• by Satyaki Goswami

Guidance of Tafheem Masudi and Sukant Khurana

Fueled by globalization, the scientific and technological development has dramatically changed our lives in the contemporary society. Government in developed as well as developing countries are recognizing the importance of such a progress as something which is not limited to academics or intellectual circles. At the same time, the role of men and women have changed dramatically as well. Women have got more freedom to express themselves and take active part in the field of science and technology. Despite the exception being far from negligible, women all over world have actively demonstrated their role in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. From heavy machinery to good production industry, natural-resource management to academia and research, women have occupied different positions in the field of science. The medical industry has employed women in huge percentage in more than one profession. In many cases, they have been excellently successful in juggling the additional burden of domestic work with their professional commitments as well. Still, when it comes to the field of Space Science, one could very easily recognize the lack of “Gender Equality”.

In a recent survey, it was found that major journals, dedicated to astrophysics and astronomy, have only 5–10% women as editor-in-chief. When it comes to speakers and chairpersons, the ratio is of a mere 10–15%. Similarly, the survey of women playing key-roles in conferences and seminars don’t boast a notable amount. It’s been duly noted that this field has suffered from lack of representation with regards to identity and gender. The cause of this problem is complex and due to its multifaceted nature, we have not been able to pinpoint any major trigger; young girls show just as much passion and interest in the field of space science and yet something is wrong, presumably at multiple nodes. In a recent survey by the Astronomical Society of India (ASI), it was shown that women comprise near 12% of the faculty at Indian institutes dedicated towards astronomy and astrophysics while the percentage of female Post-Doc and PhD aspirants is 30% and 32% respectively. These variations show that the gender balance is not at all well achieved as the fraction of women in the given level of advancement is smaller than the overall sample space.

In the midst of all this, there is a considerable number of people who tend to tag this issue as something trivial or bogus, blaming everything on career choices. This ignorant lot often skips to include the fact that acknowledgment has been a big issue of this complexity as historically, women have played a key-role in the study of the cosmos, in one way or the other.

Aglaonike, who lived around 400 BC, is widely cited as the first female astronomer in western history. She is mentioned in the writings of Plutarch and Apollonius. Born in Thessaly, it is believed that she studied in Mesopotamia. She was familiar with the Saros Cycle which was heavily studied by the Chaldeans, and consequently would predict eclipses with great precision, Due to her brilliance in this field, people believed her to be a sorceress. Eventually she was labeled as a “witch” as her predictions were amazingly precise for her time. She raised a school of female astronomers known as “Witches of Thessaly”. A Greek follows “Yes, even as the moon obeys Aglaonike”.

Pottery Art showing Aglaonike. (Sitting) So good was she at predicting the cycles of the moon that many thought her to be a sorceress because she could make the moon disappear from the sky. (Source: www.deviantart.com)

One necessarily does not have to go eons back in time in order to realize the female brilliance in this field. Long before we had our convenient computers in the form of desktops and laptops, there was another variant. In the early 20th century, the women who made calculations and reduce astronomical data were known as “computers”.

One of the most famous “computers” of the day was Annie Jump Cannon (above) (Source: airandspace.si.edu)

Their computations paved way for groundbreaking astronomical discoveries while guiding rookie astronomers. Thus one can say, without hesitation, that the way we look at stars has been heavily influenced by women. Their passion for the heavens has made up for their lack of numbers. Here are some of the most remarkable women who have put a dent in the field, paving new ways for space exploration:

Henrietta Swan Leavitt

Leavitt is best known for discovering about 2,400 variable stars between 1907 and 1921; (Source: www.space.com)

1)Henrietta Leavitt is one of the ‘brightest’ (pun intended) stars in the sky of astronomy. Her story won’t fail to motivate anyone who wants to pursue their dreams. Born on 4th July, 1868, her family moved to Cleveland in Ohio. After attending Oberlin College there, she went on to graduate from the Society for the collegiate instruction for Women. After taking an astronomy course in her fourth year of college, she fell in love with the subject. But unfortunately, Leavitt lost her auditory senses during her travels in America and Europe. While this did have an impact in her life, it wasn’t enough to make her give on her passion. In 1893, she was hired at the Harvard College Observatory. There, her job was to measure and catalog the brightness of the stars using photographic plates. She also had to look after and take care of the telescopes in the observatory. It was a big deal as women in those times were not even allowed to use the telescopes. Although her previous work was unpaid, eventually she was hired by American astronomer and physicist Edward Charles Pickering as a permanent member of the staff with a wage of 30 cents per hour.

Leavitt had a massive contribution in the field of astronomy which later on triggered its modernization. While studying the stars using photographic plates, she realized that there were no generalized scales or standard in order to categorize the magnitudes of a star. Leavitt took a bold decision, the ones which has been the driving force of science since the early days of philosophizing the nature, and decided to create her own system of categorizing. The International Committee of Photographic Magnitudes, in 1913, adopted this system. Her groundbreaking discovery, however, came after Pickering assigned her to study variable stars, a type of star whose brightness fluctuates (as seen from earth). While she was studying such stars within the Magellanic Clouds (two irregular dwarf galaxies), she noticed that some of these stars followed a pattern- the brighter variable stars had longer period of brightness, being easy to predict. If a star’s intrinsic brightness could be estimated from its pulsation rate then we could determine how distant any of these Cepheid variable stars were from Earth. This opened a way to measure the distances of stars from earth.

Following the aforementioned achievements, one could definitely say that Henrietta Leavitt has influenced the era of astronomy which followed. Without her, Ejnar Hertzsprung could not have plotted stellar distances; Edwin Hubble could not have conceptualized the age of universe. She never married or had kids, and dedicated her career towards science. She passed away in 1921.

After a few years, Swedish mathematician Gösta Mittag-Leffler considered nominating her for the Nobel Prize for her work on variable stars, unaware of the fact that she was no more. He tried to contact the observatory, where Harlow Shapley took over as the director shortly after her death. Shapley tried to take credit for Leavitt’s work, implying on his interpretation of her findings. Thankfully, he did not get nominated but the sad fact remains that Leavitt could not become a Nobel laureate.

Vera Cooper Rubin

Vera Rubin is considered to be the champion and role model of women in astronomy. (Source: airandspace.si.edu)

2)Vera Rubin was born in Philadelphia in 1928 and moved to Washington DC by the time she was 10. Her curiosity for the night sky bloomed at a young age which was evident by her fascination. She pondered on questions while peeking out of window- what caused the stars to move across the sky, and why the moon and the sun seemed to follow her whenever she was in a moving vehicle. Rubin graduated from Vassar College, in New York state, and her unquenchable thirst to understand the universe lead her to be the only astronomy major in her class. She eventually earned a master’s degree from Cornell University and PhD from Georgetown University. Her thesis demonstrated that rather than being evenly distribute in space, galaxies were clustered like assemblage. This was a crucial finding with important implications which were recognized many years later.

After teaching at Georgetown, she went for a research position at Carnegie Institution’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism in Washington DC in 1965. In early 1970s, she teamed up with astronomer Kent Ford and others to study the rotation of spiral galaxies. The study showed that galaxies were rotating with such a pace that theoretically, they should fall apart as the gravity from their constituent stars would not have been enough to hold them together. Rubin and her colleagues hypothesized that some unseen mass might be acting as glue. This groundbreaking work provided the first ever direct evidence of something that’s a hot topic today- dark matter, a mysterious substance that makes up most of the known universe but emits no energy or light. Their theory still remains the most reliable for the “Galaxy Rotation Problem”.

Vera’s accomplishments have been recognized by numerous honors, including the US National Medal of Science, the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in London, the Gruber Foundation Cosmology Prize, the James Craig Watson Medal of the US National Academy of Sciences and many honorary degrees. She was a role model for many young astronomers and a champion for women in science.

Vera Rubin passed away on 25 December 2016, aged 88.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Burnell is often considered to be a tragic figure (Source: www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk)

3)Jocelyn Burnell is widely accepted to have been denied the acknowledgement she deserves. She was born in Belfast in 1943. Her father was an architect and was involved in designing Armagh Planetarium. She used to read books on astronomy from a young age. Her love for Physics developed gradually and she graduated with a degree in physics from the University of Glasgow and then a doctorate from University of Cambridge. This was the turning point in her scientific career.

As a postgraduate research assistant at Cambridge, her first two years were dedicated towards helping with the construction of a 81.5 MHz radio telescope that was going to be used to observe quasars. After its activation in 1976, she was given the responsibility of handling and analyzing massive amount of data the telescope provided us with. After a few weeks, Jocelyn observed something strange in her readings- a radio source which was too fast and regular to be the quasar she and Antony Hewish, under whom she was working. It was named the ‘Little Green Man’ for the time being. Through meticulous research, she and her colleagues eventually identified these radio signals as coming from a rapidly spinning neutron star, or pulsar, as it became known.

Despite her sheer hard work, her name was listed as the second author of the paper and due to some unfair and unfortunate turn of events, she didn’t receive the Nobel Prize, for this discovery, in 1974 and it went to her advisor Antony Hewish and his colleague Sir Martin Ryle! This controversial decision had become an outrage. It was stated by Burnell that Hewish dismissed her initial reports regarding the “anomaly” and scoffed it off by blaming it to be a man-made disturbance. Despite this blatant biased incident, she went on to become a distinguished scientist. She was a professor of physics at the Open University and a Visiting Professor at Princeton University. At the end of her career, she became the Dean of Science at the University of Bath.

Throughout her career, Brunell emphasized on the need of females in the field of astronomy and other space sciences. Despite her lack of recognition, she held no grudges as she was happy about the scientific milestone her discovery was able to put in the field of astronomy.

Debra Fischer

Fischer has been at the vanguard of the search for exoplanets (Source: fas.yale.edu)

4)Yale astronomer Debra Fischer is a “hunter”- except she hunts for exoplanets. She began her career in 1997 by measuring Doppler shifts in the spectra of stars which was also the topic of her doctoral thesis. This method, known as Doppler spectroscopy, is used to detect exoplanets.

A professor of astronomy at Yale University, Fischer has discovered hundreds of exoplanets, including the first known multiple planet system in 1999. Her analysis of the stellar spectra showed that gas giants, large planet composed of gases with small rocky core, were more likely to exist around stars with a higher density of heavy elements. This resulted in establishment of the famous Planet-Metallicity correlation. She carried out a research on Hot Jupiters (a class of exoplanets similar to Jupiter in physical aspects but have a short orbital period) orbiting metal-rich stars and detected 30 new exoplanets in this procedure.

In her lab at Yale, her team developed a double fiber scrambler, technology used for high-resolution spectrographs, for the High Resolution Echelle Spectrometer at Keck Observatory. They’re also working on new spectrograph calibration techniques. Apart from this, Fischer is the principal investigator for CHIRON, a fiber-fed spectrometer commissioned at the 1.5m telescope at CTIO (Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory) in northern Chile. A superstar in the space science community, this eminent astronomer has admitted that her real goal is to find extraterrestrial life!

Sandra Moore Faber

Faber was the recipient of the Bruce Medal, given for outstanding lifetime contributions to astronomy (Source: http://www.ucolick.org)

5) 6) Faber was born in Boston and graduated from High School at Pittsburgh. She did her undergraduate studies at Swarthmore College, majoring in physics. She earned her PhD in astronomy at Harvard University in 1972. Interestingly, she worked with Vera Rubin and Kent Ford as a graduate student. Since 1972, Faber has been at the University of California and University of California Observatories and was awarded the honor of ‘University Professor’ in 1996.

Her research interest lies in the understanding of formation and evolution of galaxies. This includes the study of their properties like motion etc. In 1976, Faber and her student Robert Earl Jackson discovered a relation between the orbital speeds of stars in elliptical galaxies and the galaxy’s mass through spectrographic observations. Other such laws have emerged since then, but the Faber-Jackson relation was the first. In 1979, along with John S. Gallagher, she published a paper which was a comprehensive and full-proof review on the existence of dark matter which went on to became a landmark in space science. In another paper published in 1983, co-authored by her, she concluded that dark matter could not be neutrinos but another species of particle which travels much slowly. Studying the structure and evolution of the stellar activity and population of galaxies, she demonstrated the importance of dark matter halos in determining their evolution. It’s obvious that her list of achievements is a long one!

A heavy-weight in the field of Astrophysics, Faber has led the development of the DEIMOS spectrograph for the Keck II telescope. She was also involved in the construction of the diagnosis and correction of the initial spherical aberration on the Hubble Space Telescope. She received the National Medal of Science in 2013, for her contributions to the understanding of dark matter, galaxy formation, and the large-scale structure of the universe. She also received the Gruber Cosmology Prize in 2017. She a principal investigator in the CANDLE project which aims to survey the universe using Hubble Telescope. Since 2012, she became the interim director of the University of California Observatories and is currently serving as the co-editor of the ‘Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics’ as well.

The list of women in space science is not limited to the above five. However, this list clearly puts the spotlight on the important aspects of their involvement in the field. It shows how they were denied of the most deserved acknowledgements and accessibility to resources which men had. At the same time, it doesn’t fail to demonstrate how iron-willed these “Heroines” of space sciences have been- striving for knowledge with nothing but their wit and their will. It demonstrates how the gender bias had infected one of the most progressive and liberal fields. These are just five from the vast number of bold women who have made important contribution in this field, many of whom had to face similar problems, prohibitions, and restrictions. All this yet women did not fail to prove themselves equal in every aspect of intellect and scientific rigour. This list tells us the good old tail of “winning against all the odds”. These women have overcome vast ordeals, not just to unveil the secrets of our wonderful universe, but also to remind us that in the realm of science, gender could never be a “real” issue.


1) ‘Henrietta Swan Leavitt: Discovered How to Measure Stellar Distances’ by Elizabeth Howell; Space.com

2) ‘Capturing the Essence of Astronomer Vera Rubin’ by David DeVorkin; airandspace.si.edu

3) Jocelyn Bell Burnell: Discovering Pulsars

4) Fischer: New Worlds Await; fas.yale.edu

5) carnegiescience.edu

6) The Bruce Medalists; www.phys-astro.sonoma.edu