Women in Astronomy: A History
Where only men had gone before . . .
by Charmie Gholson
At the top floor of the U-M Exhibit Museum, past the terrific mastodon and tiny moles, is the intimate, round planetarium room. Before the lights dim, you can survey from your comfy bench some of the projectors, mirrors, motors, and speakers that create an out-of-this-world experience. The thing in the middle of the room that resembles a Star Wars droid is the planetarium itself, which projects the magnificent images of celestial bodies in their courses onto the domed ceiling.
Stargazing is ancient and romantic: all you need is a pair of eyes. Astronomy, however, is the scientific study of matter in outer space. You need smarts for it physics, math, and general science smarts. Historically astronomy has been a male-dominated field (and even today the gender ratio is 4:1), so some of the extraordinary women featured in the planetarium's new production needed both a scholarly advantage and the ability to endure discrimination. Oh, and angry mobs.
The story starts around 450 A.D. with Hypatia, a noted astronomer in Alexandria, then the Greco-Roman world's center of knowledge. She was an astronomer, a Platonic philosopher, and the first woman to make a substantial contribution to the development of mathematics. Masses of people traveled far to hear her public lectures. According to one fifth-century historian, "she not infrequently appeared in public in the presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in going to an assembly of men, for all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more."
Well, all except a group of fanatical Christian monks who became enraged by her prominence. They formed a mob and dragged her to a church, where they stripped her, murdered her, tore her body into pieces, and took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, where they burned them.
About half of the women profiled in the presentation are modern-day astronomers and probably don't have to worry about angry mobs. Women like Sandra
Faber can safely focus on studying dark matter. Carolyn Shoemaker has codiscovered more than thirty comets, and Sally Ride was America's first woman in space.
Even Julia, a docent who orchestrates the show by playing Oz behind the curtain, told me she's working on a Ph.D. in astronomy. On any other day I would have thought only that I'd met an incredibly smart woman not an uncommon occurrence in our town. But because I met Julia after seeing the show, I left the museum feeling lucky to have encountered not only a dedicated scholar but also a woman who is reshaping history.
Women in Astronomy continues its two-month run at the Exhibit Museum Planetarium every Saturday and Sunday through March 10.
[Originally published in March, 2002.]