Thursday, March 22, 2012

Henrietta Swan Leavitt

"In 1908, an unheralded and at the time unappreciated would-be astronomer, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, was employed as a 'computer' at the Harvard College Observatory. ('Computers' were women brought in to catalogue the brightness of stars recorded on the observatory's photographic plates; women were not allowed to use the observatory telescopes at the time.) Daughter of a Congregational minister and a descendant of the Pilgrims, Leavitt made an astounding discovery, which she further illuminated in 1912: she noticed that there was a regular relationship between the brightness of Cepheid stars and the period of their varieation. Therefore, if one could determine the distance to a single Cepheid of a known period (subsequently determined in 1913), then measuring the brightness of other Cepheids of the same period would allow one to determine the distance to these other stars!...Leavitt's discovery revolutionized the field. (Hubble himself, who was snubbed for the Nobel Prize, often said Leavitt's work deserved the prize, although he was sufficiently self-serving that he might have suggested it only because he would have been a natural contender to share the prize with her for his later work.) Paperwork had actually begun in the Royal Swedish Academy to nominate Leavitt for the Nobel in 1924 when it was learned that she had died of cancer three years earlier. By dint of his force of personality, knack for self-promotion, and skill as an observer, Hubble would become a household name, while Leavitt, alas, is known only to aficiaonados of the field."
Lawrence Krauss, A Universe From Nothing

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