A Woman to Know: Henrietta Swan Leavitt

Miss Leavitt was of an especially quiet and retiring nature, and absorbed in her work to an unusual degree. — historian Solon I. Bailey

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

Henrietta: the woman who measured the cosmos — seriously.

In 1893, Cambridge native Henrietta scored a job at the Harvard Observatory, as a "human computer." Her groundbreaking research in the then-burgeoning field of luminosity led to the creation of the Hubble telescope, the understanding of variable star brightness and some world-altering scientific revelations about how the universe is expanding and contracting and expanding again — quite literally all the time.

But Henrietta kept to herself while at the Observatory, renowned for her work ethic but also her reclusiveness. And while many of her colleagues later referenced her work around the Cepheid stars, her name mostly became a footnote to the celebrated innovations of her male peers. As science writer Jeremy Bernstein remembers, "I doubt [her bosses] thought she would make a significant discovery — one that would eventually change astronomy."

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