A name's deep impact Illustration by Ching Ching Cheng

A name's deep impact

Recognizing the intragalactic importance of Miss Mitchell’s Comets

By Ellen Snortland 03/04/2010

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“However long we live, life is short, so I work. And however important man becomes, he is nothing compared to the stars. There are secrets, dear sister, and it is for us to reveal them.”
 — Caroline Herschel (1750-1848), the first woman to discover a comet

Embroiled in a friendly linguistic kerfuffle over naming an advisory council for a new women’s self-defense organization, my dear friend, Lee Sinclair, called a timeout to the process and picked a name. Ms. Sinclair is the founder and executive director of No Means No Worldwide, (nomeansnoworldwide.org) and the founding mothers of the advisory group had been going back and forth via emails over what to call themselves — a process reminiscent of naming a baby or creating a book title. Naming is important.
After the numerous exchanges, Sinclair decided to name her burgeoning advisory board Halley’s Comets, reflecting her desire to have a body of people whose work and style is sparkly, light and fast. That pretty much describes a comet. At the risk of complicating matters, I had to pipe up with, “What comets were named after women?”
 
Given that I’m an ambassador for the National Women’s History Project (nwhp.org) as well as being an adviser to No Means No Worldwide (NMNW), it’s my personal and professional imperative to look at things through the telescope of all the missing women in history and on the current world stage. Sure enough, my hubby jumped on the Internet and found out about women astronomers and the comets they identified.
 
Caroline Herschel of Germany was the first woman to “find” a comet, 45 years after Halley saw what is now called “Halley’s Comet.” Given that it can be seen with the naked eye, Halley’s discovery wasn’t so much a discovery as it was his naming what before that time must have been either a terrifying or sacred astronomical event. Halley’s Comet appears approximately every 75 years, so it’s possible to see it twice in the span of a human life.
 
But Caroline Herschel had to use the new-fangled telescope in 1786 to find the comet that was called, in its day, The First Lady’s Comet (womanastronomer.com) and is now known as Comet Herschel. She made history not only for being the first woman to make such a discovery, but for finding many comets in her lifetime. According to the May 1997 issue of Universe magazine, “Herschel’s discoveries not only established a precedent for female astronomers, but remained a record for comet discoveries by women until the 1980s, when another female astronomer with a similar first name not only beat her record but firmly established herself in the history of comets. Her name: Carolyn Shoemaker.”
 
Some of us have actually heard of Maria Mitchell, the first American woman to locate a comet in 1847; it was named Miss Mitchell’s Comet. It’s no accident that Mitchell became an astronomer in her community of Nantucket, Mass., because she came from a Quaker family; Quakers were known for educating girls and boys equally. And as we all know, when any subjugated group is given the opportunity, its members will excel in their fields. Behind every successful woman, you can almost always find a supportive dad or brother.
 
The upshot of this astronomical research resulted in Lee Sinclair deciding to call the new NMNW advisory board — drum roll please — Miss Mitchell’s Comet Group! Hey, if sports teams can call themselves Jazz, Banana Slugs, or, yes, even Comets, we can call ourselves Mitchell’s Comets!
 
Years ago, I attended a Carl Sagan lecture and got in line during the question and answer portion of the evening. There were two lines — 10 deep on each side — mostly comprised of men and boys. There were only two females: a young girl and me. Sagan ran out of time, but he wanted to make sure the gals got a chance to ask their questions since we were so outnumbered by the guys. The other girl went first and asked something about heathen science. Sagan was gracious but obviously a bit disappointed that she used her public platform to promulgate religion. I asked, “How do we interest more girls in science and math?” at which he lit up and spoke for another half-hour. One of the things he emphasized was teaching EVERYONE about the women in science whose shoulders we all stand upon. He loved, respected and empowered women.
 
One of my favorite movies of all time, “Contact,” starring Jodie Foster, was based on Sagan’s novel of the same name. Released in 1997, the movie took on both the religious community and gender politics in science within the context of the scientific search for intelligent life in the galaxy. It’s a great movie to commemorate March, Women’s History Month. It’s got suspense, conflict and is intellectually provocative. It also showcases Foster, as Dr. Ellie Arroway, in a role very few women ever get a chance to play: scientific genius. Not accidentally, Ellie’s love for her father, who encouraged her curiosity, spurs her toward greatness and the courage it takes to stand alone.
 
So I now have a great new name and association to plug into my résumé, one that Carl Sagan would have loved: Member, Miss Mitchell’s Comets. 

Ellen teaches a writers’ workshop in Altadena. Contact her at snortland.com.

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