Astronomy and women

21 08 2012

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My fascination for women in astronomy started when I took a night course at Sidmouth Observatory. On the second week we were treated to a display from the planetarium and I shall not forget the wonder of seeing the ceiling of the lecture hall transformed into a glittering night sky. Only the red dot of the pointer roaming over the constellations, accompanying the lecturer’s presentation, and the whispered conversation of my student companions reminded me that I was still inside.

On cold clear nights we wrapped up in padded jackets and took the telescopes outside. Often a thick sea mist shrouded our celestial viewing, but that did not dampen the enthusiasm of the organisers, a group of women volunteers who had the gift of being able to look through clouds. These doughty women in their sixties handled the observatory’s hefty old telescopes with dexterity, working dials and levers and myriad buttons, keeping count in their heads of the mysterious order of the beautiful instruments.

The volunteers were proud of their ‘charges.’ One night I watched a stout woman shut down a telescope switch by switch with a fluent grace. Her face glowed as she came down the iron steps. She looked utterly at ease in the strange environment of the observatory with its shuttered domed roof, zodiac painted walls and emergency power lights. She caught me watching her:  ‘I do so love putting them to bed.’

I was stunned, not only because of her nonchalant competence, but a few moments earlier I had seen through the same now slumbering telescope the planet Jupiter and its four moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, gleaming like tiny seed pearls from a black satin sky.

Since then I’ve often thought that astronomy would be the most perfect job. It’s contained and yet expansive. You work both inside and outside and with intelligent colleagues. Astronomy has known parameters and follows a scientific method, but beyond the technology and the expertise, beyond the stellar photography there is the vast plateau of the unknown.

My pitiful qualifications ruled out any serious career options in science or anything else for that matter. I didn’t know how to study at school. I wasn’t settled enough and too many subjects overwhelmed me. I passed all my ten O levels, but would have preferred even then to specialise. Maths and Physics intrigued me, but I needed more time than most to get my head around their foreign language.

One of the joys of writing is that I can delve into disciplines that are closed to me professionally. The Beautiful Truth has two central women characters: Krystyna, who fights for the Polish resistance and becomes a history professor, and Catherine, a Cambridge astronomer.  The beauty and order of astronomy gives meaning and purpose to the shape of Catherine’s life, which on a personal level teeters on the brink of chaos.

Women and astronomy have a long association. In the early 19th century, American women astronomers were recruited at the Harvard Observatory because they had the patience to do the tedious work of computing data. They were also prepared to work for far less than men. The earliest woman astronomer is believed to be Hypatia of Alexandria, a mathematician, inventor and philosopher, who lived around the late fourth century. Brought up and educated by her father Theon, a renowned astronomer and philosopher, he wanted her to become an ideal daughter and human being.

Hypatia gave lectures in Alexandria, wrote books on mathematics and designed astronomical instruments. One of her pupils was Synesius of Cyrene, who became a high ranking Bishop. He sought her advice and wrote letters mentioning her.  Hypatia’s name is immortalised in the moon mountains between Mare Tranquillitatis and Mare Nectaris .

Next time I am out with my binoculars I must have a look.

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