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The Legendary Harvard Computers: Pathbreaking Women Astronomers

by Kareena Dodeja
The Legendary Harvard Computers: Pathbreaking Women Astronomers

March 3, 2021

Did you know more than a century ago, women were called ‘human computers?’ Today, many astronomers are making discoveries from their old notebooks.

The Harvard Astronomer Edward Charles Pickering took a thousand captures of various small segments of the universe through his telescope. He never expected that today those pictures would be stored in hundreds or thousands of glass plates at the Harvard College Observatory. 

The real mystery was that the actual work of studying those photographs was done by a group of women called the Harvard Computers. Pickering might have thought about the idea, but the execution was, in fact, done by women.

Daina Bouquin, the head librarian at the Harvard- Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, says, “So this team of women, over the course of a couple of decades, basically analyzed and created the first all-sky catalogue.”

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Lady supervised the women “computers” at Harvard College Observatory. The Harvard Computers spent decades studying the night sky, recording their observations in notebooks and on photographic plates, which citizen scientists are now transcribing

Harvard Computers revolutionised Astronomy

The movie ‘Hidden Figures’ had women toiling day and night and produced breakthrough work in astronomy. Some inspirational women on the field are Henrietta Swan Leavitt and Annie Jump Cannon, who worked rigorously on the motion and brightness of stars. These women were called Harvard computers

This data is now fundamental to understanding the basic structure of the universe, isn’t that inspiring?

Bouquin said that in the late 1800s and early 1900s, astronomy was going through a revolution. They were shifting from mapping the sky to see what goes behind it, trying to understand the physics of the sky. Currently, she is leading an impeccable initiative known as Project Phaedra, which aims to digitize and catalogue decades of work done by Harvard Computers.

This is a strenuous process as the collection of notebooks by women Harvard Computers is highly extensive for researchers alone. The project is reliant on volunteers to skim through decades of astronomical observations to find anything that could help researchers today. Any scientist can be involved in this project from anywhere in the world; all that requires is a computer and coffee, of course.

The volunteers transcribe the notebook pages and observe any obscurity in decades. If they find anything that could lead to any astronomical revolution, they add it to a growing collection of searchable data in a NASA archive. Thus, we are adding fuel to the fire lit by iconic Harvard Computers.

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Henrietta Swan Leavitt's research at Harvard College Observatory led to two of the most important discoveries in astrophysics. Henrietta Leavitt gave us a tool to gauge the size and expansion rate of the universe.

Further study on Harvard Computers' findings

The astronomers learned a lot about how the stars, planets, galaxies, and more evolved but yet there is so much left to uncover. With the reference of the Harvard Computers, they were able to realise how the cosmos change slowly having a night sky record that dates back to more than 100 years.

This data helped them compare modern-day observations and it wouldn’t have been possible without these notebooks. Bouquin metaphorically compares with the fossil record, if we didn’t have it- we wouldn’t even try to attempt paleontology.

The work of these women Harvard Computers is stored in thousands of notebooks at the observatory. They contain precise notes and measurements which is decades of work, the women have given them all studying every glass plate in detail.

They have noted down the positions, movements, and characteristics of the stars right down to every tiniest detail. The project is to open the data to researchers by transcribing them into a digital and accessible format.

The scientists have been working on turning the notebooks into data that astronomers can reference to see what the sky would have been decades back. It can help them understand the universe better by watching the objects move. The Astronomer Henrietta used these findings by Harvard Computers to record stars in the Small Magellanic Cloud which is a small satellite galaxy of the Milky Way. 

Contributions of Women in Astronomy

Bouquin says that the project is about halfway done through the transcribing. They have uploaded the transcriptions to NASA’s Astrophysics Data System, which is a massive repository of data for astronomers to make use of. 

This project not only adds more knowledge of space but also reminds us of the overlooked contributions of women in astronomy.

Henrietta Swan Leavitt, one of the Harvard Computers, studied variable stars which can change brightness over a period. This led to the biggest creation of the cosmic distance ladder, which helps measure things far away in the cosmos. Her discoveries have been pathbreaking to understand the age of the universe and determine how far away objects are.

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Harvard computers working in a room in the new brick building, built in 1892.

There is one more legendary Harvard computer known as Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin who studied the spectra of stars which is the wavelength of light they emit. Her work shows that stars are made of hydrogen and helium.

Astronomers thought stars were made of the same elements of earth previous to this discovery. She has contributed to understanding the universe in a much simpler way that can not be overlooked.

The computers’ observations are filled with sketches, notes, and postcards that add to the history of the notebooks. They are a testament to the lives of these women who have worked day and night collecting the data.

The volunteers of Project Phaedra have been picking out the personal touches and trying to bring a broader perspective of these Harvard Computers, according to Bouquin.

The valuable efforts of these women astronomers have not been recognized enough. They have worked tirelessly to bring new discoveries to light. These Harvard Computers have paved the way for research in astronomy today; history will forever remember them as iconic women.

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