Saturday, March 21, 2009

March 21: Antonia Maury

Antonia Caetana de Paiva Pereira Maury
March 21, 1866 – January 8, 1952

Antonia Maury was an American astronomer who worked at Harvard College Observatory (HCO) along with Williamina Fleming and Annie Jump Cannon. She published an important early catalog of stellar spectra.

Maury was the granddaughter of John William Draper and niece of Henry Draper, both pioneering astronomers.
In 1840 her grandfather had made the first daguerreotype image of the moon, while in 1872 her uncle made the first photograph of a star, Vega, showing absorption lines—dark lines in the star's spectrum caused by the absorption of hot gases as they cool. On her father's side, Commander Matthew Fontaine Maury, the first director of the United States Naval Observatory (1842-61), was an astronomer and oceanographer, known as the "Pathfinder of the Seas".

Antonia Maury was educated at Vassar College, graduating in 1887. She was employed at Harvard College Observatory (HCO), where she observed stellar spectra and published a catalog of classifications in 1897 (Spectra of Bright Stars Photographed with the 11-inch Draper Telescope as part of the Henry Draper Memorial, Annals of Harvard College Observatory, vol. 28, pp.1-128).

Antonia Maury's uncle, Henry Draper, had devoted great time and effort to the study of stellar spectra, and he was in the process of cataloging over 100 stars through spectral analysis when he died, in 1882, at the age of 45. Three years later Edward Charles Pickering and Williamina Fleming had begun the monumental task at the Harvard College Observatory of cataloging, according to a color index they had devised, the prismatic spectra of some 10,000 stars.

In 1886, Maury's aunt, Anna Draper, who had worked with her husband on his catalog, had established the Henry Draper Memorial to fund it. Antonia Maury was the "computer" responsible for computing and cataloging stellar spectra for bright stars in the northern hemisphere, which entailed analyzing thousands of spectral photographs for minute differences. The average pay for the "computers"—sometimes referred to as "Pickering's Harem"—was 25 cents an hour, less than half the amount paid to men.

The director of HCO at the time, Pickering, disagreed with Maury’s system of classification and explanation of differing line widths, prompting her to leave HCO. However, Ejnar Hertzsprung realized the value of her classifications and used them in his system of identifying giant and dwarf stars.

Maury's efforts to refine the spectral categories were not appreciated. Doing original theoretical work not only conflicted with Pickering's expectations for her as a "computer," but they also slowed down the work on the Draper Catalogue. Her detailed measurements of width and sharpness put him behind schedule. "She was one of the most original thinkers of all the women Pickering employed", Hoffleit notes, "but instead of encouraging her attempts at interpreting observations, he was only irritated by her independence and departure from assigned and expected routine." Frustrated by this constriction of her work, Antonia Maury left Harvard in 1891 to teach in the Gilman School in Cambridge.

In 1908, Maury returned to HCO where she remained for many years. Her most famous work there was the spectroscopic analysis of the binary star Beta Lyrae, published in 1933 (The Spectral Changes of Beta Lyrae, Annals of Harvard College Observatory, vol. 84, no. 8).

Antonia Maury, surveying the vastness of the known universe, once observed
"but the human brain is greater yet, because it can comprehend it all."

In 1943, Antonia Maury was awarded the Annie Jump Cannon Award in Astronomy by the American Astronomical Society. The lunar crater Maury is co-named after her and
Matthew Fontaine Maury.

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