The Little-Known Female Scientists Who Mapped 400,000 Stars Over a Century Ago: An Introduction to the “Harvard Computers”

Image via Wikimedia Commons

As team names go, the Harvard Computers has kind of an oddball ring to it, but it’s far preferable to Pickering’s Harem, as the female scientists brought in under the Harvard Observatory’s male director were collectively referred to early on in their 40-some years of service to the institution.

A possibly apocryphal story has it that Director Edward Pickering was so frustrated by his male assistants’ pokey pace in examining 1000s of photographic plates bearing images of stars spotted by telescopes in Harvard and the southern hemisphere, he declared his maid could do a better job.

If true, it was no idle threat.




In 1881, Pickering did indeed hire his maid, Williamina Fleming, to review the plates with a magnifying glass, cataloguing the brightness of stars that showed up as smudges or grey or black spots. She also calculated—aka computed—their positions, and, when possible, chemical composition, color, and temperature.

The newly single 23-year-old mother was not uneducated. She had served as a teacher for years prior to emigrating from Scotland, but when her husband abandoned her in Boston, she couldn’t afford to be fussy about the kind of employment she sought. Working at the Pickerings meant secure lodging and a small income.

Not that the promotion represented a financial windfall for Fleming and the more than 80 female computers who joined her over the next four decades. They earned between 25 to 50 cents an hour, half of what a man in the same position would have been paid.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

At one point Fleming, who as a single mother was quite aware that she was burdened with “all housekeeping cares …in addition to those of providing the means to meet their expenses,” addressed the matter of her low wages with Pickering, leaving her to vent in her diary:

I am immediately told that I receive an excellent salary as women’s salaries stand.… Does he ever think that I have a home to keep and a family to take care of as well as the men?… And this is considered an enlightened age!

Harvard certainly got its money’s worth from its female workforce when you consider that the classification systems they developed led to identification of nearly 400,000 stars.

Fleming, who became responsible for hiring her coworkers, was the first to discover white dwarfs and the Horsehead Nebula in Orion, in addition to 51 other nebulae, 10 novae, and 310 variable stars.

An impressive achievement, but another diary entry belies any glamour we might be tempted to assign:

From day to day my duties at the Observatory are so nearly alike that there will be little to describe outside ordinary routine work of measurement, examination of photographs, and of work involved in the reduction of these observations.

Pickering believed that the female computers should attend conferences and present papers, but for the most part, they were kept so busy analyzing photographic plates, they had little time left over to explore their own areas of interest, something that might have afforded them work of a more theoretical nature.

Another diary entry finds Fleming yearning to get out from under a mountain of busy work:

Looking after the numerous pieces of routine work which have to be kept progressing, searching for confirmation of objects discovered elsewhere, attending to scientific correspondence, getting material in form for publication, etc, has consumed so much of my time during the past four years that little is left for the particular investigations in which I am especially interested.

And yet the work of Fleming and other notable computers such as Henrietta Swan Leavitt and Annie Jump Cannon is still helping scientists make sense of the heavens, so much so that Harvard is seeking volunteers for Project PHaEDRA, to help transcribe their logbooks and notebooks to make them full-text searchable on the NASA Astrophysics Data System. Learn how you can get involved here.

Related Content: 

“The Matilda Effect”: How Pioneering Women Scientists Have Been Denied Recognition and Written Out of Science History

Women Scientists Launch a Database Featuring the Work of 9,000 Women Working in the Sciences

Real Women Talk About Their Careers in Science

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Surface of Mars Shown in Stunning 4K Resolution

Could you use a mental escape? Something that transports you beyond the confines of your pandemic-narrowed world? Maybe a trip to Mars will do the trick. Above and below, you can find high definition footage captured by NASA’s three Mars rovers–Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity. The footage (also contributed by JPL-CaltechMSSSCornell University and ASU) was stitched together by ElderFox Documentaries, creating what they call the most lifelike experience of being on Mars.

Safe travels.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

Also consider following Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and sharing intelligent media with your friends. Or sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

via Laughing Squid

Related Content:

Carl Sagan Presents Six Lectures on Earth, Mars & Our Solar System … For Kids (1977)

Mars Rover, Curiosity, Will Face Seven Minutes of Terror on August 5

NASA Releases a Massive Online Archive: 140,000 Photos, Videos & Audio Files Free to Search and Download

Leonard Nimoy Narrates Short Film About NASA’s Dawn: A Voyage to the Origins of the Solar System

A 400-Year-Old Ring that Unfolds to Track the Movements of the Heavens

Rings with discreet dual purpose have been in use since before the common era, when Hannibal, facing extradition, allegedly ingested the poison he kept secreted behind a gemstone on his finger. (More recently, poison rings gave rise to a popular Game of Thrones fan theory…)

Victorians prevented their most closely kept secrets—illicit love letters, perhaps? Last wills and testaments?—from falling into the wrong hands by wearing the keys to the boxes containing these items concealed in signet rings and other statement-type pieces.




A tiny concealed blade could be lethal on the finger of a skilled (and no doubt, beautiful) assassin. These days, they might be used to collect a bit of one’s attacker’s DNA.

Enter the fictional world of James Bond, and you’ll find a number of handy dandy spy rings including one that doubles as a camera, and another capable of shattering bulletproof glass with a single twist.

Armillary sphere rings like the ones in the British Museum’s collection and the Swedish Historical Museum (top) serve a more benign purpose. Folded together, the two-part outer hoop and three interior hoops give the illusion of a simple gold band. Slipped off the wearer’s finger, they can fan out into a physical model of celestial longitude and latitude.

Art historian Jessica Stewart writes that in the 17th century, rings such as the above specimen were “used by astronomers to study and make calculations. These pieces of jewelry were considered tokens of knowledge. Inscriptions or zodiac symbols were often used as decorative elements on the bands.”

The armillary sphere rings in the British Museum’s collection are made of a soft high alloy gold.

Jewelry-loving modern astronomers seeking an old school finger-based calculation tool that really works can order armillary sphere rings from Brooklyn-based designer Black Adept.

via My Modern Met

Related Content: 

How the World’s Oldest Computer Worked: Reconstructing the 2,200-Year-Old Antikythera Mechanism

A 9th Century Manuscript Teaches Astronomy by Making Sublime Pictures Out of Words

The Ancient Astronomy of Stonehenge Decoded

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She most recently appeared as a French Canadian bear who travels to New York City in search of food and meaning in Greg Kotis’ short film, L’Ourse.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

A 16th-Century Astronomy Book Featured “Analog Computers” to Calculate the Shape of the Moon, the Position of the Sun, and More

If you want to learn how the planets move, you’ll almost certainly go to one place first: Youtube. Yes, there have been plenty of worthwhile books written on the subject, and reading them will prove essential to further deepening your understanding. But videos have the capacity of motion, an undeniable benefit when motion itself is the concept under discussion. Less than twenty years into the Youtube age, we’ve already seen a good deal of innovation in the art of audiovisual explanation. But we’re also well over half a millennium into the age of the book as we know it, a time that even in its early phases saw impressive attempts to go beyond text on a page.

Take, for example, Peter Apian‘s Cosmographia, first published in 1524. A 16th-century German polymath, Apian (also known as Petrus Apianus, and born Peter Bienewitz) had a professional interest in mathematics, astronomy and cartography. At their intersection stood the subject of “cosmography” from which this impressive book takes its name, and its project of mapping the then-known universe.




“The treatise provided instruction in astronomy, geography, cartography, navigation, and instrument-making,” writes Frank Swetz at the Mathematical Association of America. “It was one of the first European books to depict and discuss North America and included movable volvelles allowing the readers to interact with and use some of the charts and instrument layouts presented.”

Pop-up book enthusiasts like Ellen Rubin will know what volvelles are; you and I may not, but if you’ve ever moved a paper wheel or slider on a page, you’ve used one. The volvelle first emerged in the medieval era, not as an amusement to liven up children’s books but as a kind of “analog computer” embedded in serious scientific works. “The volvelles make the practical nature of cosmography clear,” writes Katie Taylor at Cambridge’s Whipple Library, which holds a copy of Cosmographia. “Readers could manipulate these devices to solve problems: finding the time at different places and or one’s latitude, given the height of the Sun above the horizon.”

Apian originally included three such volvelles in Cosmographia. Later, his disciple Gemma Frisius, a Dutch physician, instrument maker and mathematician, produced expanded editions that included another. “In all its forms,” writes Swetz, “the book was extremely popular in the 16th century, going through 30 printings in 14 languages.” Despite the book’s success, it’s not so easy to come by a copy in good (indeed working) condition nearly 500 years later. If these descriptions of its pages and their volvelles have piqued your curiosity, you can see these ingenious paper devices in action in these videos tweeted out by Atlas Obscura. As with planets themselves, you can’t fully appreciate them until you see them move for yourself.

Related Content:

The Atlas of Space: Behold Brilliant Maps of Constellations, Asteroids, Planets & “Everything in the Solar System Bigger Than 10km”

An Illustrated Map of Every Known Object in Space: Asteroids, Dwarf Planets, Black Holes & Much More

When Astronomer Johannes Kepler Wrote the First Work of Science Fiction, The Dream (1609)

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Watch a Young Carl Sagan Appear in His First TV Documentary, The Violent Universe (1969)

Much of the world got to know Carl Sagan through Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, the thirteen-part PBS series on the nature of the universe — and the intensity of Sagan’s own passion to discover that nature. First aired in 1980, it would become the most widely watched series in the history of American public television. But it’s not as if Sagan had been languishing in obscurity before: he’d been publishing popular books since the early 1970s, and 1977’s The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence won him a Pulitzer Prize. When Cosmos made its impact, some viewers may even have remembered its host from a series of similarly themed broadcasts a decade earlier, The Violent Universe.

Produced by the BBC in 1969 and broadcast just three months before the Apollo 11 moon landingThe Violent Universe (viewable above) explains in five parts a range of discoveries made during the then-recent “revolution in astronomy,” including infrared galaxies, neutrinos, pulsars and quasars, red giants and white dwarfs.




In so doing it includes footage taken in observatories not just across the Earth — England, Puerto Rico, Holland, Californa — but high above it in orbit and even deep inside it, beneath the badlands of South Dakota. One installment pays a visit to Kōchi, the rural Japanese prefectural capital where guitarist-astronomer Tsutomu Seki makes his home — and his small home observatory, where he had worked to co-discover Comet Ikeya–Seki just four years before.

All of this international material — or rather interstellar material — is anchored in the studio by television journalist Robert MacNeil, later of PBS’ The MacNeil/Lehrer Report, and a certain professor of astronomy at Cornell University by the name of Carl Sagan. Despite exuding a more deliberate seriousness than he would in Cosmos, the young Sagan nevertheless explains the astronomical and astrophysical concepts at hand with a clarity and vigor that would have made them immediately clear to television audiences of half a century ago, and indeed still makes them clear to the Youtube audiences of today. Apart, perhaps, from its Twilight Zone-style theme music The Violent Universe has in its visual elements aged more gracefully than the 70s series that made Sagan into a science icon. And how many other other public-television documentaries about the universe include poetry recitations from Richard Burton?

via BoingBoing

Related Content:

Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking & Arthur C. Clarke Discuss God, the Universe, and Everything Else

Carl Sagan Presents Six Lectures on Earth, Mars & Our Solar System … For Kids (1977)

Carl Sagan Explains Evolution in an Eight-Minute Animation

Carl Sagan on the Virtues of Marijuana (1969)

Carl Sagan Issues a Chilling Warning to America in His Final Interview (1996)

The Pioneering Physics TV Show, The Mechanical Universe, Is Now on YouTube: 52 Complete Episodes from Caltech

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

When Astronomer Johannes Kepler Wrote the First Work of Science Fiction, The Dream (1609)

The point at which we date the birth of any genre is apt to shift depending on how we define it. When did science fiction begin? Many cite early masters of the form like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells as its progenitors. Others reach back to Mary Shelley’s 1818 Frankenstein as the genesis of the form. Some few know The Blazing World, a 1666 work of fiction by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, who called her book a “hermaphroditic text.” According to the judgment of such experts as Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan, sci-fi began even earlier, with a novel called Somnium (“The Dream”), written by none other than German astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler. Maria Popova explains at Brain Pickings:

In 1609, Johannes Kepler finished the first work of genuine science fiction — that is, imaginative storytelling in which sensical science is a major plot device. Somnium, or The Dream, is the fictional account of a young astronomer who voyages to the Moon. Rich in both scientific ingenuity and symbolic play, it is at once a masterwork of the literary imagination and an invaluable scientific document, all the more impressive for the fact that it was written before Galileo pointed the first spyglass at the sky and before Kepler himself had ever looked through a telescope.

The work was not published until 1634, four years after Kepler’s death, by his son Ludwig, though “it had been Kepler’s intent to personally supervise the publication of his manuscript,” writes Gale E. Christianson. His final, posthumous work began as a dissertation in 1593 that addressed the question Copernicus asked years earlier: “How would the phenomena occurring in the heavens appear to an observer stationed on the moon?” Kepler had first come “under the thrall of the heliocentric model,” Popova writes, “as a student at the Lutheran University of Tübingen half a century after Copernicus published his theory.”

Kepler’s thesis was “promptly vetoed” by his professors, but he continued to work on the ideas, and corresponded with Galileo 30 years before the Italian astronomer defended his own heliocentric theory. “Sixteen years later and far from Tübingen, he completed an expanded version,” says Andrew Boyd in the introduction to a radio program about the book. “Recast in a dreamlike framework, Kepler felt free to probe ideas about the moon that he otherwise couldn’t.” Not content with cold abstraction, Kepler imagined space travel, of a kind, and peopled his moon with aliens.

And what an imagination! Inhabitants weren’t mere recreations of terrestrial life, but entirely new forms of life adapted to lunar extremes. Large. Tough-skinned. They evoked visions of dinosaurs. Some used boats, implying not just life but intelligent, non-human life. Imagine how shocking that must have been at the time.

Even more shocking to authorities were the means Kepler used in his text to reveal knowledge about the heavens and travel to the moon: beings he called “daemons” (a Latin word for benign nature spirits before Christianity hijacked the term), who communicated first with the hero’s mother, a witch practiced in casting spells.

The similarities between Kepler’s protagonist, Duracotus, and Kepler himself (such as a period of study under Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe) led the church to suspect the book was thinly veiled autobiographical occultism. Rumors circulated, and Kepler’s mother was arrested for witchcraft and subjected to territio verbalis (detailed descriptions of the tortures that awaited her, along with presentations of the various devices).  It took Kepler five years to free her and prevent her execution.

Kepler’s story is tragic in many ways, for the losses he suffered throughout his life, including his son and his first wife to smallpox. But his perseverance left behind one of the most fascinating works of early science fiction—published hundreds of years before the genre is supposed to have begun. Despite the fantastical nature of his work, “he really believed,” says Sagan in the short clip from Cosmos above, “that one day human beings would launch celestial ships with sails adapted to the breezes of heaven, filled with explorers who, he said, would not fear the vastness of space.”

Astronomy had little connection with the material world in the early 17th century. “With Kepler came the idea that a physical force moves the planets in their orbits,” as well as an imaginative way to explore scientific ideas no one would be able to verify for decades, or even centuries. Hear Somnium read at the top of the post and learn more about Kepler’s fascinating life and achievements at Brain Pickings.

Related Content:

Mary Shelley’s Handwritten Manuscript of Frankenstein: This Is “Ground Zero of Science Fiction,” Says William Gibson

Stream 47 Hours of Classic Sci-Fi Novels & Stories: Asimov, Wells, Orwell, Verne, Lovecraft & More

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction: 17,500 Entries on All Things Sci-Fi Are Now Free Online

Free Science Fiction Classics Available on the Web (Updated)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

3D Interactive Globes Now Online: Spin Through an Archive of Globes from the 17th and 18th Century

Willem Janszoon Blaeu Celestial Globe 1602

No matter how accustomed we’ve grown over the centuries to flat maps of the world, they can never be perfectly accurate. Strictly speaking, no map can perfectly capture the territory it describes (an impossibility memorably fictionalized by Jorge Luis Borges in “On Exactitude in Science”), but there’s a reason we also call the Earth “the globe”: only a globe can represent not just the planet’s true shape, but the true shape of the land masses on which we live. This is not to say that globes have always been accurate. Like the history of mapmaking, the history of globe-making is one of educated (or uneducated) guesses, free mixture of fact and legend, and labels like “terra incognita” or “here be dragons.” You can see that for yourself in the British Library’s new online historic globe archive — and not just through flat photographs and scans.

“The archive presents 3D models of 11 globes — a subset of the library’s historic maps collection — that can be rotated and zoomed into for greater detail at every angle,” writes Hyperallergic’s Sarah Rose Sharp. She points to one in particular, “stunning 1602 celestial globe by Dutch cartographer Willem Janszoon Blaeu, first produced in 1602. In addition to representing the constellations as their fantastic and mythological namesakes, it identifies a nova in the constellation of Cygnus which Blaeu had personally observed in 1600.”




The British Library’s digital collection boasts several such “celestial globes,” which chart the sky rather than the Earth. However few of us have ever turned a celestial globe by hand, we can now do it virtually. If 1602 seems a bit too vintage, give a digital spin to the others from 1700, 1728, and 1783.

Back on land, these globes feature not just “fantastic creatures,” Sharp writes, but “charming archaic conceptions of the oceans — the ‘Atalantick Ocean’ in the 1730 Richard Cushee terrestrial globe, or the ‘Ethipoic Ocean’ in the 1783 terrestrial globe by G. Wright and W. Bardin.” In Chushee, Wright and Bardin’s times, few globe-users, or indeed globe-makers, would have had the chance to see much of those vast bodies of water for themselves. Of course, with the current state of pandemic lockdown in so many countries, few of us are taking transoceanic journeys even today. If you’re dreaming about the rest of the world, spend some time with the British Library’s 3D-modeled globes on Sketchfab — where you’ll also find the Rosetta Stone and Bust of Nefertiti among other artifacts previously featured here on Open Culture — and get your hands on an idea of how humanity imagined it in centuries past.

via Hyperallergic

Related Content:

Enchanting Video Shows How Globes Were Made by Hand in 1955: The End of a 500-Year Tradition

Watch the Making of the Dymaxion Globe: A 3-D Rendering of Buckminster Fuller’s Revolutionary Map

Why Making Accurate World Maps Is Mathematically Impossible

The Strikingly Beautiful Maps & Charts That Fired the Imagination of Students in the 1880s

Download 91,000 Historic Maps from the Massive David Rumsey Map Collection

The History of Cartography, “the Most Ambitious Overview of Map Making Ever Undertaken,” Is Free Online

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

The Size of Asteroids Compared to New York City

The smallest asteroid measures 4.1 meters in diameter; the largest 939 kilometers, or 580 miles. Created by 3D animator Alvaro Gracia Montoya, the data on asteroid sizes was all gleaned from Wikipedia…

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

Also consider following Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and sharing intelligent media with your friends. Or sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

via Laughing Squid

More in this category... »
Quantcast
Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.