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Rebecca Anne Wood Elson, Canadian-American astronomer and writer, was born on January 2, 1960 in Montreal, Quebec. A bright star, she would excel both in astronomy and writing in her all-too-short life.

As a teenager, Elson often travelled in Canada with her geologist father as he performed field research. She was 16 when she began her bachelor's degree at Smith College, where her major subject was astronomy. Following this, she earned a master's degree from the University of British Columbia. During that time she undertook summer study visits to the University of St Andrews, and the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh, which led to her first published research article and her interest in globular clusters of stars.

Her PhD was taken at the Institute of Astronomy and Christ’s College, Cambridge University in England. She also spent time at two Australian observatories. Elson then did her postdoctoral work at the Institute for Advanced Study (Princeton). In 1987, she was the first-named author on a major review article on star clusters for the Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics.

In 1989 Elson took up a Bunting Fellowship at Radcliffe College where she taught creative writing, followed by a term teaching a Harvard expository writing course on science and ethics. In that same year, she became the youngest astronomer selected to serve on a US National Academy of Sciences decennial review.

In the early 1990s she returned to the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge, UK to accept the research position she would hold for the remainder of her life. Sadly, at the age of 29 Elson had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphona. With treatment, it went into remission and in 1996, she married the Italian artist Angelo di Cintio. However, the cancer returned soon afterwards. Elson died of the disease in Cambridge in May 1999, at the age of 39.

A volume of wide-ranging poetry and essays she wrote from her teens until shortly before her death was published posthumously as A Responsibility to Awe in 2001 in the United Kingdom, and in 2002 in the United States. Some of the works refer to vast concepts of physics and astronomy, often in unexpectedly abstract or playful ways, to reflect aspects of human experience. Others reflect profound joy with life or poignant observations of her impending death. The collection was selected as one of the best books of the year by the magazine The Economist.

In her short career, Elson was also lead author on – or contributed to – seventy scientific contributions, including thirty-eight major articles in the refereed scientific literature research papers.

Source: Wikipedia


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So talented women and scientists. Their dedication and work are amazing.

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Liisi Oterma, born in Turku, Finland on January 6, 1915, was the first woman to get a PhD in astronomy in Finland.

Oterma studied mathematics and astronomy at the University of Turku, and became the assistant of the prominent astronomer Yrjö Väisälä. She worked with him on the search for minor planets. Oterma completed a masters degree in 1938, and from 1941 to 1965 worked as an observer at the university's observatory. In 1955 she got her PhD.

From 1965-1978 Oterma was a professor of the university, and in 1971 succeeded Väisälä as the director of the Tuorla Observatory. She was director of the astronomical-optical research institute at the University of Turku from 1971-1975. And she is credited with the discovery of 54 minor planets, as well as being the discoverer or co-discoverer of three comets.

Oterma is described as quiet and modest and publicity-shy. And astronomy wasn't her only interest. She loved languages and spoke, for example, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Esperanto, Hungarian, English and Arabic. Anders Reiz, a professor at the Copenhagen Observatory, said Oterma was “silent in eleven languages”.

[Source: Wikipedia]


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German astronomer Waltraut Seitter was born on January 13, 1930 in Zwickau, Saxony.

Seitter went to school in Cologne, where she finished high school in 1949, having worked at jobs as tramway ticket collector, refugee aide, and draftswoman. She then entered the university to study physics, mathematics, chemistry and astronomy. Later, with a grant from the Fulbright Program, she was able to continue her studies at Smith College in Massachusetts, obtaining her Master of Arts in physics in 1955, and becoming an astronomy instructor.

From 1958 to 1962 she worked at Hoher List Observatory of Bonn University, obtained her Ph.D., and held the positions of assistant, observer, and supernumerary professor. In 1967, she was a visiting professor of the American Astronomical Society at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, afterwards professor at Smith College (Eliza Appleton Haven Professor for Astronomy).

In 1975, she was called to the chair of astronomy at Münster University in Germany, becoming the first woman in Germany to hold an astronomy chair. She was director of the astronomical institute up to her retirement in 1995. In Münster, with a dedicated team of young researchers, she organized the Münster Redshift Project (MRSP), a method to derive redshifts from UK Schmidt telescope objective prism plates, and the Muenster Red Sky Survey, a galaxy catalogue of the southern hemisphere, based on ESO Schmidt direct red plates. With the MRSP data, first indications of the action of the cosmological constant were found, shortly before major supernova searches established its existence without doubt.

During most of her career, she also did research on novae and related eruptive stars. Exhibits arranged by her include Women in Astronomy, and Science in Exile (Smith College), as well as Kepler and His Times (Münster1980). She also organized several international astronomical meetings.

[Source: Society for the History of Astronomy]


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Women have made such wonderful contributions.

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Catherina Elisabetha (nee Koopman) Hevelius was born in Danzig (modern Gdańsk, Poland) on January 17, 1647.

Extremely well educated for a woman of the era, she became the wife and assistant of the renowned German/Polish astronomer and instrument maker Johannes Hevelius, and is considered to be one of the earliest recognised female astronomers.

This image shows her with Johannes carrying out observations of the heavens with a brass sextant from their observatory in Danzig.

Following the death of her husband in 1687, Catherina Elisabetha was responsible for editing many of his unpublished writings, including Stellarum Fixarum (1687); Firmamentum Sobiescianum sive Uranographia(1690); and Prodromus Astronomiae (1690). It can be safely assumed that, as well as seeing these works through to publication, she had played a key role in the compilation and recording of their contents during the long hours she spent observing the heavens.

[credit: Society for the History of Astronomy]

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Catherine Wolfe Bruce, born in New York City on January 22, 1816, was an amateur astronomer whose astronomical legacy was her patronage.

During the 1890s she made over 50 gifts to astronomy, including donating funds for the purchase of new telescopes for the Harvard College Observatory and Yerkes Observatory in the USA. But she also made a substantial grant to the Heidelberg-Königstuhl State Observatory in the city of Heidelberg, Germany. It enabled the observatory to obtain a telescope designed for the sole purpose of astrophotography. It's known as the Bruce double astrograph. Her gifts overall totalled more than 3/4 of a million dollars, which would be a tidy sum even today.

Her name lives on in several ways other than the telescopes. There is also Bruce Medal of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific in recognition of lifetime achievements and contributions to astrophysics. It's one of the most prestigious awards in the field. Asteroid 323 Brucia is named for her, as well as a Bruce crater on the Moon.

[Source: Society for the History of Astronomy]


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American astronomer Margaret Walton Mayall was born Margaret Lyle Walton at Iron Hill, Maryland on January 27, 1902.

She graduated from Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1928, and worked as an astronomer at Harvard College Observatory from 1924 to 1954. She was also the director of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) from 1949 to 1973, and it was here that she met fellow AAVSO member Robert Newton Mayall whom she married in September 1927.

In 1958 she received the Annie Jump Cannon Award in Astronomy, which is presented annually by the American Astronomical Society to a woman resident of North America for distinguished contributions to astronomy.

She is possibly best remembered for her revising of Thomas William Webb’s ‘Celestial Objects for Common Telescopes’ (which originally appeared in 1859) prior to its republication by Dover Publications in 1962.

The minor planet 3342 Fivesparks, discovered on 27 Jan 1982 from Oak Ridge Observatory at Harvard, and which refers to the Mayall’s residence at 5 Sparks Street (hence Fivesparks) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was named in honour of Margaret and her husband Robert.

{Credit: Society for the History of Astronomy]


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Beatrice Hill was born on January 27, 1941 in England as a world war raged. Her family moved to New Zealand after the war and that's where she grew up, the middle child of three sisters. Beatrice was a superb linguist, talented musician, good athlete, and excellent writer. However what really interested her was astrophysics. That wasn't offered at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, so as an undergraduate she studied mathematics, physics and chemistry, and then completed a master's degree.

She married Brian Tinsley, and they moved to Austin when he was offered a job at the University of Texas. However, she couldn't get a job, and being a faculty wife didn't suit her. Eventually, with great difficulty, she persuaded the University of Texas to accept her for a PhD. She had to teach herself the basics of astronomy before starting it, but got top grades in everything and completed the degree in record time.

Despite a growing reputation elsewhere, she continued to be ignored by the astronomy department in her own university. Finally, in 1975 she accepted Yale University's offer, leaving Texas to become Yale's first female astronomer professor.

Beatrice Tinsley was one of the great minds of 20th century astronomy. Her radical approach to galaxies and star populations was to consider them in an evolutionary sense. Her pioneering work, using data modelling, helped to lay the foundation for our understanding of galaxies. This in turn is essential to cosmology, because it relates to the origin and the future of the Universe. She was a leading expert in the field.


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American astronomer Muriel Mussels Seyfert was born on February 3, 1909 in Danvers, Massachusetts. She was working at Harvard College Observatory in 1936 when she discovered three new ring nebulae in the Milky Way. A ring nebula is a planetary nebula, i.e., formed when a dying star is sloughing off its outer layers. She found the nebulae while examining photographic plates taken at Harvard's station at Bloemfontain in South Africa. This photograph of her was taken then.

Muriel was married to Carl Keenan Seyfert after whom the Seyfert galaxies and the Seyfert's Sextet were named. He was the first director of the Vanderbilt Dyer Observatory. The Dyer Observatory, also known as the Arthur J. Dyer Observatory, is an astronomical observatory owned and operated by Vanderbilt University in Tennesse.

While at Dyer, “Muriel continued astronomical research, raised two children, kept an active art studio in the observatory residence (which is now known as Muriel’s Retreat in her honor), and was a renowned equestrienne.”

[Source: Vanderbilt University]


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