Today is Women Astronomers Day. When opening any history book, it might seem that it has been only men that have made the most important astronomical discoveries and breakthroughs. While this is the result of a patriarchal society, it is actually not true. Throughout the history of astronomy, women have played essential roles towards astronomical breakthroughs. In this article we highlight but a few of these women identified in history from 1600 to the modern era.

Published by the editorial team, 31 July 2020

Women astronomers throughout history

Maria Cunitz (1610-1664) is one of the most notable women astronomers of the early modern era. The Silesian (a region in Middle Europe, currently lying in Poland, Czech Republic and Germany) wrote the book Urania propitia, in which she calculated new tables, new ephemera, and a simpler working solution to Kepler's Area Law for determining the position of a planet on its elliptical path.

Caroline Herschel (1750 – 1848) is probably best known as being the younger sister of astronomer William Herschel, but she also made her own impressive achievements in the field of astronomy including compiling the groundwork of the New General Catalogue which is completely familiar to all astronomers via the “NGC” prefix attached to some of the most outstanding objects in the night sky.  The German astronomer discovered nebulas and several comets, the first one on 1 August 1786 and has one named after her: 35P/Herschel-Rigollet. She was the first woman to receive both a salary as a scientist and a Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The American Maria Mitchell (1818-1889) was an astronomer, librarian, naturalist, and educator. In 1847, she discovered a comet named 1847 VI (C/1847 T1), which was later dubbed “Miss Mitchell’s Comet” in her honour. What sets Mitchell (who was born on the 1st of August) out most, however, is that she was the first internationally known woman to work as both a professional astronomer and a professor of astronomy.

The Welsh Thereza Dillwyn Llewelyn (1834-1926) was a pioneer in scientific photography. She developed an interest in astronomy and together with her father she performed several astrophotographic experiments, including some of the earliest photographs of the moon.

Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868-1921) was an American astronomer who worked as a ‘computer’ at the Harvard College Observatory. She performed mathematical calculations and had to examine photographic plates in order to measure and catalogue the brightness of stars. In doing so, she discovered the relation between the luminosity and the period of Cepheid variables. This gave astronomers the first ‘standard candle’ to work with, a means to measure the distance to faraway galaxies. Her work became fundamental in Hubble’s measurements on the galaxy, proving that the Universe is in fact expanding.

Henrietta Swan Leavitt working at her desk in the Harvard College Observatory
Henrietta Swan Leavitt working at her desk in the Harvard College Observatory

In her 1925 doctoral thesis, the American astronomer and astrophysicist Cecilia Helena Payne-Gaposchkin (1900-1979) made the then ground breaking proposal that stars were composed primarily of hydrogen and helium. Contradicting the scientific beliefs of that time, her proposal was initially rejected. However, independent observations eventually proved that she had been right.

The British astrophysicist Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell (1943) co-discovered the first radio pulsars in 1967. This discovery was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1974, although Bell was not one of its recipients. Whilst this led to controversy among many prominent astronomers, Bell has said she believed it would demean Nobel Prizes “if they were awarded to research students, except in very exceptional cases, and I do not believe this is one of them.“

Katherine Louise Bouman (1989) works in the field of computer imagery. The American engineer and computer scientist led the development of an algorithm for imaging black holes, known as Continuous High-resolution Image Reconstruction using Patch priors (CHIRP) and was a member of the Event Horizon Telescope team that captured the first image of a black hole in April 2019.

Women astronomers at ASTRON

In today’s society we naturally expect to see a diversity of people working in science. ASTRON is no exception. Here we choose to highlight three women who are part of the institute. They are, however, but a few examples of the women who are an essential part of our organization.

Astrophysicist and radio astronomer Raffaella Morganti explores the life-cycle of radio sources using radio telescope LOFAR. When she joined ASTRON in 1999, she was the only woman astronomer employed there. Since, ASTRON has committed itself to more diversity among its employers.  Morganti is Italian and now a long-time resident of the Netherlands. She has held prestigious grants to further this research. Morganti is one of the authors of the LOFAR system paper, which has now been cited over a thousand times.

Carole Jackson is the General & Scientific Director of ASTRON since 2017.  Jackson is British/Australian and specialises in statistical cosmological studies of the evolution of radio galaxies.  Through her career she has contributed several influential papers on the design and planning of next-generation telescopes, including the SKA.

Astronomer Caterina Tiburzi has been with ASTRON since 2018.  Tiburzi's field of investigation is primarily the Solar wind, studied through the modifications that it introduces on the light of background objects. She was involved in the development of software by her colleague Golam Shaifullah, that can find coronal mass ejections and at the same time can predict the modifications that the coronal mass ejections induce.

Caterina Tiburzi
Caterina Tiburzi

As this overview makes abundantly clear, women have always been crucial in the development of the field of astronomy.


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