As part of Museum Week 2019, some of the staff from Armagh Observatory and Planetarium have written a few words about which women in STEM inspire them particularly.
Katherine Johnson by Helen McLoughlin

With the excitement surrounding the 50th Anniversary of the first ever moon landing in 1969, I wanted to focus on the women of Apollo. Today, I want to talk about Katherine Johnson. Katherine had a high aptitude for numbers and at first became a Maths teacher. In 1963, the Langley Research Centre in Virginia were calling for a small group of ‘human computers’.  These human computers needed to perform complex calculations and many of these jobs were filled by women. Katherine joined the team at Langley and was under the direction of Dorothy Vaughan, the first African-American woman to supervise the centre’s group of human calculators. Then Katherine went on to join the Flight Research Division where she played a role in every space program that Nasa launched. She calculated and plotted the trajectory Alan Shepard’s space capsule would follow as it briefly left earth in 1961.She also calculated and plotted the path astronaut John Glenn would take to orbit the earth. Her proudest moment, however, was her part in sending Apollo 11 to the moon. She worked at Langley for 36 years and in 2015, President Obama awarded 97-year-old Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Katherine Johnson. Source: NASA
Williamina Fleming by Simon Jeffery

Williamina Fleming (May 15, 1857 – May 21, 1911). Williamina Stevens  was born in Dundee, Scotland, daughter of a carver and gilder. After marrying James Fleming she worked briefly as a teacher before the couple emigrated to Boston Massachusetts in 1878. There, with a new baby and abandoned by her husband, she took a job as maid in the home of Edward Pickering, director of  the Harvard College Observatory. Pickering’s wife Lizzie recognised Williamina’s talents and Edward Pickering hired subsequently Fleming to work at the Observatory. In 1881 he taught Williamina how to analyze stellar spectra. Becoming a founding member, and later in charge of the ‘Harvard Computers’, she developed a system for the classification of stellar spectra based on the strength of hydrogen lines. The Pickering-Fleming system became the immediate forerunner of the system used to day. Her classifications  constituted the bulk of the Henry Draper catalogue of over 10,000 stars. She discovered 59 nebulae, including the Horesehead nebula, 310 variable stars, 10 novae, and the first white dwarf, 40 Eridani B, as well as many stars with peculiar spectra that would take a century or more to interpret.With 41 refereed publications, she was probably the greatest stellar spectroscopist of the 19th century. Recently, dozens of her notebooks were discovered at Harvard, and are being transcribed. They may contain yet more discoveries! As well as her scientific achievements, Williamina was an advocate for other women in the sciences. 

Williamina Fleming. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Mary Anning by Anna Taylor

Mary Anning was a prolific fossil collector and palaeontologist. She was born in 1799 in Lyme Regis in Dorset, England, where she made many of her discoveries. Lyme Regis is also known as the ‘Jurassic Coast’ as it is rich in fossils formed in the late Triassic/early Jurassic periods, 201Mya. The cliffs are unstable, leading to landslides and exposing layers of fossils previously hidden beneath the surface. In fact, fossil collecting was a thriving business in the town, and was used by many, including the Anning family, to supplement their incomes in a time of poverty.

Richard Anning, Mary’s father, often took Mary and her brother, Joseph, on fossil hunting expeditions, and her parents and brother made some interesting finds of their own. The first major discovery was in 1811; Mary, 12 and Joseph, 15, between them found a complete ichthyosaur skeleton, which was sold and later displayed at the British museum.

Anning took over the fossil collecting business once her father died, and her main source of income were invertebrate fossils that sold for a few shillings apiece, such as ammonite and belemnite. Vertebrate fossils were rare finds, but they sold for much more than the invertebrates. Her job collecting these fossils was dangerous; in 1833 she was almost killed in a landslide, which killed her beloved dog, Tray. She made many important discoveries, including the first compete plesiosaur and the first example of a pterosaur in Britain. Despite not being well educated or able to attend university, Mary Anning was an avid reader of scientific journals, often hand writing copies of papers she was able to borrow, including technical drawings. In addition, she often collected and dissected modern animals, including fish and cuttlefish, and so soon became, entirely self-taught, an expert in palaeontology. She was able to identify, and often to mount the skeletons she found to display them. She also suggested that what had formerly been known as bezoar stones (HP), were actually fossilised faeces of marine reptiles. These came to be known as coprolites.

Unfortunately, as she was a working-class woman and a religious dissenter, Anning was not able to fully join the scientific community of the time, and many of her findings were published by men, giving her no credit for her work. Women were not allowed at the time to vote or attend university, and the Geological Society of London did not accept women as members or even as guests. However, Anning was respected enough as a researcher to be visited by, and to become friends with, many eminent (male) geologists of the time to discuss, suggest ideas, and go on fossil collecting expeditions. When Anning died in March of 1847 a eulogy was published in the Society’s quarterly transactions. This was an honour normally only awarded to fellows of the society and was the first given for a woman.

Anning’s discoveries were extremely influential at the time. The skeletons and fossils she found were incredibly interesting as evidence for extinction, as most people of the time still believed in the biblical creation myth. The story of creation implied that the Earth was only a few thousand years old, and that every species that existed then were brought into being all at the same time and had not changed since then. Many of her finds refuted that, being millions of years old and of species that do not exist today. Her finds lent support to a controversial theory – that in the past, reptiles were the dominant class of animal life.

Mary Anning with her Dog. Credited to ‘Mr. Grey’ in Crispin Tickell’s book ‘Mary Anning of Lyme Regis’ (1996)
Vera Rubin by Heather Alexander

When it comes to astronomy there is nothing more mysterious than Dark Matter. Nearly every child with passion for astronomy, asks about Dark Matter when they enter the Armagh Planetarium. They know the concept of it, but what they don’t know is that the first person to first come across the existence of Dark Matter was American Astronomer, Vera Rubin.

Vera was born in July 1928, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. At the tender age of 10, she developed a love for astronomy simply watching the stars from her bedroom window. Wanting to know more about the night sky, she built a rudimentary telescope out of cardboard with her father and began tracking and observing objects in the night sky.

In high school she was told by her science teacher, of all people, to avoid a career in the sciences and become and artist. Thankfully she ignored this teacher and went on to do her undergraduate education in Vassar College. Once she graduated from here, she went on to seek a postgraduate in Princeton College, only to be turned away due to her gender. This was common for many women during this time.

She enrolled at Cornell University (where her husband was also a graduate) and earned her masters degree in 1951. She studied for her PhD in Georgetown University in Washington DC, and her dissertation, completed in 1954, concluded that galaxies clumped together, rather than being randomly distributed through the universe, a controversial idea not pursued by others for two decades.

After graduating, Vera taught at Montgomery County Junior College, and she also worked at Georgetown University as a research assistant. In 1962, she became an assistant professor at the University. In 1965, she did something that no woman in Physics had ever done before. She became the first woman allowed to use the instruments at the Palomar Observatory. Prior to this, no woman had ever been authorised to access this facility. In the same year she successfully secured a position at the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, where she began work on galaxy clusters. When Rubin observed her galaxies, she found that their rotation curves didn’t match up to theory. Little did she know, she had found the first indicator for dark matter, an elusive material believed to make up around 25% of the missing mass of the universe.

Rubin knew that her findings would be criticised, and in a bid to avoid this, she slanted her research more towards the study of rotation curves of singular galaxies, rather than the widely debated galaxy clusters. She also began research on the Andromeda galaxy. Throughout her career Vera Rubin examined more than 200 galaxies.

During her career Rubin battled with her male counterparts to gain her own credibility, and so she dedicated herself to encouraging young girls and women to pursue their dreams of investigating the universe. It wasn’t just the field of astronomy that she took a stand in, she also was a strong advocate for women in the general field of science. She won a number of awards and as well as becoming the second female astronomer to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences, she also received the National Medal of Science from President Bill Clinton in 1993 for her pioneering research programs in observational cosmology.

Vera Rubin. Credit:

“Science is not a boy’s game, it’s not a girl’s game. It’s everyone’s game. It’s about where we are and where we’re going.”Space travel benefits us here on Earth. And we ain’t stopped yet. There’s more exploration to come.” – Nichelle Nichols, NASA Ambassador


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