The Women Who Mapped Heaven

Although there was no statistical excess of high-profile deaths in 2016, the year felt like a relentless march to the other side. One loss that affected me personally was the Christmas passing of astrophysicist Vera Rubin, the mother of cosmology. In the 1960s she became the first woman to use then-state-of-the-art Palomar Observatory, and her studies of galaxy rotations “clinched the case for dark matter,” wrote Princeton physicist Jeremiah Ostriker. Lisa Randall, a theoretical physicist at Harvard, argued that Rubin should have won the Nobel.

Women in physics remained rare into the 1990s, when I started at MIT. Standing in an industrial corridor in front of the display of faculty head shots, I hunted for women. Finger trailing the glass, I searched, twice for accuracy. That day I counted eighty-three physics faculty; four were women. Today, it’s twelve of a hundred. That rate of improvement promises parity in 138 years.

The situation is better in astrophysics, though; out of twenty-two MIT faculty, almost a third (seven) are female. Perhaps the women to thank for this foothold are the Harvard Observatory “computers” — a term given to women who processed scientific and mathematical data before the dawn of computing machines in the late 1950s — who, a century ago, catalogued the stars and nebulae recorded on glass photographic plates. Dava Sobel honors these women in The Glass Universe.

Sobel’s story begins in 1882 and follows the careers of several women through the early decades of the twentieth century. The book overlaps George Johnson’s Miss Leavitt’s Stars (2005), about the discovery by Henrietta Leavitt that first allowed astronomers to measure galactic and intergalactic distances. Sobel also writes about Williamina Fleming, formerly the maid of the observatory’s director, Edward Pickering, who earned the first official title at Harvard accorded to a woman, curator of astronomical photographs. Antonia Maury developed the first detailed stellar classification, and Annie Jump Cannon streamlined it to create the standard used today. Cecilia Payne applied atomic physics, learned from Niels Bohr himself at Cambridge, to determine stellar compositions. Together, the observatory’s women studied hundreds of thousands of stars.

Sobel’s book is slow to launch — similar to her earlier Galileo’s Daughter, the female protagonists don’t come to the fore until the end of part one — but once the women do emerge, in their own words, the story comes alive. Early in her long and visible career, Cannon writes, “Friends have come to me from the great world and my heart, my life are now the study of astronomy.” In an 1899 diary entry, Fleming complains of pay disparity and describes her frustrated attempts to secure a raise: “Does [Pickering] ever think that I have a home to keep and a family to take care of as well as the men? But I suppose that a woman has no claim to such comforts.” Through these first-person glimpses, the Harvard computers come to feel like friends.

My favorite diary line is Fleming’s; she ends the entry mentioned above with “And this is considered an enlightened age!” It seems an absurd sentiment, but there is evidence that we still underestimate the discrimination in which we’re steeped. The late-1990s  “Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT” found: “Each generation of young women, including those who are currently senior faculty, began by believing that gender discrimination was ‘solved’ in the previous generation and would not touch them. Gradually however, their eyes were opened to the realization that the playing field is not level after all, and that they had paid a high price both personally and professionally as a result.” I used to be one of those young women, admiring the older generation like Vera Rubin without admitting that harassment and discrimination were a present-day malaise. It appears from Fleming’s words that this misperception of equality has been around a very long time.

The Glass Universe makes a strong case that Pickering was an advocate for the Harvard computers. He twice nominated Fleming for the Bruce Medal for lifetime achievement and pestered the observatory’s Visiting Committee into allowing her to join. In publications, he gave the women full credit. The computers generally seemed happy with him; he was known for “the casual cheerfulness with which he heartened the underpaid female employees, often saying, ‘I think I could do this, so I’m sure you can.’ ”

Both Pickering and his successor, Harlow Shapley, had to contend with Harvard’s fiercely biased administration. Although Cecilia Payne instructed graduate students and supervised their research, she was denied the title of professor, and when Shapley approached President Lowell about it, “the president swore that Miss Payne should never ascend to a Harvard professorship while he was alive.” Payne finally did become Harvard’s first female professor in 1956, thirteen years after Lowell’s death.

Conspicuously, every person named in The Glass Universe is white, except one. After Harvard’s Southern Hemisphere observatory closed for the First World War, its Peruvian caretaker, Juan Muñiz, “single-handedly managed . . . the taking of more than one thousand new pictures of the sky.” I read over, several times, this scant trace of brown-skinned participation in early twentieth-century astronomy. Opportunities for white women were slim then, but the probability that a person of color could find scientific work was effectively zero. (Even today, MIT’s student body is 6 percent black — half their representation in the U.S. population.) Women of color were nowhere to be found in science.

In 1941, that began to change. The same year that Harvard’s Annie Jump Cannon died, President Roosevelt signed executive orders desegregating the defense industry and creating fair employment oversight, thus privileging America’s aeronautical advancement — and winning the war — over its prejudices against blacks and women. Two years later, the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in segregated Hampton, Virginia, hired its first “Negro” computers.

Margot Lee Shetterly’s inspired Hidden Figures follows these black women mathematicians from the 1940s heyday of aeronautics, through the Cold War space race and creation of NASA, to the first lunar landing in 1969. Dorothy Vaughan joined Langley’s segregated “West Computing” pool in 1943, rising to manager before becoming one of Langley’s first programmers. After petitioning the Hampton courts for access to engineering night classes at an all-white high school, Mary Jackson became the first black woman at NASA, and one of the first in the country, to earn an engineering degree. Katherine Goble Johnson computed the trajectories for the first manned space flight, then, at John Glenn’s request, performed the IBM computers’ calculations by hand; she went on to calculate orbits for the mission to the moon.

Based on thirty-one personal interviews and over a hundred books and articles, Hidden Figures renders a rich and complex portrait of its protagonists’ lives and the society in which they lived. Shetterly’s writing flows from the micro to the macro effortlessly, so that each woman’s narrative is infused with national and global context, including the vicious racism that pressed, daily, on their lives. Here’s her description of the 1963 Department of Labor brochure highlighting black contributions to the space program: “The resonances and dissonances of the [brochure’s] images were sharpest there at Langley, ten miles from the point where African feet first stepped ashore in English North America in 1619, less than that from the sprawling oak tree where Negroes of the Virginia Peninsula convened for the first southern reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. In a place with deep and binding tethers to the past, Katherine Johnson, a black woman, was midwifing the future.”

Shetterly has great instincts about when to ratchet up the language — Mary Jackson’s court appearance is “a grit-your-teeth, close-your-eyes, take-a-deep-breath kind of indignity” — and when to cool it down. In simple reportage, she tells us, that “Prince Edward [County] schools would remain closed from 1959 to 1964” to avoid desegregation. These language modulations allow us to inhabit the protagonists’ world and feel the fury and the heartbreak of its racism.

The scope of Shetterly’s book is both remarkable and purposeful; she opines, “By recognizing the full complement of extraordinary ordinary women who have contributed to the success of NASA, we can change our understanding of their abilities from the exception to the rule. Their goal wasn’t to stand out because of their differences; it was to fit in because of their talent.” Unfortunately, director Theodore Melfie’s movie adaptation of Hidden Figures distorts this picture. While the film is inspiring and the acting terrific, Johnson is portrayed as a “genius among the geniuses,” in the words of her boss. Shetterly, on the other hand, describes how well Johnson fit in at Langley because of her intelligence, not how much she stood out.

Believing that we fit in is not trivial. I sat in MIT physics classes of fifty-plus people with no other female faces; there was never one at the front of the room. Requesting credit for an exam problem in complex analysis that I had answered (correctly) using a graphing method demonstrated in class, the TA refused, counseling that I should not be “so much in awe of the professor.” It had never occurred to me to be in awe of the professor. To be the only fill-in-the-blank (woman, black, disabled) in the room is to be constantly mis-seen, to have to continually re-realize that the way you perceive yourself is not the way others perceive you. To fit in, to be seen as just another talented scientist, is revolutionary. So it is unfortunate that while the film makes us love the Langley women, it does not “change our understanding of their abilities from the exception to the rule.”

Shetterly realizes her goal “for [the Langley computers] to have the grand, sweeping narrative that they deserve . . . And not because they are black, or because they are women, but because they are part of the American epic.” Sobel’s book, similarly, places the Harvard astronomers at the center of the history of science. Both groups of women keep their eyes on the skies, not immune to the discrimination facing them but working for something that rises above the prejudices of their times. Looking up, with wonder and analytical sharpness and magnificent intelligence. Not as undifferentiated heroes but as people: extraordinary ordinary women.