Cosmic Disruption

A Twenty-first Century Decentering

From The “Total eclipse of the sun, January 1, 1889 : a report of the observations made by the Washington University eclipse party at Norman, California,” 1891.

“It looked as though we had all gathered on hilltops to pray for the world on its last day,” Annie Dillard writes of a congregation of eclipse-viewers, in her essay, “Total Eclipse.” Dr. Ofelia Zepeda’s poem, “Riding the Earth,” reverses the gaze; instead of people come together looking out at the heavens, the heavens watch a woman who “felt the earth move again”:

She sees herself with her long hair floating,
 floating in the atmosphere of stardust
 She rides her planet the way a child rides a toy.
 Her company is the boy who takes the sun on its daily journey
 and the man in the moon smiles as she passes by.

This jovial companionship of woman and earth and the astronomical “boy” and “man” elicit much the same feeling as Dava Sobel’s telling of the women of the early Harvard Observatory, in her 2016 book, The Glass Universe. Through absorbing storytelling and a persistent knack for remaining in her subjects’ present, Sobel carries readers through the many multinational and often female efforts of the late 1800s and early 1900s to understand the skies.

The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel. Viking, 2016. 333pp, nonfiction.

Sobel shows, without having to explicitly argue it, that progress happens as a series of many meaningful, small steps taken by a multitude and distilled over time, and that better, more complete work is done when carried out by a diverse group. Universe is a joyful book because, like “Riding the Earth,” it describes a moment in which women held positions of power and importance as though it were the most natural thing for them to do so. Rather than a tale of struggle, this is one of comradery, of men fighting for the recognition of their female peers, of collaboration and assistance.

An especially heartening part of this little history is that the white women who found and benefited from opportunity at Harvard, helped others through times of extraordinary oppression, taking in Jews and Russians during the second world war, and a Japanese family during the mass-internment of Japanese Americans (249). The book doesn’t mention any effort to aid African Americans, and Sobel’s research is thorough, so it’s probably safe to assume there wasn’t a concerted one. That said, these were women who thought and lived beyond the bounds of the societal strictures of their era — working after marriage, not taking their husbands’ names (228), assuming equality with their male colleagues — and it seems reasonable to think their views and actions toward black Americans may have been anomalous as well.

The Glass Universe begins with Anna Palmer Draper’s loss of her husband, Henry. The couple had been working together to photograph the spectra of the stars, and after Henry’s death, Mrs. Draper corresponds with Professor Edward Pickering of Harvard College Observatory about a plan to carry on Henry’s work. Anna Draper’s generous funding, coupled with additional money from another lifelong donor, Catherine Bruce, leads to observatories founded in Peru and South Africa, and is part of why the observatory was able to employ a group of “computers” — women who could “read” the glass plates on which the spectral photographs were printed.

In a matter of decades, a thriving network had been formed through women professors, donors, amateur astronomers, college students, and observatories. Women were ripping through a list of firsts, and having a good time doing it. One of the observatory’s longtime computers, Mina Fleming, was the first person to detect a nova — a new star — using spectral photography (57). In 1899, Fleming was appointed the “curator of astronomical photographs” by the Harvard Corporation, making her “the first woman ever to hold a title at the observatory, or the college, or the university at large” (89). Annie Jump Cannon was the first female assistant commissioned to examine variable stars at night through a telescope rather than during the day, using photographs (74). Miss Cannon was also the first woman in the history of Oxford to receive “an honorary doctor of science degree” (214), and the first to receive the Draper Medal of the National Academy of Sciences. She was later made the “William Cranch Bond Astronomer and Curator of Astronomical Photographs” (244). Henrietta Swan Leavitt discovered and interpreted the period-luminosity relation (191), and Antonia Maury was the first female author, in 1897, to be included in the Annals of the Harvard College Observatory (79). Women became directors of independent observatories (167), lectured authoritatively about their respective fields, and founded astronomy fellowships.

The situation of these women was not perfect. They were not paid as much as their male counterparts, the titles matching their work were often withheld, and they were frequently the only member of their sex at large astronomy society gatherings. This doesn’t diminish the joy apparent in their writings, or found in their story. Upon discovering that she had been put on the “Committee of Classification of Stellar Spectra,” Miss Cannon wrote: “one of the novel experiences of the summer was to meet with this Committee…I was the only woman. Since I have done almost all the world’s work in this one branch, it was necessary for me to do most of the talking” (158).

It’s interesting to think about what stories will be told about the era we live in now, in which we’re actively examining the diversity of institutions and corporations, and pushing for higher inclusion across board. Marlon James recently showed the lie of many a (white) person’s notion of progress in an essay posted to Facebook after the white supremacist/Nazi “protest” in Charlottesville, Virginia: “Progress implies the evolution from one legitimate (or at least benign) state to another… The mistake you made waiting on progress from racism, was the assumption that racism was something to progress out of. Bigotry can’t evolve, it has to be eliminated.”

Monday, August 21st will bring a total solar eclipse visible from Oregon to South Carolina. A few people on Twitter have wished for the event to return “us” to a place of normalcy. But to return to normalcy would be a return to complacency for many white Americans. Those for whom the system was built don’t feel the system at work. The strides made during the period in astronomy discussed in Universe included the decentering of the sun. The man who made the observations necessary to come to this conclusion wrote: “the solar system is off center and consequently man is too, which is a rather nice idea… He is incidental — my favorite term is ‘peripheral’” (170). Though the author of this statement surely intended “man” to mean “mankind,” it’s possible to think of this era as the decentering of men, and to see the rise of women as progress for so-called “mankind.”

Now we are inside another moment of decentering. White supremacy has long been the American reality. It can be seen in the way American history is told, and in who most often finds success. Black people have long been working to decenter whites. This does not mean black citizens have sought to “take over” as some political pundits and bigots would term these efforts. Like the women of Harvard Observatory, black and Native Americans are seeking full human existence and rights. We should not wish for a return to normal, but rather hope that this time of extraordinary upheaval succeeds in the decentering of white people in America and indeed topples the need for a center altogether.

Observing the sky can be like looking into our past, but it has the equal ability to help us see our smallness, and how little we matter individually. This perspective could give a way forward into a future where white Americans vigorously grapple with the rampant displacement, violence, and annihilation of Native and black Americans. We are actively creating the story of this moment, with every action we take, and with every injustice left unquestioned. When the total solar eclipse of 2017 is written about, in what context will the writer be able to place it?

In case you’re not in the path of totality, or you’re not able to get out and see the sky, Dillard’s account of the eclipse of 1979 remains a way to experience this strange part of earthly existence. This extraordinary heavenly event may be an opportunity for many of us to consider the future––the new ordinary––we wish to create. “I turned back to the sun. It was going. The sun was going, and the world was wrong,” Dillard writes, and continues:

“The grasses were wrong; they were platinum. Their every detail of stem, head, and blade shone lightless and artificially distinct as an art photographer’s platinum print. This color has never been seen on Earth. The hues were metallic; their finish was matte. The hillside was a 19th-century tinted photograph from which the tints had faded. All the people you see in the photograph, distinct and detailed as their faces look, are now dead. The sky was navy blue. My hands were silver. All the distant hills’ grasses were finespun metal which the wind laid down. I was watching a faded color print of a movie filmed in the Middle Ages; I was standing in it, by some mistake. I was standing in a movie of hillside grasses filmed in the Middle Ages. I missed my own century, the people I knew, and the real light of day.”
Like what you read? Give Sarah Hoenicke a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.