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Tuesday 16 July 2019

Ireland's stargazers: the lost women of the Moon

Just 28 women are honoured on the Moon and two Irishwomen are among them. A new book by Daniel R Altschuler and Fernando J Ballesteros celebrates their legacy

Sun worshipper: astronomer Annie Scott Dill Maunder devoted herself to solar photography
Sun worshipper: astronomer Annie Scott Dill Maunder devoted herself to solar photography
Pioneer: Cork woman Agnes Clerke popularised astronomy in the 19th century

The Moon reflects more than just sunlight. The Moon, or more precisely, the nomenclature of lunar craters, still holds up a mirror to an important aspect of human history. Some 1586 lunar craters have been named in honour of scientists and philosophers, but only 28 of them have been named after women.

Amongst them are Irish astronomer and writer Agnes Mary Clerke, and an Irish astronomer and mathematician Annie Scott Dill Russell Maunder.

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In her day, Agnes Clerke was well known as a populariser of astronomy. She was born in 1842 in Skibbereen in Cork, the daughter of John Willis Clerke, a bank manager, and his wife, Margaret.

An educated man with a well-endowed library, John taught his daughters Greek and Latin, as well as mathematics and science. Agnes was an avid reader.

At 15, suffering from poor health, she and her sister went to live in Italy with their mother. By then, Agnes had already developed a great interest in the history of astronomy, and with the help of her father, she studied John Herschel's Outlines of Astronomy.

Returning to London in 1877, and after writing an article published in the Edinburgh Review on the chemistry of the stars, she decided to concentrate on astronomy, composing a total of 55 articles for the Edinburgh Review.

In 1885, after more than four years of work, she published her first book: A Popular History of Astronomy During the 19th Century.

Reviewers were enthusiastic. One wrote: "The book will be full of interest to the general reader, for the story of the marvellous discoveries made in astronomy during the past hundred years is told in a felicitous and attractive manner; but it will not be less highly valued by the student and the astronomer, on account of its completeness and accuracy, and the really remarkable skill with which the leading points on which our knowledge has been increased... are seized upon and set forth".

The author of these lines was, coincidentally, Edward Maunder, husband of Annie Maunder.

The Scottish astronomer David Gill, noting that Agnes lacked practical experience in astronomy, invited her to spend a few months at the Cape Observatory.

She embarked for South Africa on August 9, 1888. For two months, Agnes studied stars manifesting peculiar spectra and her results were published in the observatory journal. In 1903, she published Problems in Astrophysics, a work so important, that in that same year, she was elected as an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Agnes's writing inspired many astronomers with whom she communicated frequently, often including their most novel results in her essays and books. Gill told her about Problems in Astrophysics: "I do not believe there is a man living who knew beforehand all the facts you have brought together and brought together so well in their proper places."

Her sister, Ellen, died in March 1906 at 65, after a flu that led to pneumonia. Ten months later, at the age of 64, Agnes died of the same cause.

The small (7km diameter) Clerke lunar crater is located near the landing site of Apollo 12, at the eastern end of the Mare Serenitatis.

Annie Scott Dill Russell was the daughter of the Reverend William Russell, minister of the Presbyterian Church in Strabane, and his second wife, Hessy Nesbitt Dill. As a teen, she studied at the Ladies Collegiate School in Belfast (later Victoria College), and after winning a prize for academic excellence, entered the University of Cambridge, where in 1889, she graduated with honours in mathematics. Annie was 26 years younger than Agnes.

In 1890, she began work at the Greenwich Royal Observatory as an assistant to the solar astronomer Walter Maunder, along with other women "computers", part of the first group of female salaried astronomers in Britain.

Before the advent of calculators and computers, calculations to solve complex problems were carried out by human computers. It was the royal astronomer Sir William Christie who first employed women in the observatory as computers - considering them skilled and inexpensive labour.

Walter had been widowed in 1888 and married Annie in 1895. When married, she had to resign her position, but she continued to work with Walter on solar research and as editor of the BAA journal, a position she held for 15 years. Annie also devoted herself to solar photography and historical studies of astronomy.

Astronomy in the 19th century was a global affair, and the Maunders travelled the globe to make observations. The year 1898 saw them in India to observe a total eclipse of the Sun on January 22.

Annie had built a special wide-angle camera with which she photographed the solar corona. Agnes Clerke, after seeing the results of several expeditions, pronounced: "Regarding the corona, Mrs Maunder, with her small lens, has won over all the great instruments."

In 1910, the Maunders published a book, The Heavens and Their Story. In the preface, Walter writes that the book, "whose authors are the names of my wife and mine, is almost entirely the work of my wife, since circumstances prevented me from taking part in her writing soon after it began".

In 1916, Annie was the first woman elected to the Royal Astronomical Society, after the statutes were changed to accept women.

Walter died in 1928, and Annie continued to dedicate herself to the work of the BAA and to historical studies of ancient and archaic astronomy. She died in 1947 at the age of 80. The Maunder crater, in honour of both, is a large 55km crater on the far side of the Moon (which is not always dark).

Daniel R Altschuler and Fernando J Ballesteros are authors of 'The Women of the Moon', published by Oxford University Press

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