Non-Fiction Reviews

The Women of the Moon
Tales of Science, Love, Sorrow, and Courage

(2019) Daniel R. Altschuler & Fernando J. Ballesteros, Oxford University Press, £20 / US$26.95, hrdbk, 299pp, ISBN 978-0-198-84441-9


At this book’s first compilation in 2017, 1586 craters on the Moon had been named after individuals.  Under the rules of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), all such individuals must have made a major contribution to philosophy or science, and must be dead. We can be grateful that one of Arthur C. Clarke’s predictions (in The Challenge of the Spaceship) which was not fulfilled was that the craters of the Farside might be named by a US General who was a baseball fan, or a Soviet bureaucrat using a pin on the Vladivostok telephone directory.  In the event the Soviets did map most of the Farside first and claimed discoverers’ right to name the features; not all of them were accepted, but one which was ratified by the IAU broke a previous cardinal rule.  The crater named after Valentina Tereshkova was almost the first to be named after a living person, and a new rule permitted astronauts and cosmonauts to be added, living or dead.

Nevertheless, Clarke was not far wrong when he titled his 1958 essay ‘The Men on the Moon’.  Only 28 of those 1586 are women, and if you subtract Tereshkova, and the women killed on the Challenger  and Columbia, only 25 are left.  Even given the bias against which most of them had to struggle, the split seems less than fair.  And even that may be one too many: before the 18th century, the only women honoured are Hypatia of Alexandria and St. Catherine of Alexandria, about whom so little is known, and most of that is so like Hypatia’s accomplishments, that it’s thought the Christian church might have ‘adopted’ her – perhaps even out of guilt for the horrible death which Christian zealots inflicted on her.

In chronological order, the next nine were women, some accomplished, some privileged, who were in a position to contribute to astronomy in one way or another. It’s no surprise to find Caroline Herschel prominent among them, though I didn’t know that she was the originator of what became the New General Catalogue of nebulae, still in use today. The book chronicles how women were not allowed to attend universities, and when they were, usually worked unpaid and were not allowed to graduate.  But as we enter the second half of the 19th century, the situation changes. The 1960 Concise Oxford Dictionary  defines a 'computer' as ‘a young woman employed by an observatory to perform mathematical calculations’.  Harlow Shapley praised the skills of the Harvard computers in an essay, ‘Girl-Hours and Galaxies’, reprinted in his collection The View from a Distant Star (1963), and at the 2004 UK Space Conference, Dr. Kerrie Dougherty lectured on the major part their counterparts played in the British space programme at Woomera in the 1960s and early 70s.  More recently the book and the Hugo Award short-listed film Hidden Figures  have done much to give the equivalents in the early US space programme their rightful place in history. In my review of Rod Pyle’s Heroes of the Space Age  I welcomed the growing recognition of Margaret Hamilton’s role in creating the software for the Moon landings.

What I didn’t know was that the practise, and the use of the word ‘computer’ in this way, began in Britain at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, in the mid-19th century, in what was denounced by Charles Dickens in Hard Times (1864) as “a stern room, with a deadly statistical clock in it, which measured every second with a beat like a rap upon a coffin-lid”.

On both sides of the Atlantic, many of the computers worked unpaid and most if not all were paid much less than male assistants.  Along with the harsh conditions came new forms of prejudice: Annie Russell, who started work at Greenwich in 1890, was forced to resign when she married Walter Maunder, who founded the British Astronomical Association the same year because women were not allowed to join the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS).  Nevertheless, much of the solar work credited to him was actually done jointly.  Change was not rapid: Annie was not admitted to the RAS until 1916, and the Royal Society did not elect women Fellows until 1945.

The Henry Draper catalogue of stellar spectra (10,000 of them in the first edition) was named after the amateur astronomer who compiled the first hundred entries, but all the rest of the work was done by the computers at Harvard, under the direction of Pickering, who discouraged them from original research.  Even Williamina Fleming’s discovery of the Horsehead Nebula was originally credited to him, though he corrected the error in the second edition.

The thread of directors and supervisors taking credit (intentionally or not) for the work of the computers runs through the second half of the book, and its effects are ongoing: I had no idea that Williamina Fleming discovered white dwarf stars, for instance, though I knew which men first observed one and first calculated its density. Henrietta Leavitt was likewise assigned by Pickering to mundane work, far below her level of ability, but out of which came her brilliant recognition of the period-luminosity relationship in Cepheid variable stars, opening up the true scale of the visible Universe for the first time.  Although “in life she received no honours or public recognition”, mostly in poverty and beset by illness, ironically she was nominated for a Nobel prize five years after her death.  Shapley replied on her behalf, saying that she fully deserved it, but of course the Nobel is not awarded posthumously. She does have her crater on the Moon, but she had to be dead to qualify for that and never knew about it. (ESA has recently decided to make a gesture in a similar case, naming the ExoMars rover for 2020 launch after Rosalind Franklin, who but for her death would have shared the Nobel with Watson and Crick for discovering the double helix of DNA.)

Wisely perhaps, the authors of The Women of the Moon  have made no mention of the controversy over the discovery of pulsars.  But they make the point in closing that there are still at least 300,000 lunar craters over 100 km in diameter, mostly still unnamed, and although there are 2,500 entries in The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science, for starters, in recent lunar namings the IAU has maintained its average of according just 1.7% of them to women. But anyone can make nominations for lunar names, and Altshuler and Ballesteros strongly urge that their readers try to redress the balance.

Duncan Lunan


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