May the destroyers of our world rain their cosmic force upon you! Seriously speaking, this is a place from which I get to both curse and praise the world without actually affecting it in any physical way.


'Finding Ada' Post 2010: Annie Jump Cannon

Ai, ai, ai, the things I do on my slightest whim. At the cost of my precious bedtime sleep that no amount of school naps can replace, I’m here to talk about Women in Science on behalf of My referral, if you can officially call her one, is Sydney Padua via the wonderful Seeing that her work features Ada Lovelace as protagonist, little wonder that she would have talked about this.

The lucky woman I decided to look at is Annie Jump Cannon. Born in 11th Dec 1863 and dead by 13th Apr 1941, she received a fair amount of education as she grew up, starting with a maternal kick-start to stargazing, then attending Wellesley College (a woman-only college then and now) and later Radcliffe College, before going onto Harvard. But the important thing that even with this education, no women would have dreamed of entering the academia in many areas, such as astronomy. Cannon changed all this.

In 1896, she and a large group of other women were hired by Edward Charles Pickering of Harvard, who wished to save money by hiring them at a quarter the men’s pay. All of them were either astronomy graduates or naturally gifted in mathematics. Together, they handled a mammoth feat of celestial bookkeeping and published the Henry Draper Catalog in 1880.

But that was not the end for Cannon. She continued revising the star photographs over the years. She continued and continued and continued until she finally… continued some more. At the end of her life, she had discovered 300 new stars and classified 325,000 more. She became known as the ‘Census-Taker of the Sky’, but that wasn’t enough for her.

On the way, she managed to knock down the old, inadequate star classification systems while averting the plodding complications of her colleagues’ own systems. She noticed that stellar temperature was the principal distinguishing feature among different spectra and combined previous classification systems into a simplified scheme. The ABC types of old were reordered into the OBAFGKM system, which was subdivided into 10 subclasses, starting from 0 and ending at 9.

Her advances were not missed, and she was appointed as Curator of Astronomical Photography, Harvard University from 1911-38. Then she served as Harvard Astronomer from 1938-40, the first women to receive this position. She also clinched a second First for being the first women to be awarded the Draper Gold Medal of the National Academy for Science. Oxford gave her an honorary doctorate in 1925, and on top of that she joined the American Philosophical Society. Outside the academic world, she fought for women’s rights.

Cannon had an extraordinary talent for distinguishing stars. She could classify 3 stars a minute based on spectral patterns, which meant she spent twenty seconds to glance at one, observe its features, compare them to the ideal OBAFGKM stars and categorise them accordingly. Using a magnifying glass, she could view stars of 9th magnitude, which in normal English is 16x fainter than the human eye can see.

She was listed as one of the twelve Greatest Five American Women by the National League of Women Voters.

I’ll say she spent her life doing beautiful stuff. She herself expressed a desire to reach out for the stars, an extension of humanity’s drive to know our universe. What was most amazing was that she managed this in a time of inequality in most of society. Now, I can’t do anything directly to honor her, due to a notable lack or desire of femininity, but I can direct others down her path. I hope this works, hasty effort it is.

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