A couple of weeks ago I blogged about the OBAFGKM stellar classification system. In that blog I mentioned that the system was devised at the Harvard College Observatory in the 1890s and first few years of the 20th Century. The work was done under the Directorship of Edward C. Pickering, and came from attempts to classify the thousands of stellar spectra which were published in the Draper Catalog of Stellar Spectra in 1890.
Today I thought I would share this fascinating BBC Radio 4 documentary about the women who were responsible for most of this work. They were known as “The Harvard Computers”, but one shouldn’t confuse the term “computer” with its modern day usage. In those days the term was used for human beings who would make routine calculations which were (and still are) such a necessary part of scientific research.
As the documentary below points out, it was nearly always women who were employed in these repetitive jobs as they could be paid less than men. But Pickering found that many of the women he employed at Harvard College Observatory did a lot more than the routine calculations they were brought in to do. Many were highly educated, and most were very intelligent. It wasn’t long before they were making important astrophysical contributions of their own.
The two stand-out examples for me (but not the only ones) are Annie Jump Cannon who gave us the OBAFGKM stellar classification system that we use today. I blogged about that in more detail in this blog. The other for me is Henrietta Leavitt, who discovered a relationship between the period of Cepheid variables and their intrinsic brightness. In a future blog I will talk about this discovery in more detail, but it was crucial in Hubble discovering that the “Andromeda Nebula” was, in fact, a galaxy outside of our own Milky Way galaxy. I blogged about Hubble discovering this in this blog.
So, here is the BBC Radio 4 documentary about these remarkable women. My apologies to the BBC for posting the programme on YouTube, but I could not find a link to their original broadcast anywhere (even though many of their wonderful documentaries are archived on their website here). Also, be patient in listening to the documentary. There are a few places where it pauses for a few seconds. I recorded the documentary off of the internet some 9-10 years ago, and every so often it would stop to buffer the streaming audio. Hopefully these brief pauses won’t affect your enjoyment of the programme too much.