Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Starry, starry girl

As a child, Annie Jump Cannon gazed at stars with her mother. As an adult, Cannon fell in love with astronomy.
One hundred years ago this month, Cannon began the work at Harvard University that would garner her awards and accolades — not only because she was the preeminent woman in her profession but because her work was unprecedented.
Within four years, Cannon, who was deaf, had compiled data on a whopping 225,300 stars and identified them under the spectral classes O, B, A, F, G, K and M — which developed into the famous mnemonic, “Oh Be A Fine Girl, Kiss Me.”
During her 40-year career, Cannon published additional star catalogs and discovered 300 yet-unknown stars. No wonder:
• Oxford University awarded Cannon in 1925 an honorary doctorate — the first ever for a woman;
• the National League of Women Voters named her in 1929 one of the 12 greatest living American women;
• and a moon crater was named after her.
Today, astronomers still rely on her work and the American Astronomical Society presents an annual award in her name to a female astronomer. This year’s recipient? Rachel Mandelbaum, a Princeton University researcher, whose many accomplishments include helping design children’s curriculum on the formation of the early universe. No doubt Cannon would approve.