Monday, February 27, 2012

Jewish Women and Space

While most people don’t usually associate Jewish women with space and astronomy, they have a surprisingly rich history in the subject.

Caroline Lucretia Herschel (1750-1848) was an astronomer whose father was of Jewish descent. Raised in Hanover, she moved to England when she was 22 because her brother, the astronomer William Herschel, invited her to live with him. She happily took advantage of the opportunity and relocated to Bath. William was originally a musician and began dabbling in astronomy as a hobby. Caroline became involved in the study of the stars when her brother did, teaching herself from his notes and books.

She quickly became an astronomer in her own right. Herschel greatly contributed to the astronomy field, discovering several comets in the 1780s and 90s. Most notably, she discovered the 35P/Herschel-Rigollet comet in 1788 and the Messier 110 Galaxy in 1783. She also compiled the Catalogue of Stars, an important book in astronomical history. When she returned to Hanover after her brother’s death in 1822, she compiled a catalogue of nebulae. As a result, she won the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, the highest honor the association awards.

Herschel was certainly a groundbreaker. She actually received wages from the government for her work, a feat that was difficult for men to accomplish. Herschel was also one of the first two women to receive honorary membership to the Royal Astronomical Society. Her donations to science have been recognized: an asteroid discovered in 1888 was named after her, as well as a crater on the Moon.

The next woman to receive the Gold Medal was Vera Rubin in 1996. An American Orthodox Jew, she graduated from Vassar in 1948. When she applied to Princeton’s astronomy program, she was denied due to her gender. (Princeton didn’t accept women into this program until 1975.) She attended Cornell for her MA instead, and received a PhD from Georgetown. She went on to discover an inconsistency between the predicted angular motion of galaxies and the observed motion by studying galactic rotation curves. This became known as the galaxy rotation problem. (I’m not a science person, so I don’t really understand what this means. It sounds like it’s a big deal, so I’m assuming it really is one.)

I think it’s really interesting that the first two (out of three total) female winners of the Gold Medal were Jewish. It’s especially cool that Rubin identifies as Orthodox, since you often find that scientists reject religion.

Another famous Jewish woman in space is Judith Resnik, z”l. She was the second woman, second Jew, first American Jew, and first Jewish woman in space. When images of Resnik first came back to Earth, people were surprised to see her hair floating all over the place in weightlessness, since they were still used to the idea of astronauts as men with buzz cuts. Resnik’s career was cut tragically short when she died during the 1986 Challenger disaster.

While I have very little interest in math or science, it’s still heartwarming to see all of these amazing Jewish women who did, and to know that my peers have the chance to explore space because of their actions.

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