Who Was Henrietta Leavitt? The Brilliant Female Astronomer | Summary and Q&A

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December 25, 2012
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Who Was Henrietta Leavitt? The Brilliant Female Astronomer

TL;DR

Henrietta Swan Leavitt's groundbreaking work in measuring the distance to stars revolutionized astronomy and contributed to our understanding of the universe.

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Questions & Answers

Q: What was Henrietta Swan Leavitt's contribution to astronomy?

Henrietta Swan Leavitt's discovery of the correlation between the size of Cepheid stars and their periods of peak luminosity provided a way to measure a star's true luminosity and calculate its distance, revolutionizing astronomy.

Q: How did Leavitt's work help settle the debate about the existence of other galaxies?

Before Leavitt's discovery, astronomers could only measure stars about 100 light years away. Using Leavitt's Law, Cepheid stars millions of light years away could be measured, confirming the existence of galaxies beyond our own.

Q: Why was Leavitt not recognized for her work during her lifetime?

Leavitt was not allowed to touch the telescopes at Harvard College Observatory, as women were not given the same opportunities as men in astronomy at the time. However, her contributions were later acknowledged by her peers, including Edwin Hubble.

Q: Was Henrietta Swan Leavitt nominated for a Nobel Prize?

Swedish physicists requested Leavitt's research from the Harvard Observatory to nominate her for the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1923, three years after her death. However, Nobel Prizes cannot be awarded posthumously.

Summary & Key Takeaways

  • Henrietta Swan Leavitt was a highly skilled astronomer who volunteered at Harvard College Observatory, cataloging and analyzing photographs of the sky.

  • She made a significant discovery in 1912, finding a correlation between the size of Cepheid stars and their periods of peak luminosity, allowing for the calculation of a star's true luminosity and distance.

  • Leavitt's work using what is now known as Leavitt's Law helped settle the debate about the existence of other galaxies and was later used by Edwin Hubble to determine that the universe is expanding.

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