Just Imagine…Reaching for the Stars

March 2, 2023

Annie Jump Cannon (1922), public domain image

Annie Jump Cannon was born in 1863. Her mother excited her about the stars and encouraged Annie to pursue an education in mathematics and sciences. Annie lost most of her hearing at a young age, but that did not stop her. She earned a degree in Physics and Astronomy from Wellesley College. She later enrolled at Radcliffe College to gain access to Harvard’s Observatory.

Annie was hired by Harvard’s Observatory director to help map and catalog every star in the sky. The procedure for classification of the stars was as yet unsettled. There was a dispute between two of the leaders at the Observatory. Annie helped settle the dispute by developing her own system. The system she developed still exists today, over a century later.

Annie and the other women hired to classify the stars were paid at half the level as the men although they were much more proficient. They were accused of being out of their place and should be content to be housewives.

When Annie began her work, she was able to classify 1,000 stars in three years. As she became more proficient she could classify 200 stars an hour. In spite of her deafness, she led the way in classifying stars. She also discovered stars and novas. She ended her career having classified 350,000 stars.

But for all of Annie’s achievements in astronomy, perhaps her greatest achievement was encouraging women’s acceptance in the male-dominated scientific world. She was the first woman to receive an honorary Doctorate from Oxford University. A number of awards are named after her. In spite of all her achievements, eugenicists blocked her acceptance into the National Academy of Sciences because she was hearing impaired.

Too often, the story of human development over our known history has been more defined by what people can’t do rather than by efforts to expand the boundaries of what people can do. Gender, race, ethnicity, physical abilities, and other biological traits have been used to restrict people’s opportunities to develop their talents and contribute to society. Both Annie’s gender and deafness were used to discourage her.

Just imagine what we need to do as a society to encourage every person with ambitions to reach for the stars and fulfill their dreams. Just imagine how we might change our views of human development from one of seeing limitations to one of seeing possibilities in all. Think of where we would be, as a society, without the breakthrough achievements by those who were initially told, “you can’t do that!” Their pioneering spirit has made all us richer for refusing to give up on their dreams. What can we do to foster that pioneering spirit in our own time?

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“It is hard to conceive of the time when mathematical or other scientific study by girls was so shocking to the conceptions of mankind that she must need do all her study secretly at night with a candle by her bedside.”–Annie Jump Cannon

This is part of our “Just Imagine” series of occasional posts, inviting you to join us in imagining positive possibilities for a citizen-centered democracy.


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