Friday, June 28, 2019

Two nebulae in Leo

‘I ‘swept’ last night two hours, by three periods. It was a grand night - not a breath of air, not a fringe of a cloud, all clear, all beautiful. I really enjoy that kind of work, but my back soon becomes tired, long before the cold chills me. I saw two nebulae in Leo with which I was not familiar, and that repaid me for the time.’ This is from the diary of Maria Mitchell, an early American astronomer, who died 130 years ago day. She earned worldwide fame by discovering a comet, and later became the first female professional astronomer in the US.

Mitchell was born in Nantucket, an island of the coast of Massachusetts, in 1818 into a large Quaker family (10 children). Her father was a teacher with a strong interest in maths and astronomy. For a while, he had his own school, where Maria studied and helped out, but when it closed she attended a local minister’s school for young ladies, and helped out there too. When Maria opened her own school - aged only 16 - she allowed non-white children to attend. In 1836, though, she went to work as the first librarian for the newly launched Nantucket Atheneum - a position she held for 20 years.

On the night of 1 October 1847, Mitchell discovered Comet 1847 VI (modern designation C/1847 T1) which later became known as Miss Mitchell’s Comet. Under her father’s name she published a notice of her find in Silliman’s Journal the following January, and subsequently submitted her calculation of the comet’s orbit, ensuring her claim as the original discoverer. She won a prestigious gold medal from Denmark for the discovery. This brought her fame, but also helped establish the importance of American astronomy, previously looked down on by the Europeans. She became the first woman elected Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1848 and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1850. She also contributed to the U.S. Nautical Almanac Office, calculating tables of positions of Venus.

On leaving the Atheneum in 1856, Mitchell travelled in the United States and in Europe. She was appointed professor of astronomy at the newly established Vassar College in 1865 where she had access to a twelve-inch telescope, the third largest in the US. She defied social conventions by allowing her female students out at night for class work and celestial observations, and she brought noted feminists to speak on political issues. She taught at the college until her retirement in 1888. She had never married; and she died on 28 June 1889. Further information is available from the Maria Mitchell Association, Wikipedia, or the National Women’s History Museum.

Mitchell kept a diary for much of her life, although the only extant manuscripts date from September 1854. After her death, her youngest sister, Phebe Mitchell Kendall, used them extensively for her biographical work: Maria Mitchell - Life, Letters and Journals (Lee and Shepherd, 1896). This is freely available online at Internet Archive; and an appreciation of her journals can be found at Brainpickings. More recently, Henry Albers has published a similar biography - entitled Maria Mitchell: A Life in Journals and Letters (College Avenue Press, 2001) - with many quotations from the diaries. Some pages of this can be read at Amazon. According to Albers, the Maria Mitchell Association holds about 70 of Mitchell’s notebooks (containing letters, diaries, speeches and classroom lectures as well as visiting cards, articles on astronomy, et.). He also notes that Phebe used several quotations from diaries kept by her sister that are no longer extant, i.e. those prior to September 1854.

The following extracts are all taken from the 1896 biography of Mitchell by her sister.

19 February 1853
‘I am just learning to notice the different colors of the stars, and already begin to have a new enjoyment. Betelgeuse is strikingly red, while Rigel is yellow. There is something of the same pleasure in noticing the hues that there is in looking at a collection of precious stones, or at a flower-garden in autumn. Blue stars I do not yet see, and but little lilac except through the telescope.’

11 May 1853
‘I could not help thinking of Esther [a much-loved cousin who had recently died] a few evenings since when I was observing. A meteor flashed upon me suddenly, very bright, very short-lived; it seemed to me that it was sent for me especially, for it greeted me almost the first instant I looked up, and was gone in a second, - it was as fleeting and as beautiful as the smile upon Esther’s face the last time I saw her. I thought when I talked with her about death that, though she could not come to me visibly, she might be able to influence my feelings; but it cannot be, for my faith has been weaker than ever since she died, and my fears have been greater.’

2 March 1854
‘I ‘swept’ last night two hours, by three periods. It was a grand night - not a breath of air, not a fringe of a cloud, all clear, all beautiful. I really enjoy that kind of work, but my back soon becomes tired, long before the cold chills me. I saw two nebulae in Leo with which I was not familiar, and that repaid me for the time. I am always the better for open-air breathing, and was certainly meant for the wandering life of the Indian.’

22 September 1854
‘On the evening of the 18th while ‘sweeping’ there came into the field the two nebulae in Ursa Major which I have known for many a year, but which to my surprise now appeared to be three. The upper one (as seen in an inverted telescope) appeared double headed like one near the Dolphin, but much more decided than that. The space between the two heads being plainly discernible and subtending a very decided angle. The bright part of the object was clearly the old nebulae but what was the appendage? Had the nebula suddenly changed, was it a comet, or was it only a very fine night?
Father decided at once for the comet, I hesitated with my usual cowardice and forbade his giving it a notice in the paper.

I watched it from 8.30 to 11.30 almost without cessation and was quite sure at 11.30 that its position with regard to the neighboring stars had changed. I counted its distance from the known nebula several times but the whole affair was difficult, for there were flying clouds and sometimes both nebula and comet were too indistinct to be definitely seen.

The 19th was cloudy and the 20th the same with the variety of wearisome breaks, through which I could see the nebula but not the comet.

On the 21st came a circular and behold Mr. van Arsdale had seen it on the 13th but had not been sure of it until the 15th on account of the clouds. I was too well pleased with having really made the discovery to care because I was not first.

Let the Dutchman have the reward of his sturdier frame and steadier nerves.

Especially could I be a Christian because the 13th was cloudy and more especially because I dreaded the responsibility of making the computations nolens nolens [willy-nilly] which I must have done to be able to call it mine. . .

I made observations for three hours last night, and am almost ill to-day from fatigue; still I have worked all day, trying to reduce the places, and mean to work hard again to-night.’

25 September 1854
‘I began to recompute for the comet, with observations of Cambridge and Washington, to-day. I have had a fit of despondency in consequence of being obliged to renounce my own observations as too rough for use. The best that can be said of my life so far is that it has been industrious, and the best that can be said of me is that I have not pretended to what I was not.’

24 November 1854
‘Yesterday James Freeman Clarke, the biographer of Margaret Fuller [a journalist and editor associated American transcendentalism, and an advocate of women’s rights], came into the Atheneum. It was plain that he came to see me and not the institution. . . He rushed into talk at once, mostly on people, and asked me about my astronomical labors. As it was a kind of flattery, I repaid it in kind by asking him about Margaret Fuller. He said she did not strike any one as a person of intellect or as a student, for all her faculties were kept so much abreast that none had prominence. I wanted to ask if she was a lovable person, but I did not think he would be an unbiassed judge, she was so much attached to him.’

16 December 1855
‘All along this year I have felt that it was a hard year - the hardest of my life. And I have kept enumerating to myself my many trials; to-day it suddenly occurred to me that my blessings were much more numerous. If mother’s illness was a sore affliction, her recovery is a great blessing; and even the illness itself has its bright side, for we have joyed in showing her how much we prize her continued life. If I have lost some friends by death, I have not lost all. If I have worked harder than I felt that I could bear, how much better is that than not to have as much work as I wanted to do. I have earned more money than in any preceding year; I have studied less, but have observed more, than I did last year. I have saved more money than ever before, hoping for Europe in 1856.’

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