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Where are all the female astronomers? Influential women in astronomy, now and through the ages

Press Release From: Royal Astronomical Society
Posted: Thursday, July 15, 2021

In the run-up to the Royal Astronomical Society’s high-profile annual meeting – hosted this year by the University of Bath (July 19-23) – the prime minister has announced an important new prize for women astronomers. The award highlights the need for women to be recognised for their outstanding work in this field, and it begs the question – why is the world so short on female astronomers? 

A new prize to celebrate outstanding research by women astrophysicists was made public earlier this month by Britain’s prime minister. It is the latest initiative to recognise the game-changing contribution of women in a field that is hugely dominated by men.

The £10,000 prize – to be given in alternate years to researchers based in the UK and Germany – was announced by Boris Johnson to mark the final UK visit by Angela Merkel (a scientist by training) as German chancellor. The award is named after Caroline Herschel (1750–1848) who was a pioneer in astronomy at a time when women were rarely recognised for their contributions to the field.

In times past, a female astronomer was traditionally paired with a male astronomer: she carried out the deep-space observations and data analysis while her research partner wrote the academic papers and received the accolades. Thankfully, female astronomers are now in a position to stand alone in receiving the recognition they rightly deserve. However, there is much work to be done before they achieve parity with their male colleagues.

Today in the UK, 12% of professors, 18% of senior lecturers/readers and 29% of lecturers in astronomy are women. In Solar System science, women make up 21% of professors, 22% of senior lecturers/readers and 27% of lecturers (see the 2016 Survey of Demographics and Research Interests of the UK Astronomy and Geophysics Communities for details). Girls comprise just one in five A-level physics entrants, a proportion largely unchanged for many years, and women make up around three tenths of undergraduate students on astronomy courses.

Yet despite the clear odds against women space scientists rising to the top, an impressive number of remarkable female astronomers are now recognised for the mark they have left – or are still leaving – on the world.

Here is a collection of the female superstars who are rightly recognised today for their extraordinary work in astronomy (more can be found here):

  • Caroline Herschel (1750-1848): German astronomer, active in the UK. Despite being struck with typhus aged 10 and suffering vision loss in one eye, Herschel went on to discover (among other things) several comets, including the periodic comet 35P/Herschel-Rigollet, which is named after her. She was the first woman to receive a pension from the king. She was also awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) in 1828.

  • Williamina Fleming (1857–1911): Scottish astronomer, active in the US. She helped develop a common designation system for stars and catalogued thousands of stars and other astronomical phenomena. She discovered a total of 59 gaseous nebulae, over 310 variable stars and 10 novae.

  • Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868-1921): American astronomer whose discoveries gave astronomers their first ‘standard candle’ (an astronomical object with a known luminosity), allowing them to measure the distance to faraway galaxies. Using Leavitt's work, astronomers were able to measure distances of up to about 20 million light years.

  • Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (1900-1979): British-born American astronomer and astrophysicist who proposed in her 1925 doctoral thesis that stars were composed primarily of hydrogen and helium. Her conclusion was initially rejected because it contradicted the scientific wisdom of the time but independent observations eventually proved she was correct.

  • Vera Rubin (1928-2016): American astronomer who discovered the existence of dark matter through her finding of the ‘galaxy rotation problem’ (the problem is that stars far from the galactic centre rotate much faster than predicted and should be flung away from the galaxy). Though her discovery of dark matter is among the most important breakthroughs in astronomy, Rubin was never awarded a Nobel Prize, almost certainly because of her gender. She was, however, awarded an RAS Gold Medal for her work. Her observations also provided evidence of the existence of galactic superclusters. Rubin was a passionate advocate for women in science and was an active mentor of aspiring female astronomers. She was the first woman to have a large observatory named after her: the Rubin Observatory in Chile.

  • Beatrice Tinsley (1941-1981): British-born New Zealand astronomer and professor of astronomy at Yale University. Her research made key contributions to our understanding of how galaxies evolve, grow and die.

  • Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell : Astrophysicist from Northern Ireland who discovered the first radio pulsars (rapidly rotating, highly magnetised neutron stars) when she was still a student in 1967. The discovery was recognised in 1974 by the award of the Nobel Prize in Physics, though Dame Jocelyn was not a recipient of the prize, almost certainly because she was a woman. She is also a former president of a number of institutions: the RAS, the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Edinburgh. She is widely recognised for her many science prizes and her advocacy work for women in STEM.

  • Sandra Faber: American astrophysicist known for her research on the evolution of galaxies. She is professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California and has made important discoveries linking the brightness of galaxies to the speed of stars within them.

  • Yvonne Elsworth : Irish physicist based at the School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Birmingham (she is professor of helioseismology – the study of the structure and dynamics of the Sun through its oscillations – and Poynting professor of physics). Until 2015, Professor Elsworth was also the head of the Birmingham Solar Oscillations Network (BiSON), the longest running helioseismology network, with data covering well over three solar cycles (the cycles the Sun's magnetic field goes through approximately every 11 years).

  • Victoria Kaspi : Canadian astrophysicist and professor of physics at McGill University. She works on neutron stars, using X-ray telescopes to study pulsars. She was recognised by Nature as one of Nature’s 10 (ten people who helped shape science in 2019) for her work on discovering fast radio bursts with the CHIME telescope, and in 2021 was awarded the prestigious Shaw Prize, also referred to as the Nobel of the East.

  • Carole Mundell : British professor of extragalactic astronomy, and head of astrophysics, at the University of Bath. Professor Mundell is an observational astrophysicist who researches cosmic black holes and gamma-ray bursts. She is also the first woman to hold the role of chief scientific adviser at the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, and the first person to hold the role of chief international science envoy. In 2021, she was named the Hiroko Sherwin chair in Extragalactic Astronomy. Her career highlights include the Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award (2011 to 2016) for the study of black hole-driven explosions and the dynamic Universe, and the FDM Everywoman in Technology Woman of the Year award (2016). Professor Mundell is a passionate champion of diversity and women in STEM.

  • Catherine Heymans : Astronomer Royal for Scotland (the only woman to have held any of the astronomer royal positions in the UK); professor of astrophysics and European Research Council Fellow at the University of Edinburgh. Professor Heymans is also the Director of the German Centre for Cosmological Lensing at the Ruhr-University Bochum, Germany. Her main area of research is the Dark Universe using weak gravitational lensing.

  • Samaya Nissanke : British astrophysicist based in the Netherlands, associate professor in gravitational wave and multi-messenger astrophysics, and the spokesperson for the GRAPPA Centre for Excellence in Gravitation and Astroparticle Physics at the University of Amsterdam. She works on gravitational-wave astrophysics and has played a founding role in the emerging field of multi-messenger astronomy. She also played a leading role in the discovery paper of the first binary neutron star merger, GW170817. In 2020, she was jointly awarded the New Horizons in Physics Prize from the Breakthrough Prize Foundation. In 2021, she was awarded a Suffrage Award for Engineering and Physical Sciences.

  • Juna Kollmeier : US astrophysicist at the Carnegie Institution of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Her primary focus is on the emergence of structure in the Universe. She combines cosmological hydrodynamic simulations and analytic theory to figure out how the tiny fluctuations in density that were present when the Universe was only 300 thousand years old, become the galaxies and black holes that we see now, after 14 billion years of cosmic evolution.

  • Emma Bunce : British astrophysicist and professor of Planetary Plasma Physics at the University of Leicester. Professor Bunce is also president of the Royal Astronomical Society and the holder of the Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award. Her research is on the magnetospheres of Saturn and Jupiter (the cavities created in the flow of the solar wind by the planets’ internally generated magnetic fields).

ENDS.

 

Media contacts

For further information, please contact Vittoria in the University of Bath Press Office on +44 (0)1225 383135 or email vda26@bath.ac.uk. Alternatively, contact Dr Robert Massey from the Royal Astronomical Society: +44 (0)20 7292 3979

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