Pioneering Astronomer Maria Mitchell on Science and Life: Timeless Wisdom from Her Diaries
“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.”
By Maria Popova
Trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818–June 28, 1889) played an enormous and lasting role in paving the way for women in science. The first recognized female astronomer in America and the first woman elected, unanimously, to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Mitchell (whose first name is pronounced, unlike mine, mə-RYE-əh) is also considered the first woman employed for a non-domestic specialized skill by the U.S. federal government. She was paid $300 a year for her job as a “computer of Venus” for the United States Nautical Almanac, a mathematically heavy endeavor requiring that she synthesize complex calculations into charts that predicted Venus’s position in the sky for years ahead — information that sailors all over the world used for critical celestial navigation. A champion of civil rights and women’s education, Mitchell reached worldwide celebrity by the time she was forty. Her brilliant mind and scientific genius were eclipsed only by her enormous kindness and her unrelenting humility.
On October 31, 1853, Mitchell writes in her diary:
People have to learn sometimes not only how much the heart, but how much the head, can bear.
(More than half a century later, Zelda Fitzgerald would come to echo the lament in her own private writings.)
A month later, she writes:
There is said to be no up or down in creation, but I think the world must be low, for people who keep themselves constantly before it do a great deal of stooping!
In September of 1854, her journal bespeaks her remarkable work ethic — of which Tchaikovsky and Jack White would be proud, as would Isabel Allende, E. B. White, and Chuck Close — coupled with her keen self-awareness:
I made observations for three hours last night, and am almost ill to-day from fatigue; still I have worked all day, trying to reduce the places, and mean to work hard again to-night.
The best that can be said of my life so far is that it has been industrious, and the best that can be said of me is that I have not pretended to what I was not.
On October 17, 1854, as she observes the way her computations reveal both how much she knows and how much she has yet to learn, Mitchell marvels:
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.
Will it really unroll to us at some future time? Aside from the gratification of the affections in another world, that of the intellect must be great if it is enlarged and its desires are the same.
Like Ptolemy, Mitchell finds enormous revelry and transcendence in astronomy — something Carl Sagan would come to echo more than a century later in his meditation on science and spirituality. Mitchell writes:
One gets attached (if the term may be used) to certain midnight apparitions. The Aurora Borealis is always a pleasant companion; a meteor seems to come like a messenger from departed spirits; and the blossoming of trees in the moonlight becomes a sight looked for with pleasure.
Aside from the study of astronomy, there is the same enjoyment in a night upon the housetop, with the stars, as in the midst of other grand scenery; there is the same subdued quiet and grateful seriousness; a calm to the troubled spirit, and a hope to the desponding.
Nothing comes out more clearly in astronomical observations than the immense activity of the universe. ‘All change, no loss, ’tis revolution all.’
In fact, Mitchell harbored enormous admiration for the early astronomers, framed by her appreciation of how knowledge evolves:
They were wonderful men, the early astronomers. That was a great conception, which now seems to us so simple, that the earth turns upon its axis, and a still greater one that it revolves about the sun (to show this last was worth a man’s lifetime, and it really almost cost the life of Galileo). Somehow we are ready to think that they had a wider field than we for speculation, that truth being all unknown it was easier to take the first step in its paths. But is the region of truth limited? Is it not infinite?… We know a few things which were once hidden, and being known they seem easy; but there are the flashings of the Northern Lights — ‘Across the lift they start and shift;’ there is the conical zodiacal beam seen so beautifully in the early evenings of spring and the early mornings of autumn; there are the startling comets, whose use is all unknown; there are the brightening and flickering variable stars, whose cause is all unknown; and the meteoric showers — and for all of these the reasons are as clear as for the succession of day and night; they lie just beyond the daily mist of our minds, but our eyes have not yet pierced through it.
Mitchell — who, by the end of her life, greatly prided herself on having earned a salary for 50 uninterrupted years — had her first job as a librarian at Nantucket’s legendary Atheneum. There, she further cultivated the love of books amidst which she had grown up. In a diary entry from January of 1855, she captures with remarkable eloquence the greatest — and, today, tragically forgotten — responsibility of the true librarian (or writer, or editor, or curator): To invite people beyond the frontiers of their existing knowledge, to elevate them, to broaden their curiosity rather than catering to their familiar wants:
I do not suppose that such works as those issued by the Smithsonian regents are appreciated by all who turn them over, but the ignorant learn that such things exist; they perceive that a higher cultivation than theirs is in the world, and they are stimulated to strive after greater excellence. So I steadily advocate, in purchasing books for the Atheneum, the lifting of the people. ‘Let us buy, not such books as the people want, but books just above their wants, and they will reach up to take what is put out for them.’
“The most important knowledge is that which guides the way you lead your life,” mused Seneca in Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom, and Mitchell articulates a parallel sentiment in September of 1855:
To know what one ought to do is certainly the hardest thing in life. ‘Doing’ is comparatively easy; but there are no laws for your individual case — yours is one of a myriad.
During her European tour in 1858, Mitchell visits England’s Greenwich Observatory and presages Brian Cox’s recent meditation on science as a prerequisite for democracy and progress, and observes:
It is singular what a quiet motive-power Science is, the breath of a nation’s progress.
To be sure, Mitchell’s interests — as is typical of most great scientists — spanned well beyond science. She had a profound appreciation for beauty, poetry, and art. As this charming gripe from a diary entry during the same visit indicates, she was also a budding book design critic and indignant defender of literature’s sanctity:
I was vexed when I saw some of our most miserable novels, bound in showy yellow and red, exposed for sale. A friend told me that they had copied from the cheap publications of America. It may be so, but they have outdone us in the cheapness of the material and the showy covers. I never saw yellow and red together on any American book.
Indeed, she saw the appreciation of art as a kind of mental discipline and spiritual hygiene:
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 also a keen observer of human nature. In visiting with a revered elderly Cambridge astronomer who was unable to articulate what steps precipitated his discovery of a new planet, Mitchell observes:
It is always so — you cannot get a man of genius to explain steps, he leaps.
In another journal entry, she considers what modern psychology has since demonstrated and Anaïs Nin has eloquently echoed — the notion that our character and sense of self is a constantly evolving mosaic rather than a static sculpture:
The same individual is not the same at all times; so that between two individuals there is a mean or middle individual, and each individual has a mean or middle self, which is not the man of to-day, nor the man of yesterday, nor the man of to-morrow; but a middle man among these different selves….
In visiting Italy and reflecting on Galileo’s legacy, Mitchell considers the friction between science and religion — a friction bemoaned before her by Galileo himself and after her by Neil deGrasee Tyson and countless contemporary thinkers:
I know of no picture in the history of religion more weakly pitiable than that of the Holy Church trembling before Galileo, and denouncing him because he found in the Book of Nature truths not stated in their own Book of God — forgetting that the Book of Nature is also a Book of God.
It seems to be difficult for any one to take in the idea that two truths cannot conflict.
Mitchell herself found enormous beauty and revelry in her science. In an entry from February of 1853, she writes:
I am just learning to notice the different colors of the stars, and already begin to have a new enjoyment. Betelgeuse is strikingly red, while Rigel is yellow. There is something of the same pleasure in noticing the hues that there is in looking at a collection of precious stones, or at a flower-garden in autumn. Blue stars I do not yet see, and but little lilac except through the telescope.
Two years later, she returns to this sacred source of colorful awe:
I swept around for comets about an hour, and then I amused myself with noticing the varieties of color. I wonder that I have so long been insensible to this charm in the skies, the tints of the different stars are so delicate in their variety. … What a pity that some of our manufacturers shouldn’t be able to steal the secret of dyestuffs from the stars, and astonish the feminine taste by new brilliancy in fashion.
Still, Mitchell’s loyalties remained unflinchingly rooted in the heart of science. Another journal entry:
All their book learning in astronomy should be mathematical. The astronomy which is not mathematical is what is so ludicrously called “Geography of the Heavens” — is not astronomy at all.
After the Civil War, Mitchell was invited to teach at the prestigious new Vassar College, where she was the only woman on the faculty. Frustrated with the conservative mindset of even an institution as liberal as Vassar, Mitchell writes in her diary on October 31, 1866:
We wait and ask for precedent. If the earth had waited for a precedent, it never would have turned on its axis!
Mitchell laments in a diary entry from 1866:
The phrase ‘popular science’ has in itself a touch of absurdity. That knowledge which is popular is not scientific.
She later adds:
One of the unfavorable results of the attempt to popularize science is this: the reader of popular scientific books is very likely to think that he understands the science itself, when he merely understands what some writer says about science.
In a sentiment Feynman himself would come to echo in his meditation on the role of scientific culture in modern society, Mitchell laments:
This ignorance of the masses leads to a misconception in two ways; the little that a scientist can do, they do not understand, — they suppose him to be godlike in his capacity, and they do not see results; they overrate him and they underrate him — they underrate his work.
And yet Mitchell did very much believe in inviting “the masses” into the whimsy of science:
It is always difficult to teach the man of the people that natural phenomena belong as much to him as to scientific people.
But perhaps she saw the challenge of engaging with science as one of will, not acumen — in another diary entry, she writes:
Great is the self-denial of those who follow science.
In 1871, she extols the critical role of imagination in science:
We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry.
Mitchell brings her generosity of spirit, her humility, and optimistic curiosity to her travels, debunking the American-abroad stereotype. Visiting Prussia, she writes:
I try, when I am abroad, to see in what they are superior to us, — not in what they are inferior.
Our great idea is, of course, freedom and self-government; probably in that we are ahead of the rest of the world, although we are certainly not so much in advance as we suppose; but we are sufficiently inflated with our own greatness to let that subject take care of itself when we travel. We travel to learn; and I have never been in any country where they did not do something better than we do it, think some thoughts better than we think, catch some inspiration from heights above our own — as in the art of Italy, the learning of England, and the philosophy of Germany.
In her typical fashion of observing a small circumstance and extrapolating from it a grand truth about life, Mitchell writes while encountering travel difficulties due to two warring railroads in Russia:
War, no matter where or when it occurs, means ignorance and stupidity.
And yet Mitchell was a relentless optimist when it came to the capacity of the human mind and spirit. In a diary entry, chronicling her observation of the Denver solar eclipse in 1878, she writes:
We have a hunger of the mind which asks for knowledge of all around us, and the more we gain, the more is our desire; the more we see, the more are we capable of seeing.
Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals is absolutely fantastic in its entirety, a remarkable glimpse of a remarkable mind that shaped modern society in ways we’re only just beginning to fully realize. Do yourself a favor and grab the free download.
UPDATE: Find more of Maria Mitchell, her unusual life, and her far-reaching legacy, in my book Figuring.
Published August 1, 2013