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The Stargazer Who Discovered A Comet

From "The Stargazer Who Discovered a Comet" in The UU Kids Book by Anne Fields and Charlene Brotman (Biddeford, Maine: Brotman-Marshfield, 1989); used with permission. "Afterward" from Rooftop Astronomer: A Story about Maria Mitchell by Stephanie Sammartino McPherson (Minneapolis, MN: Carolrhoda Books, Inc., 1990).

Read the story aloud. NOTE: The name, Maria, is pronounced "ma-RYE-ah."

Maria always remembered the day she helped her father time an eclipse of the sun. She used the chronometer to count down to the exact second that the moon began to block out the sun. Her father needed to send the timing report to his astronomer friends at the big Harvard University observatory, where they were collecting eclipse information from all over.

"There will be another eclipse like this in 54 years," said father.

"I'm twelve now, I'll be 66 then!" exclaimed Maria. How could astronomers know so far ahead what would happen in the sky? How amazing that the stars and planets spun around in such order!

"I want to study the stars, always!" decided Maria one day. "I want to be an astronomer!"

"Father, can only men be astronomers?" she asked.

Father thought for a moment, while Maria watched his face anxiously. He knew that no matter how smart a girl was, she could not get into any college in the United States to study astronomy. Only boys were allowed to go to college in those days.

Finally he said, "There are no women astronomers in America. There are only a few in the entire world, but I do think it's possible, Maria. I will teach thee all I know about astronomy. Cousin Walter has scientific books he might let thee read. Thee will need to study mathematics. That is as important to astronomy as the telescope. Yes, I do think it is possible thee could be an astronomer."

"Oh, I will study, father, I will!" cried Maria joyfully, hugging her father.

True to her word, Maria spent long hours studying geometry and trigonometry in a tiny room at the foot of the attic stairs . . .

Maria still spent most evenings studying the sky with the telescope and keeping careful records on the stars. One night she saw a fuzzy spot through the telescope that she had never seen before. Quickly she checked the charts to see if a star was supposed to be in that place in the sky. No star was ever there. Could it be a new comet?

"Father, come up and look quick!" she shouted. Her father dashed up the attic stairs to the roof and peered carefully through the telescope.

"Thee's discovered a comet above the North Star!" he exclaimed. "We must write immediately to the Harvard Observatory and tell them! A comet is named for the person who discovers it first but the discovery doesn't count unless it is reported to an observatory."

They wrote the letter that very night, but to their dismay, a storm at sea delayed the mail in leaving the island for two days. Soon the comet was also sighted by someone in Italy, then in England and in Germany. The King of Denmark had promised a gold medal to the first person who discovered a comet that could be seen only through a telescope. Would Maria miss getting the medal because her report was late? Months went by while this was being decided!

Finally one day a package arrived for Maria from the King of Denmark. It was the gold medal! Now Maria was famous. She was the first woman in the world to have a comet named after her!

Women all over America were so proud of Maria that they collected money for a new, larger telescope for her. How excited she was! Now she could learn so much more about the stars and planets!

Maria's life changed in 1865 when a wealthy man named Matthew Vassar had the courage to start a college for women — Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York.

People called Matthew Vassar an old fool. They said girls didn't need a college education, they just needed to know how to sew and do housework and maybe play the piano a little. College would ruin them for doing housework.

There were ministers who thundered, "It's against the will of God for girls to go to college! It will break up families and destroy the country!"

In spite of such talk, Matthew Vassar wanted Maria to come and teach astronomy! She could have an observatory with the third largest telescope on the continent.

"Father, how can I do this?" said Maria softly, trying to keep her voice from trembling. "I've never even been to college myself!" She was also thinking, "If I'm not any good at it, then people will say, "This proves that women have no business teaching in colleges!"

"Thee can do it, and do it well," said her father. "Thee should have no fears."

He was right. Maria's students loved her. The other professors just expected the students to sit and listen to them talk, but Maria taught her students to question everything and experiment, and to think for themselves.

Afterward

In 1986 another young woman discovered a comet. Working at Mount Palomar Observatory near San Diego, California, Christine Wilson had equipment and techniques at her disposal undreamed of in Maria's time. At the start of her career, she had a knowledge of astronomy surpassing all that Maria learned in a lifetime of study.

But Christine Wilson's discovery, while exciting and well publicized, did not catapult her into sudden fame as Maria's had. New comets are not headline news. Thanks to pioneers like Maria, neither are women astronomers. Women now occupy important positions in the scientific community. Side by side with their male colleagues, they fight disease, predict the weather, design computers, and continue to discover comets. Maria Mitchell would be pleased.

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Last updated on Wednesday, October 26, 2011.

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