Wednesday, 17 September 2014

History of Women in Science: Annie Cannon and her love of the stars

Physics lab of Sarah Whiting, ca. 1896
Wellesley College Science Lab 1895: Attitude Created Here.
I just finished watching an episode of Cosmos with Neil deGrasse Tyson titled "Sisters of the Sun" on three pioneers in astrophysics: Cecilia Payne, Annie Jump Cannon and Henrietta Leavitt. Comments from the web were positive as the series needed to profile some important women scientist. While the episode gave a great overview, let's look a bit more at these three kick ass women.

Today's blog is all on Annie Cannon. (1863-1941)


 Picture of Annie Jump CannonWhat was her education like?

A rough go at the start. She had hearing damage from fever as a young girl, but in no way did she let it stop her. Annie's interest in astronomy was first sparked as a young girl, when her mother taught her the constellations. She also realized her daughter was super brilliant and told her to go to college and major in science.

At the all women Wellesley College she pursued these interests, learning physics, astronomy, and how to make spectroscopic measurements: the colours of the stars. She then graduated from Wellesley with a degree in physics (1884), became a “special student” of astronomy at Radcliffe College (1894), M.A. from Wellesley College (1907), and was the first woman to receive a doctor of astronomy degree from Groningen University (1921). What really blew everyone away was that she was the first woman to receive an honorary degree from Oxford (1925).

Why is she so kick ass? 

Because she was on the team of women who mapped and defined every star in the sky they could photograph. And she appears in a Wonder Woman Comic.

Seen in Wonder Woman #44, because she was that awesome.

Doctor Cannon became the world's expert in stellar classification, as well as developing and fine-tuning the Harvard system of classification that is studied by astronomy students today. She started by examining the bright southern hemisphere stars. To these stars she applied her system, a division of stars into the spectral classes O, B, A, F, G, K, M. Her scheme was based on the strength of the absorption lines were understood in terms of stellar temperatures, her initial classification system was rearranged to avoid having to update star catalogues.Cannon published her first catalogue of stellar spectra in 1901.

What was she like? 


Cause her nature meant business.
A serious scholar, very neat and tidy, and the brains of a giant. According to her own journals she was passionate about science, a serious worker, and wanted to accomplish great things with her life. She really hated living at home after she graduated the first time, so she found work at Radcliffe, then Wellesley, and then in 1896 was hired by Professor Edward Charles Pickering, director of the Harvard College Observatory where she spent the rest of her career until she retired in 1940.

She travelled extensively, entertained many guests, wrote letters avidly and was an accomplished pianist. She was also an advocate for women's suffrage and a member of the National Women's party.  Late in life Cannon said, “In our troubled days it is good to have something outside our planet, something fine and distant for comfort.”
FYI - On Active History this week is a great interview about women in engineering sciences. A must listen!

When you want to know more - head on over to this great bibliography of women in astronomy.

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