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Understanding the Universe…one woman at a time

ByScott AsakawaNOVA EducationNOVA Education

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The Harvard Science Center is situated across Cambridge Street to the north of Harvard Yard. If you take the elevator to the 8th floor, go through an unmarked door on the left side, and follow the signs up a few flights of stairs, you’ll find yourself inside a room whose walls are vividly painted with astrological figures, and whose ceiling isn’t a ceiling at all, but rather a mechanical dome. This dome belongs to the Landon T. Clay telescope .

Often, when I was in graduate school, my friends and I would gather on weekday evenings when we should have been studying, and instead we would spend a few hours gazing up at the sky. Many of my favorite memories of Harvard are of nights we spent at the Clay. The person who taught me to use the telescope was a girl named Sarah. It’s thanks to her, at least in part, that I spent so many fantastic hours there. It’s ironic then, that if Sarah and I had attended Harvard at a different time in history, she wouldn’t have even been allowed to operate the observatory’s instruments.

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We are capable of measuring the distance to stellar bodies thanks to Henrietta Swan Leavitt. Astronomers today still use classification techniques developed by Annie Jump Cannon. Jocelyn Bell discovered the first quasar. Vera Rubin’s observations led to the theory, now widely accepted, of the existence of dark matter. It is undeniable that these women’s work has been instrumental in giving us a more complete understanding of the universe in which we exist. Unfortunately, it is also true that they’ve received an unsettling lack of recognition for their contributions. Leavitt and Cannon did much of their amazing work while serving as “computers,” women whose job it was to perform the arduous task of sorting, analyzing, and classifying stars seen through the telescopes at the Harvard College Observatory. For this work, they received about 25 cents an hour, less than the Harvard secretarial staff at the time. When Rubin first hypothesized the existence of dark matter, she was largely ignored. And when the Nobel Prize was given out for Jocelyn Bell’s quasar discovery, the award actually went to her male thesis advisor.

Today, of course, women in sciences enjoy more opportunities and credit for their work, but sadly, peek in on many science buildings across the country, and you’ll find far more men than women populating the classrooms and laboratories.  Further, the NSF has found, through its research into the professional science and engineering sector, that a pronounced gender gap still exists .

Recognizing this gender gap, many scientists and professional organizations have increasingly been working to support and build community for women in their ranks. One such organization is the American Physical Society, which supports the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP). The annual event includes 6 member institutions ( Caltech ,

Colorado School of Mines , Cornell , U. of Central Florida , UI Urbana-Champaign , and UT Austin ) representing various regions of the country. Students are invited to attend, and sponsors pay for attendees’ room and board during the weekend of the event. Those in attendance (mostly female undergrads) get to experience a professional conference firsthand, and are introduced to women of stature in the physics community. The generalization that “science and math are for boys” while “language arts and humanities are for girls” is not in evidence at these conferences. Students leave with a renewed spirit and confidence, knowing that they’re capable of achieving great things in their chosen field, despite what the stereotypes might suggest. With any luck, one, or perhaps several of those students will follow in the footsteps of a Leavitt, a Cannon, a Rubin, or a Bell, and our society will once again have a woman to thank for helping us to understand just that much more about science.

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