Women and the Stars


Women and the Stars

What’s your passion? The certain something you would do all day long if left to your own devices; if life did not throw all sorts of demands at you: mortgage, work, living costs: responsibilities.

It’s a tough question isn’t it? There’s something unsettling about it: unnerving, throws us off course a little. Why? I think it’s because all too often we no longer know what real passion is.  Sure, we’ve heard about it, seen it in the movies and if we’re lucky have felt it once or twice; but, the tendency to disconnect with that part of us I call passion-central grows exponentially as we age. As if growing older is the great destroyer of passion leaving only the remnants of a once felt need or desire. There’s nothing worse than being asked this question and not having an answer: even though we have probably jumped into our brains and sorted through the multi-coloured tabs like a Pentium Processor looking for it.

But no matter what, even if our processors cannot find the answers straight away, I believe that inside each of us there is an abiding sense of passion; sometimes we just haven’t had an opportunity to identify it or listen out for it. My grandmother has another word for passion: she calls it “fire in the belly” – now, maybe that’s a better way of putting it: What puts the fire in your belly?

I believe it is this wonderful ingredient passion that helps create pioneers: the ones who lead the way, the trail blazers who dared to identify, listen to and follow their dreams: saw a chance: took it. And, it is through their discoveries of new worlds and new ways of being that have in turn allowed us to pursue our dreams: a little like stepping upon their shoulders, peeping into the space ahead and daring to dream of something else.

In the 1880s a renowned astronomer called Edward Pickering embarked on a monumental project: to catalogue photographic plates that captured the spectrum of every star in the night sky.  Pickering, the Director of the Harvard College Observatory, had raised quite a lot of money from various donors to fund the study but what he didn’t have was help, or labour.

At that time, opportunities for women of any description were limited.  And since Pickering’s helpers did not need to be astronomers he decided to hire women.  The work these women carried out involved complex mathematical operations: the new workers were called computers. Also known as “Pickering’s harem” a derogatory term applied to this team of intelligent, precise women who did their job well but worked for as little as 25 cents an hour. 

Being women of intelligent mind and dedicated to their roles, some of the “computers” swiftly expanded their tasks and became respected researchers in the field: eventually making lasting contributions of their own in the field of astronomy. 

Their passion and dedication unlocked a much closed-door to professional astronomy for the generations of women that followed.  One of the women, Annie Jump Canon, developed an easy-to-remember system still used today for classifying star spectra, whilst, Henrietta Swan Leavitt discovered the period-luminosity relationship of Cepheid variable stars-stars that brighten and fade with a regular pulse-which can be used to calculate stellar distances. Such a discovery deserves recognition and Leavitt’s contributions were so that a moon crater was named after her. However, these women worked tirelessly and despite their successes were not treated equally; they were paid far less than their male predecessors but despite the restrictions placed upon them in the province of men, despite the odds, it was the fire in their belly that drove them, compelled them to experience more than society would allow them. As a collective they broke a science gender barrier that would see Valentina Tereshkova become the first women in space when in 1963 she spent three days orbiting Earth.

These are the giants on which our passions, hopes and dreams stand upon.

I’ll have some of that fire please.