The Harvard Computers

I enjoyed your "This Month In Physics History" article on Henrietta Swan Leavitt, which appeared in the December 2017 issue of the APS News. Some of the wording, however, helps to perpetuate a prevalent myth about the origin of the female Harvard Computers. The article could leave the impression that Williamina Fleming was the first woman to be hired at the Harvard College Observatory, and that Charles Pickering was the first to hire female computers there. As Dava Sobel’s book, which is cited in the article, details, the first female computer at Harvard was Anna Winlock in 1875, hired before Pickering became director. The process accelerated quickly from there. In 1879, two years before Fleming was hired as computer, a parody of Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore was written about the Harvard College Observatory, featuring an all female chorus of computers, suggesting the practice was well established by that time.

Some of the other aspects of the typical origin story are also misleading or oversimplified. Pickering did not initially pay female computers less than male computers, although he did favor a large staff of computers to reduce the expense of hiring professional astronomers, who at the time were all male. Over time, as the skills and duties of the women developed, they were doing the jobs of astronomers but paid at a much lower rate as computers, but that was not the case at their initial hiring.

Why are these details important? For one thing, the prevalent myth places the idea for hiring female computers at the feet of Charles Pickering, solely as a way of getting better performance for less cost. But Maria Mitchell, one of the most prominent American astronomers of the period (and herself a former computer for the United States Coast Survey) and someone who had worked closely with all of the previous directors of the Harvard College Observatory, gave a major speech in 1876 arguing in favor of women being hired into such roles. Pickering would surely have been aware of those views, and at times alluded to the ideas Mitchell expressed. Ironically, in leaving out Mitchell’s role in encouraging the hiring of female computers, the contributions of a key female scientist are inadvertently suppressed.

These ideas are covered in more detail in my recent book from IOP, Beyond Curie: Four Women in Physics and Their Remarkable Discoveries, 1903 to 1963.

Scott Calvin
Bronx, New York

Doublet Dudes

The Back Page article on "Doublet Dudes" (APS News, December 2017) described the origins of the General Atomic (GA) fusion program.

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the GA program has been achieving the status of "last man standing."

At one time there were major magnetic fusion facilities at LLNL (Livermore), LANL (Los Alamos), ORNL (Oak Ridge), PPPL (Princeton), MIT, U. Texas and U. Wisconsin. Over the past three decades, all those facilities have been shut down, some because they were backing the wrong horse (mirrors, pinches, or multipoles), and the others because of engineering inadequacies or severe managerial incompetence.

Today the large fusion facility at GA soldiers on alone in USA magnetic fusion, as far as large facilities are concerned. Was this outcome foreseen by the Doublet Dudes?

Daniel Jassby
Plainsboro, New Jersey

Gravitational Waves

The article on the 2017 Nobel Prize (APS News, November 2017) states "Gravitational waves from distant cataclysmic events propagate as compressions and expansions of spacetime." This is rather misleading, because suggests gravitational waves are locally isotropic compressions and expansions, as in sound waves in a gas. In fact, a better description would be "transverse shear strains." Also, "spacetime" is like a medium because the metric is a dynamical field. So it would be more accurate to say "transverse shear strains of the spacetime metric." Why not be more accurate when it's so easy to be so?

Ted Jacobsen
College Park, Maryland

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Editor: David Voss
Contributing Correspondent: Alaina G. Levine
Publication Designer and Production: Nancy Bennett-Karasik

January 2018 (Volume 27, Number 1)

Table of Contents

APS News Archives

Contact APS News Editor

Articles in this Issue
The Physical Review Celebrates its 125th Anniversary
APS Advocacy in 2017: Working Together to be a Voice for Physics
Announcing Inaugural PhysTEC Fellows
Physics: Highlights from 2017
Physics Next Workshops Topic Suggestions for August 2018
Indo-U.S. STEM Education and Research Center in India
The APS Distinguished Lectureship on the Applications of Physics
Galley of Fluid Motion Winners for 2017
First Harry Lustig Award Winner Announced
This Month in Physics History
Profiles in Versatility
Education and Diversity Update
Letters to the Editor
The Back Page