Three women who fought against sexist prejudices and changed our way of seeing the universe

They received lower wages, often their jobs were ignored for being women or, directly, your colleagues or superiors they appropriated their discoveries. They even had to fight for things as basic as having a women’s bathroom in their workplace. Very few of them received the recognition that they deserved

There are many pioneering women of the astronomy who have contributed with their work to a better understanding of the universe today. Henrieta Swan Leavitt, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin Y Vera Rubin they managed to overcome obstacles in which many women could still recognize themselves today and allowed them to change the way we understand the cosmos, and inspired new generations.

Henrietta Swan Leavitt, the measure of the universe

She created what is known as “Leavitt’s law.”BBC

charged 30 cents an hour and was nearly deaf from the age of 17. But her discovery gave us the key to understand the measure of the universe and their findings are still used today to measure the expansion of the cosmos.

One of the pioneers of astronomy, the American Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1886-1921) began working in the Harvard College Observatory in 1895. She was part of an extraordinary group of women known as the “Harvard computers”hired by the astronomer Edward Charles Pickering to process and classify the enormous amounts of images of the universe that their studies required.

Women earned much lessTherefore, Pickering could afford to hire several of them who, in addition, were considered conscientious and observant, ideal for the boring and repetitive work that data analysis required.

for being women, none of them had the right to operate the telescopes, which greatly limited his work. Disparagingly, the rest of the colleagues referred to the group as “Pickering’s Harem”.

Leavitt had to work with the Cepheid variable stars, whose brightness changes over time. Despite the restrictions she counted on in her work, she He noticed in 1908 a detail that other scientists had not paid much attention to.: The stars pulsed with a regular rhythm and, the longer their period was, the more intrinsic luminosity they had. The pattern is now known as the “Leavitt’s law”which says that a star that takes longer to pulsate is inherently brighter than one that pulsates quickly.

This could have remained a simple curiosity, but Leavitt applied this knowledge to images of the Small Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf galaxy close to the Milky Way. In this smaller sample, his theory seemed even clearer.

leavitt concluded that simply by measuring the rate of pulsationwhich can be days or weeks, and seeing its shine From the earth, an astronomer can deduce how far away the observed object is. This was so transformative that it turned the two-dimensional picture of the universe into a 3D one.

Her work, perhaps because it is ahead of its time, or perhaps simply because she is a woman, was cornered a decade until after his untimely death from stomach cancer. It was then that Edwin Hubble used Leavitt’s discovery from 1920 to deduce that the patches of light in the sky were entire galaxies much more distant from our own. The universe, he taught us, was much larger than previously thought.

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, the matter from which stars are made

Payne-Gaposchkin was the first PhD in physics from Radcliff College, which at the time was the women's branch of Harvard.
Payne-Gaposchkin was the first PhD in physics from Radcliff College, which at the time was the women’s branch of Harvard.BBC

In the University of Cambridge, Cecilia Payne (later Payne-Gaposchkin, 1900-1979), being the only woman in her physics class, she had to sit in the front row and endure daily humiliation. Your teacher Ernest Rutherfordthe father of nuclear physics, would stare at her and begin: Ladies and gentlemen”.

“All the boys regularly greeted this quip with thunderous applause and stamping of their feet… every class I wanted to sink into the earth. To this day, instinctively, I take my place as far back as possible in a conference room, ”he confessed in his autobiography.

The rebuffs of her peers failed to discourage her, but Payne thought that as a woman, she would have more opportunities to work in astronomy in the United States than in her native UK. In fact, despite completing her studies at Cambridge, she never earned her degree there, as the university did not allow women to graduate until 1948.

In 1923, he got a scholarship of research to enter the Harvard College Observatory where, like Henrietta Swan Leavitt, she worked associated with “Harvard computers”. There he used the latest knowledge in quantum physics to develop the idea that stars are made mostly of hydrogen and heliuma revolutionary premise at the time.

He came to this conclusion after accurately relating the different types of spectra of stars to their actual temperatures by applying the ionization theory developed by Indian astrophysicist Meghnad Saha.

He showed that the large variation observed in stellar absorption lines was due to different amounts of ionization at different temperatures, not to different amounts of elements.

Until then, science had failed to figure out what stars were made of, and it was thought that they had ingredients similar to those of the planet Earth. Payne claimed that the stars were much simpler than anyone would have thought, and included his findings in his doctoral thesis.

However, one of the most recognized astronomers of the time, Henry Norris Russell, advised him to remove that idea from his doctoral thesis. in 1925 because it went against the mainstream of thought.

A few years later, however, Russell came to the same conclusion by other methods and ended up, for many years, taking credit for the discovery.

A pioneer in many things, Payne-Gaposchkin was the first PhD in physics from Radcliff College, which at the time was the women’s branch of Harvard. Years later she became the first woman to Headed the Department of Astronomy at Harvard University.

Vera Rubin, the pioneer of dark matter

Today the observatory with the most powerful lens ever made for a telescope bears his name.
Today the observatory with the most powerful lens ever made for a telescope bears his name.BBC

being a girl, Vera Rubin (1928-2016) built his first telescope with a cardboard tube that he was given in a linoleum store and with some small lenses that he bought in a scientific material store. Years later, he was the first woman allowed to operate the Palomar Observatory in Californiafrom where he made a discovery whose mysteries are still being deciphered today: dark matter.

Today, the observatory with the most powerful lens ever made for a telescope It is built in the north of Chile.

Although her family always encouraged her talent and passion for science, when Rubin told her high school physics teacher, where she was virtually the only girl, that she planned to go to college, this recommended that he avoid scientific careers. Luckily, she ignored him. graduated from Vassar College in 1948.

She finished her doctorate six years later, while taking care of her young children and having to go to night classes many times, while her parents took care of the children and her husband, also a scientistI was waiting for her in the car.

For almost his entire career Vera Rubin had to face macho prejudices of those who considered that the life of a mother of four children was incompatible with science, but she was always combative.

An example is when he was finally able to access the Palomar Observatorywhere there was no ladies bathroom. She decided not to back down taped a paper skirt to the men’s room door to create your own. Throughout her life she fought for the inclusion of women in scientific committees and conferences.

Rubin was fascinated with the spiral galaxies and wanted to study how they rotated. Until then, it was assumed that this rotation slowed down with distance from the center of the galaxy, just as planets orbit more slowly the farther they are from the Sun. In one of her first studies, she disputed this idea, and although her position was met with skepticism, she ended up being right.

Later, in the 70s, Rubin discovered something surprising: the galaxies he was observing were spinning so fast, that the logical thing would be that they would separate if it was only the gravity of their stars that held them together. However, they held togetherso there had to be something larger but completely invisible exerting that force: dark matter.

50 years later, we know that around 84% of the universe is made of dark matter, although we still don’t understand what it is.

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