Annie Jump Cannon sitting at her desk

Wednesday Geek Woman: Annie Jump Cannon, astronomer and leader in stellar classification

This is a guest post by kim. This post appeared on her blog for Ada Lovelace Day 2009.

Annie Jump Cannon sitting at her deskA good place to start in honoring women is the Smithsonian’s Women in Science gallery. Sure, it’s got pix of Marie Curie, of whom everyone has heard. But it also has pix of many women engineers, scientists, and science educators who are not as well known, but who should be.

I choose to honor Annie Jump Canon (1863-1941), luminary in astronomical research and stellar classification. Although living in a time deeply ambivalent (if not hostile) to advanced education for women, and suffering from profound hearing impairment after a teenage bout with scarlet fever Annie graduated from Wellsely College in 1884 with a degree in physics. She returned there for graduate studies in physics and astronomy, eventually gaining an MA in 1907. During her time at Wellsley she was hired by the Harvard College Observatory, and along with several other women, paid a pittance (less than a Harvard secretary) to assist Edward Pickering to compile the Draper Catalog, a massive, annotated atlas of all the stars in the sky.

While she was part of this project (itsef funded by Anna Draper, a wealthy widow of an amateur astronomer), Annie was instrumental in defining the spectral classification system, which defines the star classes O, B, F, G, K, and M – a system based on stellar temperature that along with later enhancements is still used today. Annie’s personal work included extensive cataloging of variable stars, including 300 for which she is credited as discoverer, and classifying over 230,000 stellar bodies, the most anyone has defined to this day.

You can read more about Annie and her work at a dedicated memorial at Wellesley’s website. There are other pages about her here, and on Wikipedia.

Annie Jump Cannon examining an objectI close with a quotation from her:

“In our troubled days it is good to have something outside our planet, something fine and distant for comfort.”

Annie, shine on!

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