“Pickering’s Harem”, Henrietta Swan Levitt, Edwin Hubble, and More on Women in Science

Research on Edwin Hubble lead me to learn more about this set of female mathematicians – and in that wonderful way the synergy of the world seems to work they were then discussed on a UK comedy game show starring Sandy Toksvig – and I learned even more!

Henrietta Swan Levitt figured out how to measure the distance from the earth of pulsating stars.  Edwin Hubble then used her calculations to discover the Milky Way.  One of the game show guests asks when she gets credit and the answer is – only anecdotally from Hubble reminding people of her work.  Why you might ask?  For two reasons…  

upper body and face of Henrietta Swan Leavitt
Public Domain, Link

First, Levitt was part of what was nicknamed Pickering’s Harem.  Edward Pickering ran the Harvard Observatory and found his male employees who analyzed data from the skies incompetent and slow so one day he said, “My maid could do it better.”  The male staff said “Go ahead” so Pickering did hire a slew of women and as they worked so well he hired more women.  Annie Jump Cannon manually classified 350,000 stars in her career.  Yet, in that way misogyny takes over, rather than call them fellow mathematicians or astronomers, the women became… Pickering’s Harem. I also learned that this lead to the Harem effect — a phenomenon where male executives hire female assistants as they are cheaper and work harder.  The jokes of these game show celebrities reminded me of the misogyny of naming the women Pickering’s Harem.  We didn’t call the men of the Mercury project “Jackie Kennedy’s consorts”.  I mean what a way to demean a set of highly educated women.  

The Second reason Henrietta Swan Levitt did not receive full credit for her discovery is that Swedish mathematician Gösta Mittag-Leffler DID want to nominate Levitt for the 1926 Nobel Prize for Physics – but she had died 4 years earlier and the Prize can’t be awarded posthumously (I wonder what male thought up that dumb rule – and why?).  Thankfully, Hubble always mentioned Levitt – but textbooks do not necessarily.  At the end of the segment the host then covers the many lies Hubble told in his lifetime as a means of polishing his less than elegant background. 

Amazing what you can learn from a UK game show.