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