Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Female Pioneers of Science

Fiammetta Wilson

Female Pioneers of Science – Fiammetta Wilson/Grace Cook

During the Great War, as the bombs fell on London, two women had kept vigil of the night sky. Fiammetta Wilson and Grace Cook had noticed shooting stars which were like chunks of space rock that had lit up the sky while they plunge the Earth. They maintained a record of meteors which was then a man’s world. The pair, in 1916, was among the first four women who had been awarded fellowship of  The Royal Astronomical Society, which was a milestone in the recognition of women in science. Though their names seem to be forgotten, the first female comrades of the society have been remembered 100 years on.

DrMandy Bailey is an astronomer at the Open University as well as a member of the Royal Astronomical Society council and states that Fiammette Wilson and Grace Cook certified that scientific work on meteor observations seemed to continue while their male contemporaries had been fighting a war. She stated that between 1910 and 1920, Wilson noticed somewhere in the region of 10,000 meteors and precisely calculated the paths of around 650 of them, was no small achievement. Mrs Cook wrote regarding her friend that her dauntless spirit often enabled her to gain success where the others would have been unsuccessful.

Persistence Rewarded by Detection of Fireballs

She sometimes observed the heavens for five or six hours with only a few stars being visible in the midst of the clouds and her persistence was often adequately rewarded by the detection of fireballs. Mrs Wilson’s enthusiastic search of science at the time of the war led to accusations of spying.

 Ms Cook wrote after her death that `during the war astute special constables detected the flashlight she used for recording meteors and severely threatened her with arrest as a German agent. With zeppelins dropping bombs in the neighbourhood, Mrs Wilson calmly pursued her vigils on several occasions. Falling splinters from shrapnel once made thing highly dangerous but she managed to get good records’. It was Wilson and Cook who had opened the door to women from every walk of life to become astronomers. Towards the 19th century, the RAS granted honorary fellowship to Caroline Herschel and Mary Somerville, the famous scientists.

First Astronomer in England to observe Nova Aquilae

However, the organisation refused to permit women to be full members, debating that fellows in its Royal Charter were described only as `he’. Women like Grace Cook were considered as amateurs rather illegally since they could not join professional societies or put their names to technical papers. Ms Cook had been motivated to take up astronomy after attending a lecture by Joseph Hardcastle, the great grandson of Caroline’s Herschel’s brother.

He had lent her a telescope where she later on returned the favour by supporting to plot his discoveries on s star map. Mr Cook recalled in a letter a memorable night observing the sky in 1918 stating that it was one of the highlights of her observing nights that on June 8th 1918 when she went out to search for slow-moving bright meteors and almost at once spotted a strange star twinkling violently and changing colours rapidly. It was at 9.30 pm and she was the first astronomer in England to make the earliest observation of Nova Aquilae.

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