Book Review: Women Astronomers: Reaching For The Stars

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Some girls do not show much interest in science and math, which is too bad considering how well women have done in these fields down through the years. Though usually discouraged from pursuing opportunities in mathematics, biology, astronomy and related fields, when gifted women have been given the right tools and offered encouragement they often have succeeded just as well, if not better, than their male counterparts.

Mabel Armstrong, a former college chemistry professor, has detailed the historical female stars in astronomy, dating back to Babylonian times when priestesses accurately predicted the arrival of comets and eclipses. In, “Women Astronomers: Reaching For The Stars,” (2008 | Stone Pine Press), Armstrong takes the reader back through history to look at the women who took stargazing to a level not common to their gender.

Women Astronomers is interesting and informative, sharing information about numerous women who have made their mark tracking celestial stars including:

EnHeduanna — Being the daughter of a Babylonian leader had its perks. When your father was King Sargon, who ruled around 2350 BCE, the opportunities are endless. Though her birth name was unknown, Sargon’s daughter was called EnHeduanna which means “ornament of heaven.” That name was appropriate because she managed a team of astronomer priestesses who tracked the movement of stars and created calendars, accurately predicting eclipses and the arrival of comets.

Hildegard of Bingen — Europe’s Dark Ages followed the decline of the Roman Empire and suggested the economic and cultural collapse of Europe. But those centuries of deprivation weren’t totally void of educational advancement as the convents and monasteries of that era sparked study. Hildegard of Bingen, who was born in 1098, opened a convent in 1150, studying celestial matters as well as the spiritual. She was one of the first to believe that the earth revolved around the sun, a matter that was ignored for more than 300 years.

Maria Mitchell — Born in 1818 in Nantucket, Maria Mitchell’s interest in the stars came from her family’s ties to shipping. You see, boat captains relied on the stars to help with their navigation, using that information to move between two points to avoid collisions and other catastrophes.  In 1847, while scanning the heavens, Mitchell discovered a comet not previously recorded. That discovery launched her career as an astronomer and teacher, and made her the foremost woman scientist of that time.

Vera Rubin — It has been in more recent times, since the 1970s, that women have been accepted in astronomy. Vera Rubin, born in 1928, has helped pave the way for women today, securing her PhD after marrying and starting a family. An understanding husband and her helpful parents (who looked after the children so that she could attend Georgetown University at night for two years) supported her.  Over the years, Rubin’s work has examined how galaxies behave and has challenged long-held theories involving physics.

Rising Stars

Women Astronomers is Armstrong’s successful effort to encourage girls and young women to consider astronomy as a career. She concludes her book by sharing snippets of information about 15 young 21st century women who are today’s rising stars in the field, just the sort of transition she hopes will encourage another generation of women astronomers.

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Categories: Book Reviews