Today in Space History: Happy Birthday Maria Mitchell!
This page is about historic developments in space exploration, both recent and highlights from the past. I’ll try to keep up-to date whenever there is an exciting development with the Curiosity Rover, the International Space Station, or the new Orion space mission, but at the very least, I’ll use this page to commemorate developments in science, astronomy, and the space race!
Today In Space History: Happy Birthday Maria Mitchell!
If you’ve been on Google today, you probably saw that today is the 195th birthday of the first ever female astronomer! I thought that in honor of Miss Mitchell, I’d provide a summary of her accomplishments and give you a glimpse of the comet she discovered, (the one that bears her name).
“One does enjoy acting the part of greatness for a while! I was tired after three days of it, and glad to take the cars and run away” – Maria Mitchell
Maria Mitchell was born in Nantucket Massachusetts in 1818. The daughter of Quakers who believed that both men and women should be educated. Her father built his own school, taught her in the arts and sciences, and provided her with a telescope. Miss Mitchell became a school teacher and librarian and continued to study the heavens in her spare time.
On October 1st, 1847 during a family party, Mitchell noticed a flash of light through the telescope and correctly determined that it was a new comet. She carefully recorded its position, and sent her findings to Cambridge. You can read about this momentous find in “Maria Mitchell: A Life in Journals and Letters,” a collection of her writings compiled by Henry Albers. I took the liberty of placing a link to her journal entry about the comet here:
The notoriety of her discovery won Miss Mitchell to become a distinguished astronomer- she was able to quit her job as a librarian and travel across the world, visiting observatories in New York, England, Ireland, Britain, and Austria. She also got a new job at the National Almanac Office, using her skill as an astronomer to chart the position of Venus.
Miss Mitchell was not only a great figure in astronomy, she set many firsts for women in general and female astronomers in particular. She was the first American woman ever to discover a comet, she was the first female member of the American Association of Arts and Sciences, and the first person (male or female), to become a faculty member at Vassar. She also stood up for women’s rights, asserting that women deserve equal pay as men, and that women should be encouraged just as she was, to focus on intellectual pursuits and not be limited to simply being wives and mothers. Near the end of her life, she helped found the Association for the Advancement of Women, and ran it for a few years before her death in 1889.
Her life was marked by a wonder and curiosity that allowed her to not only increase humankind’s understanding of the heavens, but allowed her to question some of the prevailing views about women and their ability to contribute to society. I particularly find her views on astronomy to be filled with beauty and expresses why I continue to run this blog: “We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but is somewhat beauty and poetry.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Other Sources: “This Month In Physics History: Maria Mitchell Discovers a Comet: “http://www.aps.org/publications/apsnews/200610/history.cfm
“She Is An Astronomer: Maria Mitchell” http://www.sheisanastronomer.org/index.php/history/maria-mitchell
Maria Mitchell Association: http://www.mariamitchell.org/
By the way, in case you were wondering when Miss Mitchell’s comet might come back. Well, her comet, (which is known scientifically as C/1847 T1), is a non-periodic comet, which means that it only passes through the solar system every 200 years or so. Predicting when these comets will re-appear in the sky is extremely difficult, but there is a chance we might see it by 2047. Keep your eyes peeled.