Monday, March 23, 2009

Maria Mitchell on Ada Lovelace Day

Comic by Kate Beaton.
March 24th is Ada Lovelace Day, honoring women in technology. The challenge was to publish a post today about a woman in technology whom I admire.

Who was Ada?
Ada Lovelace was one of the world's first computer programmers, and one of the first people to see computers as more than just a machine for doing sums. She wrote programmes for Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine, a general-purpose computing machine, despite the fact that it was never built. She also wrote the very first description of a computer and of software.

We especially need imagination in science.
It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but is
somewhat beauty and poetry.

—Maria Mitchell
I picked Maria Mitchell, who was an astronomer. It may sound like a bizarre choice, but I learned of her existence while reading "Name That American" in a Harcourt textbook with some fourth graders and I thought she was really cool. Perhaps I'm the odd one out in terms of never having heard of her before, but in case I'm not, I thought I'd share.

Maria Mitchell was born August 1, 1818 on the island of Nantucket in Massachusetts and she became the first acknowledged woman astronomer in the United States. Not many girls born in the early 1800s were encouraged by their parents to aspire to high goals or were lucky enough to have a father like William Mitchell, a dedicated astronomer and teacher himself. He was delighted with the early talent his daughter demonstrated for science. Instead of considering such interests useless for a girl, Maria's father did everything he could to further her knowledge of mathematics and astronomy. Maria's made contributions to science, education and women's rights.

On a clear autumn night in 1847 Maria stood on the roof of her parent's house, focusing her telescope on a faraway star. Suddenly she realized that the faint, blurry light wasn't a star at all, but a comet. In 1848, Maria became the first women member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and later became a fellow of the society. She served as professor of astronomy at Vassar College from 1865 to 1888. In 1875 Mitchell was elected president of the American Association for the Advancement of Women. Mitchell died on June 28, 1889.

Throughout her career Maria encouraged young women in the same way her father had encouraged her, to be anything they wanted to be. After her death, the Maria Mitchell Astronomical Society was created as tribute to her memory. Mitchell was elected to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans in 1905.

Cross posted from my blog.


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