November 17, 2018

Review: Miss Leavitt’s Stars by George Johnson.

An outstanding read!

Sometimes, the greatest discoveries in astronomy can come from those willing to interpret the data in a new way. Just such a paradigm shifting discovery was the result of the diligent work of one Henrietta Swan Leavitt, the subject of a biography by George Johnson which in turn is the topic of this weeks’ review, Miss Leavitt’s Stars out from Norton/Atlas Books.

Miss Leavitt worked in the early 1890’s at the Harvard College Observatory meticulously cataloguing the brightness of variable stars on the piles of glass plates taken as part of early photographic sky surveys. This was an era when few scientific research positions were open to women, and a “computer” was not something that fit in your smart phone, but “one who computes”. Under the employ of astronomer Charles Pickering, Miss Leavitt’s computing contemporaries also included Williamina Fleming and Annie Jump Canon. The work must have been tedious as these women poured over glass plates examining tiny specks of light hour after hour… for this, Miss Leavitt and her co-workers were paid $10.50 a week.

But a true breakthrough was to come as Henrietta Leavitt began to pour over new survey plates that arrived from Harvard’s Arequipa observatory site in Peru. Miss Leavitt began to notice a periodic luminosity relationship between certain types of stars that we now know of as Cepheid variables, a crucial “standard candle” still used today in the measurement of galactic distances.  “Henrietta’s Law” made possible the measurement of the distances to the Large & Small Magellanic Clouds. Further discoveries by Edwin Hubble of Cepheids in the Andromeda galaxy in the 1920’s using the 100”-inch Hooker telescope gave proof that our universe is expanding and comprises more than our single galaxy. It’s amazing to think that in less than a centuries’ time our perspective on the universe has expanded immeasurably, largely because of the work of women like Miss Leavitt. Astronomer Harlow Shapely initially disputed the extra-galactic hypothesis, arguing that these fuzzy spirals were merely proto-nebulae in our own galaxy.

Miss Leavitt’s Stars reads like a good scientific mystery novel, patiently building on ideas such as parallax and just how modern astronomical distance scales were constructed over time. Humble and dedicated to the tasks at hand, little exists in Miss Leavitt’s own words on her thoughts and feelings towards the epochal discoveries she made; instead, the author re-constructs her life from the journals of those who knew her. Brief glimpses of her passion are seen in such quips as “We shall never understand it until we find a way to send up a net and fetch the thing down!” As she refers to the mysteries of the pulsating star Beta Lyrae.  Pickering measured a particular computing task in terms of “kilo-girl-hours,” and astrophysics wouldn’t be the same today without the long hours and insight put in by Henrietta Swan Leavitt. Miss Leavitt passed away on December 12th, 1921, just prior to Hubble’s groundbreaking discoveries. Her estate, listed in the book, came to exactly $314.91. She was considered for a nomination in 1926 for the Nobel Prize in Physics until the committee learned of her passing some years earlier.

Do give Miss Leavitt’s Stars a read for a fascinating tale of astrophysical discovery. I could see this one on a High School curriculum reading list, as it covers several key ideas that are crucial to astronomy today. We owe Miss Leavitt and her hard working companions their just due!

 

Trackbacks

  1. [...] examined by ‘Mk-1 eyeball,’ and enabled early astronomers such as Annie Jump Cannon and Henrietta Swan Leavitt to categorize stars by color and temperature and identify standard distance candles known as [...]

  2. [...] examined by ‘Mk-1 eyeball,’ and enabled early astronomers such as Annie Jump Cannon and Henrietta Swan Leavitt to categorize stars by color and temperature and identify standard distance candles known as [...]

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