Monday, 27 December 2010

Opening the doors of the heavens

It must have been the early 1920's. The Great War was over and Arthur Stanley Eddington had just come back from a voyage off West Africa which had made him "the man that proved Einstein right". He was in his office at Cambridge, perhaps working on relativity or on his next major project, the mass-luminosity relationship in stars, which ultimately led to his groundbreaking "The Internal Constitution of the Stars" - when in came the Second Assistant of the Observatory, a man named Henry Green, who said: "There's a woman out there asking questions."

Perhaps the telescope - or one of many? - at Cambridge. Courtesy Society for the History of Astronomy.

It was a public observing night at the Sheepshanks Telescope. Poor Henry Green had no idea why two stars of the same age should be different colours, or several other things she wanted to know, and had come to ask Eddington for help.

When Eddington arrived, the woman was standing near the eyepiece with a child in her arms. She was holding her up to look through the eyepiece and telling her what to look for, and the audience about the Andromeda Spiral, then not known as another galaxy but thought to be a nebula in our own.

She turned round when she heard Eddington "chuckle quietly". She was a large, tall woman with blue-grey eyes, a broad forehead, and slightly poking-out chin. Normally serious and shy to the point of being thought "comical" and "slow", her fascination with astronomy had just prompted her to talk enough to Henry Green that he "left her in charge" of the talk - and her to talk to Eddington now. She had recently attended a lecture he had given on relativity and its astronomical aspects, which had set her imagination afire to the extent that - as she put it decades later - "I knew again the thunderclap that had come from the realization that all motion is relative . . . For three nights, I think, I did not sleep . . . I experienced something very like a nervous breakdown." She had written the lecture down word for word, and decided to switch her studies (various sciences) to physics.

She told Eddington she wanted to be an astronomer. This was not a path open to women at the time (nor would it be for many years); but he did not attempt to dissuade her, and she asked him what she should read. Every book he suggested she had already read. So he invited her to use the Observatory's library, at which she would find the two journals Astrophysical Journal and the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin recalls that it was that night that Eddington had "opened the doors of the heavens" to her. And she went on, against many odds, to be known in her lifetime as the greatest woman astronomer of all time.

It's wonderful how a small intervention, or series of interventions, can change the future. It was pretty well by chance that, following a series of disappointments during and after university and planning on switching from teaching English as a Foreign Language to chemistry, I had some free time and decided to indulge myself with a return to astronomy, my long-lost childhood love. It was through getting "BANG!" and finding their question and answer website that it really hit home that anyone could write to scientists with questions, not just the professors' favourite few at university. I'd heard talk of students who did that. I never could think of any questions, much less felt I had the right. As soon as I got back into astronomy, I was brimming with questions. And, as I discovered, Chris was happy to answer them. Not just about the book, but about a Sky at Night. Specifically, I asked how on earth painting an asteroid white would deflect its course. He explained radiation pressure to me and, having a handle, I now knew what to go and look up. He reassured me about bothering him. "It's genuinely great to get feedback," he e-mailed. "We often just cast something out into the ether with no idea whether it works or not."

It's that, really, that made me actively pursue astronomy the way I hadn't even figured out how to pursue environmental science, in four years of doing a degree in the stuff. In spring, by which time I was taking a pre-teaching course in chemistry at Sussex University, I did an afternoon practical alone over lunchtime so I could rush off to a lecture in Oxford. Why didn't I do this at university? I don't know. But in any case, that opened the Galaxy Zoo Forum to me (which in turn opened up She is an Astronomer, article writing, and Skeptics in the Pub!). I've felt that I can not only search for, and ask about, whatever I like in astronomy, but I can also make a contribution. Not to science - well, except my classifying. But to the astronomical community. To education. To, perhaps, setting other people on the path to be scientists. Not only do I love doing this, but I can repay.

In a world where sexism was quite respectable, and Cecilia was disregarded for countless positions at universities across England and America because a woman could not be in charge or would be thought unsafe or unseemly or what have you in an observatory, Eddington (and of course others) gave her little helping hands. Not of course with the work, for at that she excelled. But at getting somewhere. At having confidence. She set up public observing nights at that telescope in Cambridge - and placed a book there with instructions that everyone observing recorded what they saw. That's just the kind of co-operative, practical thing a good scientist does. But you need a certain confidence - a certain feeling of permission - before you can do that. If you feel invisible and ground down, these things are beyond your reach.

As you've probably guessed, I'm currently reading Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin's autobiography. It's a slim volume, devoted largely to her school and undergraduate education and her early years in the States, with family history at the beginning and philosophical thoughts at the end, and several other essays by her colleagues and her daughter. The passage which contains the story I began this post with was an utter joy to read. I could feel her seizing the moment; I could feel that earthquake of a realisation scientific or personal that sheds light, understanding, and courage.

And I could sense that it might have been a little thing for Eddington. I'm finding there are a great many kind, helpful scientists out there like Chris (and I expect a great many not!), who take the trouble to answer someone's questions, to try and show them things in a new light; and, occasionally, to advise them or to exert influence to get them somewhere else. I can only do these things in the smallest of ways on the Galaxy Zoo Forum - encouraging and sometimes equipping people to write zooite Objects of the Day for example, or passing along their questions or findings to the team - yet I think it does occasionally make an immense difference. Scientists and communicators have an awesome potential nowadays, especially in the age of the Internet. I think it would be harder for some than others. But if you're reading this and you work in science, this is why it's so important to reach the public when you can. It'll get you more audience, more colleagues, and so very much more - joy and otherwise - will come out of your work.

1 comment:

Sakib said...

Its amazing how one choice can send your life down a completely different path in comparison to the opposite choice! I'm incredibly happy that I discovered astronomy all those years ago, you don't know what it'll end up leading to!
This blog wouldn't exist if you hadn't chanced upon that book, all it takes is one little serendipitous moment and you're off on an unexpected adventure!
I absolutely love sharing my passion and knowledge of astronomy with other people and I gain huge satisfaction from making people discover the unknown and mysterious!
Its great fun coming up with questions and asking professional astronomers about various nebulae and galaxies, I think the professionals are really generous and helpful and I love the sense of closeness and camaraderie in the astronomical community!
I would love to read a biography about Williamina Fleming and various other people, I want to explore the history behind influential figures as its important to know how we got to where we are right now by studying the past!