AAS 204th Meeting, June 2004
Session 57 Historical Astronomy
Poster, Wednesday, June 2, 2004, 10:00am-7:00pm, Ballroom

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[57.05] Henrietta Leavitt (1868 - 1921): Unsung Heroine of Astronomy

P. Papacosta (Columbia College Chicago)

Her 1908 discovery of the Period-Apparent Magnitude relationship for Cepheid stars is one of the most significant moments in 20th century astronomy. By timing the period of the variable brightness of Cepheids, astronomers could determine their luminosity and subsequently their distance. Hubble used this relationship to measure the distance to the Andromeda galaxy, and in his 1924 paper he proved that the universe is much larger and made of many more galaxies than just the Milky Way. In his 1936 classic book, The Realm of the Nebulae, Hubble acknowledged the use of the Period–Luminosity law in his distance calculations and gave credit to Henrietta Leavitt for the crucial role that her discovery played in his work. In a 1925 letter to Miss Leavitt, Professor Mittag-Leffler of the Sweedish Academy of Sciences declared his intent to nominate her for the 1926 Nobel Prize in Physics for her role in the Period-Luminosity discovery. Since Leavitt died prematurely of cancer in 1921, Harlow Shapley, the director of the Harvard Observatory, replied to professor Mittag’s letter. In his letter, Shapley informed Mittag of the unfortunate death of Henrietta Leavitt and expressed his respect for her work. Shapley also acknowledged using the Period-Luminosity law for distance measurements in his early work.

The author, who worked briefly at the Harvard Archives as part of his sabbatical research on Henrietta Leavitt, will provide relevant material that shows how Edwin Hubble, Mittag-Leffler and Harlow Shapley acknowledged Miss Leavitt’s pioneer role in the Period – Luminosity discovery. Despite such praise, to this day Henrietta Leavitt remains unknown to most people and is at best only a mere footnote in astronomy textbooks.

The author is grateful for a professional development grant from Columbia College Chicago awarded in 2002 towards this project.

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