Astronomy, Photography, and the Impact of Unsung Women

 

photograph of the half moon seen sideways, light side to the left, blue background

Debbie says:

Usually I leave the photography posts to Laurie, and I also rarely share items from Maria Popova’s amazing site, The Marginalian, which always makes me think. Today is different. Popova’s post from yesterday, The First Surviving Photograph of the Moon: John Adams Whipple and How the Birth of Astrophotography Married Immortality and Impermanence caught my eye. Reading the essay also brought up some issues Body Impolitic has touched on before.

The photograph above is from 1852, and (as the title says) it’s the first photograph of the moon that we still have today. I find it stunningly beautiful. Famous photographer Louis Daguerre took earlier ones (13 years earlier), but they were lost in a fire, so we have this from John Adams Whipple, who was working with the director of the Harvard Observatory and its telescope, “The Great Refractor.”

Popova is careful to call out the work of the women known as the Harvard Computers, who analyzed and annotated what was then the largest collection of astrophotographs in the world. Most particularly, Annie Jump Cannon, a deaf member of the computer team, whom I previously wrote about (along with other unsung deaf women here). As quoted then …

Cannon was a member of the National Woman’s Party, formed in 1916 to advocate for passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, allowing women to vote. Cannon’s suffragist efforts used her profession as a launchpad, as when she declared that “if women can organize the sky, we can organize the vote.”

Annie Jump Cannon reviewing a photographic slide

Popova continues to think about Cannon, photography, and the ephemeral nature of things:

Pinned above the main desk area at the observatory is an archival photograph of Annie Jump Cannon — the deaf computer who catalogued more than 20,000 variable stars in a short period after joining the observatory — examining one of the photographic plates with a magnifying glass.

The half million glass plates surrounding me are about to be scraped of the computers’ handwriting — the last physical trace of the women’s corporeality — in order to reveal the clear images that, a century and a half later, provide invaluable astronomical information about the evolution of the universe. There are no overtones of sentimentality in entropy’s unceasing serenade to the cosmos.

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