SocietyScience & Technology Women Computers From Harvard Who Mapped The Universe

Women Computers From Harvard Who Mapped The Universe

Edward Pickering, director of the Harvard Observatory, hired a group of women referred to as women computers who did the cataloguing, computing and interpreting of data long before modern-day computers were invented.

Posted by Salik Khan

In 1873, Dr Edward H. Clarke, a professor at Harvard, wrote a treatise against co-education titled Sex in Education, in which he argued, “A woman’s body could only handle a limited number of developmental tasks at one time—that girls who spent too much energy developing their minds during puberty would end up with undeveloped or diseased reproductive systems.

He believed that women who engaged in vigorous mental activity, studying in a “boy’s way,” risked atrophy of the uterus and ovaries, masculinization, sterility, insanity and even death. Clarke also believed that attending schools and colleges would make women infertile as, “there have been instances, and I have seen such, of females… graduated from school or college excellent scholars, but with undeveloped ovaries. Later they married, and were sterile.”  

The world is misogynistic and patriarchal at large, but one would have hoped that in a rational and scientific setting, an inherently biased attitude towards women would not find a place. But, the history of science tells us a different story. A feminist reading of its history paints a complete picture for us.

Astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who revolutionized our understanding of the universe by discovering a rapidly spinning neutron star, or ‘Pulsar’ as it became known later, was excluded from the Nobel Prize for her discovery. As patriarchy would have it, the Nobel was awarded to her thesis supervisor, Antony Hewish, for “his decisive role in the discovery of pulsars”.

The Nobel Prize was first awarded in 1901 – till 2017, women have won it 49 times and men 825 times.

To this day, her omission is considered controversial and the Nobel Prize Committee is yet to explain it. Perhaps this ‘omission’ also explains why only a handful of women have won the Nobel. Since it was first awarded in 1901 – till 2017, women have won it 49 times and men 825 times. Perhaps, sexism and patriarchy are the default mode of humans, something which has to be weeded out from our psyches.

Women computers who mapped the universe

In the late 18th century, astronomical observations to understand the universe was on the rise and the introduction of ‘Astrophotography’, a specialized type of photography for recording photos of astronomical objects, celestial events and large areas of the night sky, allowed astronomers to create a data bank of photographic plates which could be stored for future reference.

This paradigm-shifting technological leap was more efficient and accurate in terms of mapping and recording the night sky as opposed to humans looking through telescopes for hours and making observations manually. Astrophotography allowed astronomers to analyse the recorded data in detail using photographic plates of the mapped sky.

While this new technology ushered in a new era in Astronomy and enabled more accurate and efficient measurements, it created a new problem: there was more data than resources to interpret it. Analyzing minute details in the photographic plates was a tedious, diligent and a rather boring task.

Also Read: 5 Inspirational Women Breaking New Grounds In The Field Of Science

In 1887, Edward Charles Pickering, then director of the Harvard Observatory, came up with a solution. He fired his male assistant staff and hired his domestic help, Williamina Fleming. As opposed to the commonly held ideas of women being “breeding machines and not fit for any diligent work”, Fleming proved more efficient at computing and interpreting the data than any of Pickering’s male assistants.

She went on to work at Harvard for the next 34 years, managing a team of more than 80 women assistants during Pickering’s tenure (from 1887-1919). The women, who came to be known as “Computers”, did the cataloguing, computing and interpreting of data long before modern-day computers were invented.

Though Pickering’s idea of engaging women for his data mining sent some shock waves in the predominantly patriarchal realm of academics, it carried a patriarchal undertone in itself. Employing woman staffers was an economic decision rather than an ethical one, as a woman could be hired at 25 to 50 cents per hour – half of what a man would have to be paid. The women computers worked six days a week, analyzing, interpreting and recording celestial data from the photographic plates, mapping the universe.

Some of the women computers of HCO went on to become the pioneers of Astrophysics and produced their own remarkable findings, such as Cecilia Payne. A 23-year- old Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin was the first person, to receive a PhD in Astronomy in 1925 for her work at the Harvard College Observatory while working with fellow women computers.

Williamina Fleming proved more efficient at computing and interpreting the data than any of Pickering’s male assistants.

Cecilia’s PhD thesis gave an accurate explanation of the composition of stars. She discovered the chemical composition of stars and, in particular, that hydrogen and helium were the most abundant elements in stars and, therefore, in the universe. It was a basic yet important discovery to understand the how, what, when and why of stars and the universe in general.

Astronomers Otto Struve and Velta Zeberg called her work, “Undoubtedly the most brilliant PhD thesis ever written in Astronomy“. Her contribution to Astronomy is as significant as that of Carl Sagan or any other astrophysicist, yet it was not until 1938 that she was given a formal appointment as ‘Astronomer’.

Later, in 1956, she was made a professor and the Chair of the Harvard Astronomy Department, the first woman to hold such a position. It was a position once held by Edward Charles Pickering. Woman computers were even employed by the predecessor of NASA, National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) in the late 1950’s. Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson and many others were integral to NASA’s success story.

Barring a few exceptions, the contribution of the women computers is largely ignored by academia and they are remembered somewhat derogatorily as “Pickering’s Harem” – a misogynistic term and a textbook example of what scientists call “Harem Effect”.

The haunting proof of misogyny in academia is in Harvard’s patriarchal pudding. Thankfully, 144 years after Dr Edward H. Clarke wrote his ideas about women and study, things are changing at Harvard. The percentage of women faculty members and researchers has increased to 30%, as the institution focuses on “diversifying” its faculty.

Perhaps, there is hope, yet.

Also Read: Meet Alexandra Elbakyan – The Champion Of Copyleft

Salik heads the Social Media Communications (aka Ghalib-in-Chief) at Talk Journalism and he can be found tweeting about Poetry, Physics and Ghalib on Twitter.

Featured Image Credit: Harvard

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