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Female Genius Changes the World, One Big Idea at a Time

This Team of Female Astronomers Revolutionized Our Understanding of Stars

This video is part of a series on female genius, in proud collaboration with 92Y’s 7 Days of Genius Festival.

The most fundamental knowledge we have of stars comes from a team of Harvard astronomers working at the turn of the 19th century. This team, known as the “Harvard computers” for their ambitious calculations, was composed entirely of females.

As astronomer Anna Frebel explains, male researchers were interested in galaxies — the day’s hot topic. As a result, women pioneered the field of stellar research. Their methods of cataloging stars and determining their chemical composition are still taught at universities today.

Anna Frebel
Astronomer
Big Think shared a link.
Big Think is proud to partner with the 92nd Street Y in bringing you this series on female genius as part of the 7 Days of Genius Festival.
bigthink.com|By Anna Frebel
“Sometimes you have to learn when Not to be too much of a lady,” says Joy Hirsch. “So if you have to kick a**, just go do it.”
Director of the Brain Function Laboratory at Yale University, Hirsch knows the challenges that women face in professional life. Often valued for more traditional qualities like the ability to teach or mentor, women aren’t always first thought of as leaders;
but of course they are, and always have been. The challenge ahead of us, as Hirsch says, is to “allow ambitious, talented women to contribute as best they can.”
The story of Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, begins with a mathematically gifted mother and, as father, the Romantic poet Lord Byron. Notorious for his philandering, Byron contributed the strong poetical streak to his daughter’s worldview.
Lovelace’s interest in poetry, however, was something her mother wanted stamp out, surrounding Lovelace with mathematics at the exclusion of the arts.
But when Lovelace met Charles Babbage, the mechanical engineer behind the first computer, she found an outlet for her creativity, writing the first complete computer algorithm and becoming the world’s first computer programmer, all at the age of twenty-seven.
 
Some of our most timeless children’s books — The Giving Tree, Charlotte’s Web, Where the Wild Things Are, Goodnight Moon — are the result of the little-known publisher Ursula Nordstrom. Editor-in-chief of children’s books at Harper & Row through the middle of the 20th century, Nordstrom championed complex, non-commercial stories for children at a time when it was unpopular to do so.
The friendships she built with authors like Maurice Sendak, author and illustrator of Where the Wild Things Are, helped embolden their talents and bestow their gifts upon children of all ages.
Nellie Bly may be little known but her achievements are truly outsized. She spoke out for women’s rights; carved out a place for women in journalism by feigning insanity, entering a mental institution, and covering what she saw as a reporter; and she beat Jules Verne’s hypothetical record of traveling around the world in 80 days, accomplishing the feat in just 72.
While England’s Charles Darwin studied the foundations of biological science, America’s Maria Mitchell became famous for her celestial discoveries. She was our nation’s first professional female astronomer. Maria Popova explains: “In 1831 when she was still a teenager obsessed with stargazing she heard that the king of Denmark had offered a gold medal valued at 20 ducats, which was a lot of money at the time to the first person to discover a telescopic comet. It took her 16 years to master the science and the craft of observation, but she did become the first person and C1847T1 was known for 100 years Miss Mitchell’s Comet.”

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May 2020
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