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Did you know that the first computer was a room full of women?

The Pleiades, Credit & Copyright: Robert Gendler: http://www.robgendlerastropics.com/

I don't watch a lot of television for entertainment, mostly just news. But one of the shows I do love is Cosmos, and its host Neal DeGrasse Tyson. Last night's episode "Sisters of the Sun" highlighted the achievements of female scientists, describing the major contributions -- and challenges -- of Cecilia Payne, Annie Jump Cannon and Henrietta Leavitt. The three researchers played key roles in molding our modern understanding of the stars, paving the way for future astronomers to predict the ages of stars and when they might beautifully, explosively cease to exist.

According to Tyson, “one of them provided the key to our understanding of the substance of the stars, and another devised a way for us to calculate the size of the universe. For some reason you’ve probably never heard of either of them… I wonder why.” Tyson's tongue in cheek comment on sexism in the scientific world is powerful and profound. Women were the key element in many discoveries that opened the way for modern science, and these three created the foundation of modern astronomy with discoveries still used today to measure the distances between stars, their composition, and the size and age of the entire Universe. And they did it in 1901, when it was forbidden for women to participate in science. And not only that...two of them were deaf!

Cecilia Payne (later, Payne-Gaposchkin) completed the work for a degree at Cambridge, but was not awarded the degree because she was a woman. That’s why she ended up at Harvard (or I guess technically, Radcliffe College) in order to earn her PhD. She earned her degree in 1925 and spent her career at Harvard, but the school didn’t make her a full professor until 1954.

The female "computers"—among them Annie Jump Cannon, who was key to the development of the stellar classification system—were hired by Edward Pickering. Pickering went against the grain of the establishment at that time by giving these women credit for their discoveries rather than reserve that credit for himself, as Watson and Crick did at the expense of Rosalind Franklin, who was responsible for much of the research and discovery work that led to the understanding of the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, DNA. The story of DNA is a tale of competition and intrigue, told one way in James Watson's book The Double Helix, and quite another in Anne Sayre's study, Rosalind Franklin and DNA. James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins received a Nobel Prize for the double-helix model of DNA in 1962, four years after Franklin's death at age 37 from ovarian cancer.

I wanted to mention this because here at World Pulse we put a lot of focus into safe and reliable internet access for women and education in the use of digital tools to help women around the world tell their stories and educate themselves so they can become changemakers. Examples of educated women who have been changemakers in the past could help many young women understand why this is so important, and why the world needs women to be actively participating in the arts and sciences and beyond. Women who can bring a new perspective to any discipline and propel it forward into unknown territory and new discoveries.

These three women were changemakers at a time when, if one can believe it, the barriers to entry were even more difficult for women to navigate than they are today. There were no computers, no ability to gain encouragement and support from a caring community like World Pulse. It took ten years of painstaking observation and data analysis - by hand - for a team of women to catalog the types and distances of over 100,000 stars. What could a young woman whose involvement in and use of digital tools opens the way to her to become a scientist achieve today?

We have made precious little progress and have had to fight for these achievements, and fight to hold on to them, every step of the way, but here we are. Here we are in a new century, and young women and girls everywhere are gaining access to digital tools and education that can not only change their own lives but change the world, as have the accomplishments of so many women in the past. The learning curve to get started is not so difficult that we all can't participate, and the doors it can open could make any one of us a new "Sister of the Sun." So, to all of you who are mentoring and educating and facilitating the use of computers for girls and women in your own communities or a community somewhere else in the world, keep up the great work!! You never know - one of the girls you're teaching will become the next Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin, Cecilia Payne, Annie Jump Cannon or Henrietta Leavitt! Being a woman might not be her only "disability", but the accomplishments of the two deaf women who worked with Pickering weren't hindered by this. Everyone is worth teaching, and anyone can take what they learn and change the world.

Inspire to Aspire, Sisters! Be mindful of the possibilities when mentoring your girls - any one of them be humanity's next shining star, and the internet will make sure she's not overlooked! This doesn't have to be "a man's world" for much longer...and your efforts open the way for a new generation of computer literate, educated, inspired young women who have overcome every barrier set in their way to reach for the stars, take their place in the halls of history and make planet Earth a better place for everyone!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Want a place to start when encouraging your girls and young women about the possibilities which open to them when they pursue education through digital tools? Here's more about women scientists and the difficulties they overcame to bring important discoveries to the table of science: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/13/130519-women-scientists-...

And here are a number of beautiful pictures of the Pleiades, or "Seven Sisters," a beautiful cluster of stars that has inspired storytellers in every culture and era of history, and which were used to open this episode of Cosmos in a very feminine way with a tribal story of how they came to be. These images are posted in an article about the Pleiades at Starship Asterisk, the NASA Astrononomy Picture of the Day and general astronomy discussion forum. Maybe you can incorporate them into promotional materials you use to raise awareness of your efforts to empower the women and girls in your own community. Just be sure to credit the pictures properly, the same way they appear in this page: http://asterisk.apod.com/viewtopic.php?f=46&t=25327

This story was written for World Pulse’s Women Weave the Web Digital Action Campaign. Learn more »

Comments

Ngobesing Linda's picture

Thanks for the information

Thanks for the information and bet these women even in thier graves are smiling that a fellow woman is raising her pink card to stand up for them and share such an inspiring story of thier lives which will go a long way to empower other women the world over.Very nice of you for disseminating this information, I personally didnt know about this until i read these lines.W

Ngobesing Linda
The Voice with sound quality
queen of eloquence

Ngobesing Linda's picture

Thanks for the information

Thanks for the information and bet these women even in thier graves are smiling that a fellow woman is raising her pink card to stand up for them and share such an inspiring story of thier lives which will go a long way to empower other women the world over.Very nice of you for disseminating this information, I personally didnt know about this until i read these lines.W

Ngobesing Linda
The Voice with sound quality
queen of eloquence

Ngobesing Linda's picture

useful information.

Thanks for the information and bet these women even in their graves are smiling that a fellow woman is raising her pink card to stand up for them and share such an inspiring story of their lives which will go a long way to empower other women the world over.Very nice of you for disseminating this information, I personally didn't know about this until i read these lines.i will definitely use to the picture raise awareness and empower the women and girls in your my own community.

Ngobesing Linda
The Voice with sound quality
queen of eloquence

hanasazi's picture

Good to meet you Linda!

I'm glad this inspired you, too!
It's a pleasure to meet the Queen of Eloquence!

hanasazi's picture

Nice to meet you Linda

I'm glad this inspired you, too!
It's a pleasure to meet the Queen of Eloquence!

Dear Hanasazi,

This was all new information to me so I really appreciate your sharing it. I love stories of shining stars who rose in the sky in the face of adversity, and what these women were able to do in spite of the barriers thrown up in front of them.

Your post is inspiring and reminds us that each of us carry greatness within us. Together, in our caring, loving hearts, we can support that greatness to develop and be brought forward for the benefit of us all. Thank you for this important encouragement and reminder.

And thank you for the lovely pictures.

Bheki

hanasazi's picture

Thanks so much for your kind

Thanks so much for your kind words, Bheki. Now that I've become active on World Pulse I think of my sisters around the world every time I see something inspiring like this. Now that we have momentum on the world stage and digital tools to have a voice and speak our truths on a global platform, we should all be strong and make as much forward progress as we can. In the small amount of research I've done on women's issues and their status in the world, it seems the gains we have made throughout history have made a huge positive difference in society, but they are fragile and have to be defended at every turn. In the States we are on the verge of losing many of the rights women protested and eve died for. No one can take anything for granted, and every step forward we can make together on any scale - local, national and global - makes a difference. For reasons I'll try to write about later, I really believe art is one of the keys to adding strength to any strategy we implement toward these ends.

I'm glad you like the pictures, too! If you love images of space, I highly recommend the Astronomy Picture of the Day. It's managed by an astronomer for NASA and he posts a new space image every day. Many have links to parts of the NASA network of websites that have more information and educational material. Just looking at beautiful images of the heavens is inspiring - Enjoy and share!! Who knows where the next lady who advances astronomy like the women in my post did will come from and what will nudge them onto that path?! http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/astropix.html

erincriley's picture

Thank you!

Thank you so much for your comments and your inspiring piece. You are correct that women have not been given enough credit in the scientific field for their aid in discovery. There was a similar piece along the same lines on the podcast, the Memory Palace. You can listen to the episode here: http://thememorypalace.us/. It's about how women were brought in to help discover a series of stars after an astronomer needed help to scribal work so he could devote more time searching the sky. I hope in the future that more women are able to have equality and credit for their work.

hanasazi's picture

Thank you, Erin!

I finally had a chance to listen to the podcast you suggested and it was wonderful! Once it was a few minutes in, I realized it was talking about the same astronomer, Pickering, and the women who helped him, derisively known by his peers as "Pickering's Harem," and yet who became such influential forces in the field of astronomy.

I too hope that women will receive credit where it is due for their assistance and their own discoveries going forward, and that their male counterparts will cease trying to hold them back and encourage them and work happily with them instead. I hope this post does something to encourage women to pursue any field or discipline they desire, so we will have more women making new discoveries—and getting recognition for them—in the future.

Thank you so much for your contribution!

Greengirl's picture

Thank you!

So glad that I came across this post , as I have never heard about the women you mentioned. IT is sad that they never got credit for what they discovered. I have gained loads of information by reading your post and I am better informed,

Thank you ma'am for inspiring us and encouraging us to inspire others too. Well like you rightly pointed out, we now have digital tools which we can use to take back and defend what is rightly ours. We will continue to speak out and stand for what we believe in for the common good of humanity.

Best wishes,
Greengirl

hanasazi's picture

I'm so glad I could share

I'm so glad I could share their story so you and the rest of our World Pulse sisters can gain inspiration from the work of these pioneering women. It is also a good example of the way men can be allies to women. Pickering was discouraged from doing what he did, it was against the rules to have those women in his lab but he didn't care because they did a much better job than the male graduate students he would otherwise have had to employ. He was so disgusted with the laziness of those boys that he said "I can get housemaids who would be more helpful than these graduate students." As it turns out, many of these women had been employed as household help before he hired them to help him process the data he was accumulating about the stars, and the became mothers of modern astronomy! If that's not inspiring, I don't know what is!

ma chère, merci pour toutes ces orientations ainsi que ces exemples. il est vai que bon nombre de gens veut un point de depart pou encourager d'autres jeunes filles et jeunes femmes sur les possibilités qui s'ouvrent à eux quand ils poursuivent leurs études grâce à des outils numéiques.

kasindi

hanasazi's picture

Thank you Kasindi!

I hope the examples I have shared will help you to communicate to the women and girls round you the many kinds of opportunity that becoming familiar with the use of digital communication tools can open for them, from education to the stars!

en vrai dire, ces exemples constituent des bonnes sources qui aideront les femmes du monde entier à avoir le souci de la technologie.

kasindi

hanasazi's picture

Agreed!!

Agreed!!

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