Bad Astronomy

Today’s Google Doodle: Maria Mitchell

Google Doodle of Maria Mitchell
Google Doodle honoring pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell

Courtesy of Google

Google has a fun and wonderful tradition: On special days, it creates a nice little graphic (the Google Doodle) and puts it at the top of the search page. Since that page is famously unadorned, it really grabs the user’s attention.

Today’s Doodle is in honor of Maria Mitchell, a 19th-century astronomer; it’s her 195th birthday. I’m not much of an astronomy historian, but it’s hard not to know something about her. She was an avid observer, and in October 1847 she discovered a comet. This was a rare feat in those days, and she won a gold medal from the King of Denmark—at the time, countries were proud of their scientific achievements, and prizes for new work were common.

She went on to become a professor at Vassar—the first—and taught astronomy for many years. She’s received many posthumous honors: There’s an observatory in Nantucket, Mass., named after her and a crater on the Moon.

When she was coming up in the world, in the early to mid-1800s, women were not in positions of prominence in the scientific community. This means her achievements are commonly tagged with the word first, as in first woman. But reading the short bio of her on Wikipedia was most eye-opening, because there were many things about her I didn’t know. She found out her salary at Vassar was lower than her male colleagues, and she demanded a raise. At first the college tried to evade the issue, and she continued to fight back. Eventually, she won the day.

Thank goodness things have progressed so far since then!

She was quite open—and vocal—about her opinions. She refused to wear cotton in protest against slavery. She supported women’s suffrage. She did a lot for women’s rights, and she strikes me as the kind of person I’d like to have known.

I’ll note that she was raised by a family and community that were strong supporters of education in general and of equality for women in particular. She got a solid education, and it’s clear her parents encouraged her to seek out her own answers and find her own path. That kind of environment breeds curiosity, strength, and, for those who can take advantage of it, the ability to hone their skills and break new ground. That is a very difficult path and one that is not short.

Nearly two centuries after her birth, many of the same battles Mitchell fought are still being waged today. But we have an advantage she did not: We have her legacy.

May her deeds and memory encourage generations of people to explore the Universe and to stand up for what is right no matter what obstacles, real or imagined, are in their way.

The Maria Mitchell Foundation in Nantucket promotes her legacy, and encourages all people to pursue a passion in science. They are a nonprofit organization, and they accept donations.