Henrietta Swan Leavitt

This week we are swinging all the way back to the 1860’s to meet Henrietta Swan Leavitt – an American astronomer ‘known for her discovery of the relationship between period and luminosity in Cepheid variables, pulsating stars that vary regularly in brightness in periods ranging from a few days to several months’ (source).

… If that sentence made your eyes go cross eyed and zone out, let’s try that again.

Henrietta Swan Leavitt is famous for working out that the brightness of stars translated to their distances from the earth. This lead to Edwin Hubble figuring out how to measure galaxy distances. This has had incredible impacts on our understanding of the universe, including the fact that it is expanding.

Now. If you are well versed in space talk and know about influential astronomers I am certain you have heard of Henrietta. I know bits and pieces about space, planets, black holes and the like thanks to a very informed husband sharing his knowledge with me, but I did not know about Henrietta! It is incredible that she had employment at all outside of the home in her time, however it is understood that she did work for well below the salary of a male counterpart, even working for free at Harvard at the beginning of her career.

Don’t even get me started about the fact that Edward Charles Pickering, who she worked for at the time of discovery, published her findings under his own name… … … I’m not sure of the office politics of the time, maybe this was standard practice, but a little hat tip might have been nice…

In articulating what Henrietta’s story and achievements mean to me I need to go on a slight tangent. Today I was listening to an episode of the Podcast Unladylike called ‘Breaking the Bronze Ceiling’. This episode spoke about how despite the fact that during the Vietnam War many American women went and served their times as nurses, cooks and so on, they are not immortalised in public statues in the same way that those who shot guns and actively fought are. It is a really great conversation about how there are so many women woven through our histories that have done momentous things – brave, inspiring, dangerous, daring and rebellious things – that have faded away into history.

Those men who did serve in the war would know the part the women played in caring for and treating them, but the public do not see that and so how can they know? Similarly, I am sure that those in the field would know and honour the work of Henrietta, but why didn’t I know her name before my beautiful friend Nicola sent me a link on her? Why wasn’t her face prominent in my Year 8 text book, or mentioned in the context of the recent passing of Stephen Hawkings, who no doubt benefited from her discovery?

It would seem that Henrietta was fortunate enough to be from a family that had enough wealth to educate her and a family hierarchy that meant, as a woman, she was not held back from entering and pursuing the work that she did. I would say that is remarkable in and of itself from the beginning of the 1900s. I am grateful to the impact that Henrietta had on our understanding of the universe, and am in awe of the fact that her discovery has lead to such monumental advancements in that understanding subsequently.

I guess in summarising my thinking I am glad I am doing this blog so that these incredible humans are being pulled to the front of my mind, and I hope that you are enjoying this journey too.

Thank you to the following sites:

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