture of women” comes most vibrantly ablaze in a diary entry from 1874:

For women there are, undoubtedly, great difficulties in the path, but so much the more to overcome. First, no woman should say, ‘I am but a woman!’ But a woman! What more can you ask to be?

Born a woman — born with the average brain of humanity — born with more than the average heart — if you are mortal, what higher destiny could you have? No matter where you are nor what you are, you are a power — your influence is incalculable; personal influence is always underrated by the person. We are all centers of spheres — we see the portions of the sphere above us, and we see how little we affect it. We forget the part of the sphere around and before us — it extends just as far every way.

The “great gain,” she writes, would be freedom of thought:

Women, more than men, are bound by tradition and authority. What the father, the brother, the doctor, and the minister have said has been received undoubtingly. Until women throw off this reverence for authority they will not develop. When they do this, when they come to truth through their investigations, when doubt leads them to discovery, the truth which they get will be theirs, and their minds will work on and on unfettered.

Mitchell bemoaned the disconnect between academic honors, which reward rote memorization, and actual learning — a challenge that remains unsolved even today.

The whole system is demoralizing and foolish. Girls study for prizes, and not for learning, when ‘honors’ are at the end. The unscholarly motive is wearing. If they studied for sound learning, the cheer which would come with every day’s gain would be health-preserving.

Though Mitchell opposed standardized testing and believed in more dimensional conceptions of intelligence long before it was fashionable to do so — “You cannot mark a human mind, because there is no intellectual unit,” she remarked — she was a fierce champion of the value of reading, particularly of the meticulous “mastication” of intellectual food:

My students used to say that my way of teaching was like that of the man who said to his son, ‘There are the letters of the English alphabet — go into that corner and learn them.’

It is not exactly my way, but I do think, as a general rule, that teachers talk too much! A book is a very good institution! To read a book, to think it over, and to write out notes is a useful exercise; a book which will not repay some hard thought is not worth publishing. The fashion of lecturing is becoming a rage; the teacher shows herself off, and she does not try enough to develop her pupils.

The greatest object in educating is to give a right habit of study….

She was also a proponent of intellectual and creative well-roundedness, the very wide interests that mark most successful scientists:

Health of body is not only an accompaniment of health of mind, but is the cause; the converse may be true,—that health of mind causes health of body; but we all know that intellectual cheer and vivacity act upon the mind. If the gymnastic exercise helps the mind, the concert or the theatre improves the health of the body.

Mitchell was an enormous champion of endowment, both financial and intellectual, and noted the brokenness of education funding more than a century before today’s student debt crisis:

A genius should wait some years to prove her genius.

Endow the already established institution with money. Endow the woman who shows genius with time.

[…]

When you aid a teacher, you improve the education of your children. It is a wonder that teachers work as well as they do. I never look at a group of them without using, mentally, the expression, ‘The noble army of martyrs’!

The chemist should have had a laboratory, and the observatory should have had an astronomer; but we are too apt to bestow money where there is no man, and to find a man where there is no money.

When she visits Russia, Mitchell remarks upon the divergent cultural attitudes towards supporting education:

St. Petersburg is about the size of Philadelphia [but] there are thousands of women studying science in St. Petersburg. How many thousand women do you suppose are studying science in the whole State of New York? I doubt if there are five hundred.

Then again, as to language. It is rare, even among the common people, to meet one who speaks one language only. If you can speak no Russian, try your poor French, your poor German, or your good English. You may be sure that the shopkeeper will answer in one or another, and even the drosky-driver picks up a little of some one of them.

Of late, the Russian government has founded a medical school for women, giving them advantages which are given to men, and the same rank when they graduate; the czar himself contributed largely to the fund.

One wonders, in a country so rich as ours, that so few men and women gratify their tastes by founding scholarships and aids for the tuition of girls — it must be such a pleasant way of spending money.

Her impression is further confirmed when she shares a train ride with a Russian mother and her daughters on a trip across the country. Mitchell’s conversation with the young girls is profoundly telling, at once tragic and hopeful:

‘Are you interested in questions of government?’ They replied, ‘All Russian women are interested in questions of that sort.’ How many American women are interested in questions concerning government?

These young girls knew exactly what questions to ask about Vassar College, — the course of study, the diploma, the number of graduates, etc. The eldest said: ‘We are at once excited when we hear of women studying; we have longed for opportunities to study all our lives. Our father was the engineer of the first Russian railroad, and he spent two years in America.’

I confess to a feeling of mortification when one of these girls asked me, ‘Did you ever read the translation of a Russian book?’ and I was obliged to answer ‘No.’ This girl had read American books in the original. They were talking Russian, French, German, and English, and yet mourning over their need of education; and in general education, especially in that of women, I think we must be in advance of them.

One of these sisters, forgetting my ignorance, said something to me in Russian. The other laughed. ‘What did she say?’ I asked. The eldest replied, ‘She asked you to take her back with you, and educate her.’ ‘But,’ I said, ‘you read and speak your languages — the learning of the world is open to you — found your own college!’ And the young girl leaned back on the cushions, drew her mantle around her, and said, ‘We have not the energy of the American girl!’

The energy of the American girl! The rich inheritance which has come down to her from men and women who sought, in the New World, a better and higher life.

When the American girl carries her energy into the great questions of humanity, into the practical problems of life; when she takes home to her heart the interests of education, of government, and of religion, what may we not hope for our country!

Above all, however, Mitchell championed the idea of challenging convention and never ceasing to question:

There is this great danger in student life. Now, we rest all upon what Socrates said, or what Copernicus taught; how can we dispute authority which has come down to us, all established, for ages?

We must at least question it; we cannot accept anything as granted, beyond the first mathematical formulae. Question everything else.

But perhaps most telling of all was her students’ heartfelt gratitude. In May of 1889, shortly after Mitchell announced her reluctant retirement from Vassar as her health was rapidly declining, one student wrote to her, speaking for all whose lives the great astronomer and educator had touched, both directly and through her landmark cultural legacy:

In all the great wonder of life, you have given me more of what I have wanted than any other creature ever gave me. I hoped I should amount to something for your sake.

Complement Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals with pioneering astronomer Vera Rubin’s Berkeley commencement address on science and stereotypes a century after Mitchell’s heyday, when both so much and so little has changed, then revisit Mitchell’s Reconstructionists profile.

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