Author of new book calls for greater recognition of female scientists who blazed trail in mapping the skies

"Pickering's Harem," so-called, for the group of women computers at the Harvard College Observatory, who worked for the astronomer Edward Charles Pickering. The group included Harvard computer and astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868–1921), Annie Jump Cannon (1863–1941), Williamina Fleming (1857–1911), and Antonia Maury (1866–1952).
"Pickering's Harem," so-called, for the group of women computers at the Harvard College Observatory, who worked for the astronomer Edward Charles Pickering. The group included Harvard computer and astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868–1921), Annie Jump Cannon (1863–1941), Williamina Fleming (1857–1911), and Antonia Maury (1866–1952).

When Neil Armstrong became the first person to plant his foot on the lunar surface, he famously proclaimed it as a giant leap for mankind.

The history of astronomy and science has been dominated by men and, of the 1,586 craters which mark the surface of the Moon, only 28 have been named after women.

But now the lives of these 28 women – and the vital scientific studies they carried out – are being celebrated in a new book, The Women Of The Moon.

It examines the lives of these women and the impact they had on our understanding of the universe.

Two of the women in the book – Mary Somerville and Williamina Fleming – hail from Scotland.

For the authors of the book, their efforts to break into a traditionally male-dominated field make them as brave and pioneering as the astronauts of the Apollo missions.

“Williamina comes through as a brilliant woman,” explained Daniel Altschuler, one of the authors of The Women Of The Moon.

“She was dedicated to her work, overcame the struggle of being alone after being abandoned by her husband while she was pregnant, she worked to make sure she had more time to do research and pursue her own curiosity, and she stood up for her rights.

“I feel on her portrait her stern look says much.”

Fleming went from a penniless single mother from Dundee to one of the most important figures in astronomy.

Among her achievements is discovering more than 200 stars, as well as the Horsehead Nebula – one of the most beautiful natural phenomenon in the galaxy.

Williamina Fleming was born in Dundee in 1857.

After being abandoned by her husband, single mother Fleming moved to Boston to work as a maid, for Professor Edward Pickering, of the prestigious Harvard College Observatory. The demanding Pickering dismissed one of his assistants with the cutting remark: “Even my Scottish housekeeper could do a better job.”

He backed up his words and gave Williamina – then 24 – a job part-time in the Harvard Observatory.

Astronomy at the time was done through a process of measuring light from stars to decode their nature.

It was time-consuming, arduous work, in which Pickering thought women – who he believed were more patient and diligent than men – excelled.

“In those days, photography was done on glass plates and spectroscopy – which means analysing the light from stars – and the telescope offered a way to physically study stellar phenomena,” explained Daniel.

“The first task was to do this for thousands of images obtained throughout the sky.

“It is estimated that Williamina, who was appointed to supervise a group of ‘women computers’ to do this arduous work, studied about 200,000 images during her lifetime.

“She discovered many planetary nebulae, and variable stars which were a novelty at that time. Williamina also worked on the first stellar classification scheme.”

Williamina’s work impressed Pickering so much so he employed her full-time. Williamina discovered 59 nebulae in total, one of which has become a favourite of astrophotographers, called the Pickering Triangle – after her boss. For some, however, it should have been named after Fleming, rather than her boss.

“What Pickering thought of women – that they are more patient – was a prejudice and is not true,” added Daniel. “In reality there are no intellectual differences, that we know of, between males and females in spite of their apparent differences.

“In almost all respects it is a male world and looking at our history it is evident that we have not done too well. We need women in government, industry and science, perhaps they can do it better. Reading about the lives and struggles of these women we hope to inspire more to wish to pursue a scientific career.

“One thing that’s worth nothing is that there are plenty of more craters on the moon available to add the names of illustrious women scientists.”

When she died, a national newspaper said there was no question Mary Somerville was the “queen of science”.

Mary, born in Burntisland in 1780, broke through the glass ceiling into science after cracking puzzles in a magazine as a teenager.

With the help of her brother, she obtained Euclid’s geometry and other school textbooks which were usually reserved for boys. Her father tried to forbid the books, fearing reading them would “affect her femininity”, while the “mental effort could drive her crazy”.

Mary was married to the Russian consul for Britain, Samuel Greig, and he also did not approve of her academic brain.

Greig “possessed in full the prejudice against learned women which was common at that time” but he died after three years of marriage, after which Somerville was free to pursue her interests. She began to solve mathematical problems posed in leading 18th-Century journals and, after winning several awards for her skills, became respected by scientists across Europe.

She went on to publish several books on astronomy and physics, which were hailed as helping popularise the topics for a mass audience.

One of these books was The Mechanism Of The Heavens, which was taught at Cambridge. In 1835, Somerville, along with Caroline Herschel, became the first women members of the prestigious Royal Astronomical Society.

Mary became a leading figure in public science, and also eventually for women’s rights.

It was a passion she had developed as a reaction to her conservative father.

“From my earliest years my mind revolved against oppression and tyranny,” she wrote, “and I resented the injustice of the world in denying all those privileges of education to my sex which were so lavishly bestowed on men.”

Philosopher John Stuart Mill presented a petition to Parliament in 1868 calling on women to be allowed the right to vote – and Mary Somerville’s name was first on the list.

She died in 1872 but remains celebrated as one of the most renowned women in the history of science.

As well as a crater on the moon, one of the Committee Rooms of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh was named after her and, in 2017, her face was added to the Royal Bank of Scotland £10 note.

The Women Of The Moon by Daniel R. Altschuler and Fernando J Ballesteros is out now.