Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Computers And Sexism In 1920's Harvard

When astronomy student Cecilia Payne arrived at Harvard in 1923:

...She also got a glimpse of what was going on in the back rooms of the Observatory. In 1923, the word computer did not mean an electrical machine. It meant people whose sole job was to compute. At Harvard, it was applied to ranks of slump-shouldered spinsters in those back rooms. A few of them had once had first-rate scientific talent ("I've always wanted to learn the calculus," one said, "but [the director] did not wish it"), yet that was usually long since crushed out of them, as they were kept busy measuring star locations, or cataloging volumes of previous results. If they got married they could get fired; if they complained of their low salaries, they would get fired as well.

...A few of the Harvard "computers" in several decades of bent-back work, succeeded in measuring over 100,000 spectral lines. But what it meant, or how it fitted in with the latest developments in physics, was almost always not for them to understand.

Cecilia Payne though went on to discover that the Sun was largely composed of hydrogen. At that time the understanding was that the Sun is composed mostly of iron and Payne's discovery was dismissed.  The eminent astronomers of that time discredited her and forced her to admit in her thesis:

"The enormous abundance [of hydrogen] almost certainly not real".

All this after Cecilia Payne had run away from Britain to escape the stifling discrimination against women pursuing science careers there.

...again from E=mc2.