Women in Astronomy: Henrietta Swan Leavitt

B/W photo of Henrietta Swan Leavitt at workHow big is everything? How much everything even is there? We have answers to these questions because of Henrietta Swan Leavitt, one of my favorite astronomers. Leavitt passed away on this day, December 12, in 1921, a too-young 53, taken by stomach cancer. 

Leavitt was one of the computers at the Harvard College Observatory. Before adopting the name to describe machines that crunch numbers, computers were low-level staff, often women, who did the complicated mathematics needed for scientific research, engineering projects, financial applications, and any other endeavor that relied on accurate and complicated mathematics. Women were often preferred in this position because a) they cost far less to employ than men, and b) they were considered well-suited to the repetitious work.  

Leavitt’s task at the observatory was to catalog variable stars from the photographic plates taken by Harvard’s satellite observatory in Peru. Each glass plate recorded dozens or even hundreds of stars, which computers would pore over under high magnification, identifying each star, planet, and other phenomenon for use by researchers. Among these stars were variables, stars whose brightness changes over time. 

Stars can be variable for a number of reasons. One kind of variable star is actually two stars, a binary system. From Earth, the star appears to fluctuate in brightness as each star passes in front of the other. Another kind of variable, the kind that becomes important here, are Cepheid variables. Cepheids are single stars that grow as they get hotter as they grow they cool, which causes them to sink back. Kind of like oatmeal on the stove, getting larger as steam builds up and then falling back as the steam pops through the surface. Cepheids go through this hotter/colder cycle on an extremely regular schedule (called its “period”), growing brighter as the star expands and then darker when it cools and recedes. 

What Leavitt noticed as she catalogued thousands of variables is that not only was the period of Cepheid stars remarkably stable, but that the faster the period, the brighter the star. Comparing data from many stars, she found that all Cepheids with the same period were the same brightness. This is important because it means that Cepheid variables could be used as a “standard candle”, something in space whose brightness can be absolutely determined. Since light falls away as it travels through space at a constant rate (proportional to the square of its distance), if you know the period of a Cepheid, you can easily determine its distance. 

At the time, the only way to measure distance in space was to very precisely measure the angle it made when viewed from one side of the Earth’s orbit and the other, 6 months later. If you knew the diameter of the Earth’s orbit and the angle made on each side of the orbit, you could triangulate the distance to the star. This has drawbacks: first, it demands precision that even today is difficult to achieve, and after a few hundred light years, the angles are far too small to be measured at all; second, the width of the Earth’s orbit was barely known, having only been accurately established at the end of the 19th century.  

Leavitt’s work meant that you could measure the distance to anything, if you could find a Cepheid variable (which aren’t common but not incredibly rare either). In 1924, a couple years after Leavitt’s untimely death, Edwin Leavitt applied her work (which has become known as “Leavitt’s Law) to determining the distance to Cepheid’s found in what was then known as the Andromeda Nebula. Hubble showed that the nebula (which we now know is some 2.5 million light-years away) was far too distant to be part of our own galaxy, that indeed, it was a whole other galaxy in its own right.  

Up until this point, astronomers had differed sharply on the extent of the universe, with many believing that the Milky Way galaxy, or home, was the entirety of the universe, and that what we today know are distant galaxies were in fact “spiral nebulae” within the Milky Way. Hubble’s application of Leavitt’s Law shattered that view, placing the Milky Way as just one of millions of galaxies.  

Leavitt continued at the Harvard College Observatory off and on until her death. She had independent means and often took long leaves, increasing as she battled her illness in the last part of her life. But she continued to make advances in astronomy after her contribution on variable stars; among other things, she developed the brightness scale for categorizing stars which was adopted as the standard in 1913. She never taught and was little recognized in her own life, but has had an asteroid, a moon crater, and a telescope at Texas’ McDonald Observatory named after her. Hubble insisted she should have won a Nobel Prize for her work on Cepheid variables, and indeed another astronomer tried to nominate her in 1926, only to find that she had passed away and thus was not eligible (Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously). 

Women in Astronomy: Cecelia Payne-Gaposchkin

B/W portrait of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin sitting at a deskI’ve been reading a lot of astronomy lately and it’s striking how many major advances in our understanding of the universe have been made by women – women whose contributions often go unsung. Since women’s history is basically what I do, I thought I’d take a few minutes now and again to highlight some of these women and what they accomplished.  

Today (Dec 7) in 1979. Cecelia Payne-Gaposchkin passed away. Born and raised in the UK, young Cecilia Payne was inspired to study astronomy after seeing a lecture by Arthur Eddington on his recent excursion to observe the 1919 solar eclipse – particularly to measure the way light bent around the Sun due to gravity, proving a major prediction from Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Frustrated by the lack of opportunities for women to study and practice astronomy in the UK, Payne emigrated to the US to study and work at the Harvard College Observatory.  

At the observatory, Payne worked with the spectra of stars, applying recent findings about the behavior of ionized gasses (such as found in the outer surface of stars) to identify the elements present. At the time, prevailing thought was that the physical makeup of stars would be more or less the same as the physical makeup of the Earth, just hotter. Remember, in the early 1920s, we have no understanding of fission or fusion, so it was not known what made stars “run”.  Payne made a huge step towards figuring that out, finding that hydrogen was by far the most common element in stars, with small amounts of helium and mere traces of anything else. In fact, her work showed that hydrogen was the prevalent element in the universe as a whole, a million times more common than anything else.  

This was a stunning discovery, one that completely reshaped our understanding of the physical world. However, in her dissertation, Payne was convinced to downplay the discovery as the result of “spurious” data, since it contradicted the consensus view of the day. The man who convinced her that her results were wrong, Henry Norris Russell, later found the same thing and published his results 4 years later. It will not surprise you to hear that he is often credited with this world-shaking discovery… 

In time, her contribution was recognized and her dissertation hailed as a foundational work in the field. Payne continued to do important work at Harvard, often with her astronomer husband Sergei Gaposchkin, whom she married in 1934.  She also taught astronomy, although her courses were not listed in Harvard’s catalog until 1945. In 1956 she was awarded a full-time professorship, the first woman in Harvard’s history to be so recognized, eventually becoming the first woman to chair a department at Harvard as well. As a teacher, she instructed generations of significant astronomers. 

Although not well-known in the mainstream (to be honest, few astronomers are…) Payne-Gaposchkin’s achievements have been recognized in many ways, especially in recent years. She received numerous honorary doctorates during her lifetime, and has had an asteroid, a volcano on Venus, a dissertation fellowship, and a telescope at an observatory in South Africa named after her. In 2008, the Institute of Physics created the Cecelia Payne-Gaposchkin Medal to recognize “distinguished contributions in plasma, solar, and space physics”.  

Biden’s Victory Speech

I’ve seen lots of posts asking whether Biden’s speech yesterday was actually good or if we are so used to Trump’s meandering, mean-spirited rants that it just *seems* good by comparison. Granted, a speech given in full sentences, where each sentence contributed to the development of an idea and each idea contributed to an overall vision expressed by the speech as a whole is a HUGE improvement over the half-thoughts expressed in half-sentences we’ve gotten used to. But there was a lot more going on that bears mentioning:
1) He talked about his family. Lovingly. That’s something Donald Trump has almost never done, except talking about Ivanka (in his creepy way). He certainly hasn’t included them in the credit for anything he’s accomplished. I mean, Melania and Barron were both sick with the same potentially deadly, potentially life-altering virus that put him in the hospital, and he hasn’t even mentioned their illness! Meanwhile, Biden presented himself and his successes as entirely the product of his family.
2) His speech was directed to and about *us*. Donald Trump’s speeches are almost always entirely about him.
3) Most importantly, Biden talked about an America that included all of us – gay, straight, trans, Black, white, Native American, disabled, liberal, even conservative. Donald Trump always talked about an America that EXCLUDED most of us – if you weren’t cis-male, white, straight, able-bodied, Christian, third-or-greater-generation, and preferably rich, you weren’t part of his America, and the only time he addressed you was to tell you how to feel about him or (more often) to tell you how much you don’t belong here.
I don’t know whether Biden will be a great president or a run-of-the-mill one or even a bad one (though that end of the scale has been permanently recalibrated and he’ll ALWAYS be better than Donald Trump). I don’t know if even a great president can repair the American carnage we’ve lived through these last 4 years, especially in the face of what looks to be a permanent Alliance of the Ill-Intentioned and Ignorant doing everything possible to prevent him from doing anything at all.
We have a lot to deal with: rooting out centuries of endemic racism and sexism, preventing or at least mitigating global climactic collapse, dealing with this horrific pandemic (and the next one, and the one after that), battling economic inequity so vast it threatens to create a permanent serf class in our country, creating an educational system that actually pushes students to their highest potential, and so much more. I don’t know how much of that Biden is up to, or Harris, or whoever comes after her. But I feel a lot better that at least we will TRY to make real changes over the next 4-16 years, instead of wallowing in our own feces like we have the last four.
I mean yeah, it was a good speech.

Brett Kavanaugh’s Failure to Launch

There have been many responses, mostly Conservative but not all, to Dr. Ford’s accusations against Kavanaugh that have focused on the idea that people shouldn’t be held responsible for the mistakes they made when they were young. And you know what, they’re not entirely wrong – but they all entirely miss the point.

The issue isn’t that a middle-aged man is being held responsible for the misadventures of youth. The issue is that a young man did a terrible thing, was shielded from the consequences of that thing by the privileges of his gender and his social status, and has remained firmly committed to maintaining the protective envelope that allowed him to get away with that offense, showing no signs of growth or change in the intervening years.

When confronted with his actions, Kavanaugh didn’t say, “Yes, I was young and like many young men, I was driven by terrible impulses and poor judgement which I spent my adult life working to identify, contain, and correct.” Instead, he invoked the same privileges of gender and social status that routinely allow women’s testimony to be dismissed and ignored. (All, btw, terrible qualities in a judge!)  [Continue reading] »

A Death Sentence for the American Middle Class

On Friday night, Senate Republicans voted to pass the largest tax hike in American history. But this tax bill does not just raise taxes for the vast majority of Americans, it fundamentally alters the nature of the United States as a nation.

Let’s start by examining the bill’s impact on charitable giving. Although quite a bit of the bill remains shrouded in secrecy, and is subject to some degree of change in reconciliation, we do know the basic outlines of the bill. We know, for instance, that it raises the standard deduction to around $12k for individuals, eliminating a number of other deductions in exchange.

Raising the standard deduction (and eliminating several other deductions) removes any tax incentive for charitable giving for the vast majority of Americans. Although charitable giving as percentage of income differs wildly across various income levels (with the lowest income blocks giving the highest percentage), the average US citizen donates just over 2% of their income per year – at that rate, you’d have to earn $600k before your giving would be worth itemizing to claim a deduction. For the typical household earning around $60k, their $1200 in giving will not be worth itemizing, unless they have a mortgage big enough to put them over $12000 – the interest on a typical $360k mortgage plus $1200 in giving would just exceed the $12,000 standard deduction. [Continue reading] »

Nonprofits and Civil Society

As we face an era of ever-increasing uncertainty, it is more important than ever to support organizations that stand for and protect our personal, cultural, and human rights. The collective power embedded in our social institutions, particularly in the nonprofit sector, offers one of the few bulwarks against both the threat of the mob and the power of the state.

It is the nature of our modern capitalist system that the most pressing issues facing us as a society — prejudice and discrimination, social and economic justice, education and heritage preservation, freedom of expression, environmental protection, and so on — can rarely be addressed for a profit. And so it is up to our nonprofit sector to attack these issues, often with insufficient resources, and often in opposition to better-funded and more powerful corporate and government institutions.

It is crucial, right now, that you support the nonprofits that support our civil society. This is not charity or philanthropy, something you give out of goodness or some sense of responsibility or obligation, it is solidarity and mutual aid — it is how we stand together and support each other. [Continue reading] »

So Long 2013! Make Sure the Door Hits You on the Way Out…

Last night I watched Disney movies and ate comfort food as an antidote to an afternoon spent fretting in a hospital waiting room. I know it’s unreasonable to expect a trick of an arbitrary calendar to make much of a difference in one’s life, but man, 2013 cannot end soon enough for this guy.

I’ve been reading all these year-end reviews. Some of them, like Lola Frost’s, are just beautiful. And it is a real honor for me to see, here and there, that I’ve been allowed to play a role, however small, in some people’s happiness. 2013 hasn’t been a year without highlights for me, for sure, but the low points have been rather overwhelming.

So here are the bullet points of 2013 for me, the good and bad in the order it came. I don’t know if there’s much point to this kind of exercise, but I’ve never had a year like this and maybe writing it down will help close it out right.  [Continue reading] »

10 Books That Changed My Life

Finally, a Facebook meme I give a crap about: 10 life-changing books you’ve read. I love books, and books have definitely changed my life, so that’s me all over. Except once I started really thinking about it, I realized that a mere list of 10 books wasn’t enough, that the books deserved an explanation of why they were on the list. Making it kinda long for a Facebook post.

1. How To Do Things With Words by JL Austin

2. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language by VN Volosinov

Language is important to me, as a writer and as a scholar, and Austin and Volosinov shaped the way I see language in a profound and lasting way. Both works look at language through the lens of power, and particularly at how we use language to exert our will – to effect change in other’s “ideologies” (to borrow Volosinov’s formulation, by which he means not just political stance but something more akin to worldview). Language – or signs in general – in Volosinov and Austin’s formulation, are not inert, simply referencing things, actions, and ideas in the world outside of language, but rather active forces in the constructing and reshaping of the world.  [Continue reading] »

So now twerking is cultural appropriation?


TWERK (Photo credit: mikeywally)

In the wake of Miley Cyrus’ apparently disastrous performance on MTV’s 2013 Video Music Awards show, I’ve been seeing a lot of conversations (or more often, declarations) about twerking as a form of cultural appropriation. Twerking, according to what I’m reading, is intimately bound to black culture and when white women integrate it into their own dance performances, they are essentially stealing black culture — appropriating to themselves the street cred of more authentic dancers and musicians while avoiding, due to their racial privilege, the more negative sexual and cultural disempowerments that come with being a woman of color.

OK, that’s not entirely a horrible argument. It’s true that, for the most part, black women are judged more harshly for outward displays of sexuality, which reinforce racist stereotypes about black people being innately animalistic, uncivilized, unintelligent, and deserving of their lower social status. White women can often imitate tropes of black sexuality and “shake off” the essentializing that comes with them, presenting their sexualized performances as “just for fun”. The appropriation of black sexuality as a liberating force for white womanhood has a long history — we can see it at work, for instance, in Sophie Tucker’s early-career (c. 1910) blackface performances, in which she sang bawdy songs full of double entendre (and often single entendre) as an ersatz black woman, then shed off the implications of blackness by reclaiming her whiteness, peeling off a glove at the end of her act to reveal the light skin beneath.

Cultural appropriation can do real damage to communities. Blackface perpetuated and exaggerated black stereotypes and arguably contributed to the longevity of Jim Crow segregation (itself named after a popular blackface character). Representations by white women of hyper-sexualized black, Native American, Southeast Asian, and other minority women in our “she was asking for it” rape culture contribute to the high levels of sexualized violence faced by women of color, and the ease with which that violence is dismissed by law enforcement and by the wider mainstream population. (Remember the Duke case a few years ago? Within hours of the accusations filed by a black stripper against members of the Duke Lacrosse team, articles were appearing all over the media blaming her for leading the alleged perpetrators into rape — long before any evidence about the case was made public.) White popularization of black music styles in the mid-20th century left many of our greatest musical innovators penniless while their imitators went on to fame and fortune. The use of American Indian caricatures as sports team mascots continues to make it difficult for Native Americans to be taken seriously on issues ranging from the misallocation of tribal resources and theft of tribal lands to crushing unemployment rates and skyrocketing health issues. [Continue reading] »

Sex: It’s What’s for Dinner

This essay was originally published Dec 14, 2005, at Savage Minds. Due to a server problem, Savage Minds’ archives are currently down, so I’m reposting this here.

Yam Yam Yam

Yam Yam Yam (Photo credit: cogdogblog)

The connection between eating and having sex is a fairly obvious one. Many of the words we use to describe sexual desire (hunger, voracious appetite) and sex acts themselves (eating out, munching), and even various body parts (my favorite: “the split knish”) refer to food—an obvious parallel given the importance of the mouth to both eating and sex. The connection is deeper than just slang, though—Edmund Leach noted in 1964 that the way we categorize the animals we eat and the way we categorize potential sex partners are parallel as well (at least in mid-century Britain): women and animals that live in the home (sisters, dogs) are off-limits for eating and/or sex; animals and women that live outside the domestic sphere (cattle and other animals that roam more or less freely, neighbors) are potential sex and marriage partners; and the truly exotic, those living entirely outside of the familiar world altogether (emu, Africans—from a British perspective) are neither food nor sex partners. Among the Arapesh and Adelam peoples studied by Margaret Mead (1935), a man could eat neither one’s own yams and pigs nor one’s own mother and sister, while:

Other people’s mothers
Other people’s sisters
Other people’s pigs
Other people’s yams which they have piled up
You may eat (Mead: 78).

With such a thin line between eating and “eating”, it seems unsurprising that some people would seek to combine the two more explicitly. Enter the cann-fetish (some explicit langauge, probably not worksafe)—cannibal fetishism (or cannibalism fetish). While many of us are familiar with the case of Armin Meiwes, the German man convicted recently of killing and eating a partner he met and coordinated the killing with over the Internet, Meiwes represents an extreme distortion of what is becoming a significant, if small, fetish community. For the most part, cann-fetishists stop short of actually eating or hurting anyone, rather endulging in a rather elaborate pretend-feast involving trussing the “meal” (generally a willing female, who is bound and whose various orifices will be poked, prodded, and filled with various trimmings and cooking implements), coating her (or, apparently far more rarely, him) with oil, butter, honey, and other basting substances, and “cooking” her in a make-believe oven.

[Continue reading] »