Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 28.djvu/548

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been validated.
534
THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

WOMEN IN ASTRONOMY.
By E. LAGRANGE.

THERE have been women famous in all the departments of science and art, and many have shown in astronomical studies talents not usually made manifest in their sex. To begin with ancient times, several women whose names have come down to posterity made themselves famous in the centuries before the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Among them, the principal one who derived her title to glory from the study of the sciences was Hypatia, daughter of Theon, of the school of Alexandria, who is nevertheless better known by her philosophical opinions than by her scientific labors. She lectured for many years at Alexandria, before numerous and intelligent audiences, on the Neoplatonic doctrines; but she is also known as the author of an astronomical table which has not come down to us. Wolf relates, in his "History of Astronomy," that she studied mathematics and astronomy with such success that she was given a professorial chair, whence she explained the works of Apollonius and Diophantus.

Skipping the ages of darkness and the beginning of the modern epoch, we find our attention fixed in the latter part of the seventeenth century upon the name of the family of Kirch—a name important in many respects. Marie Marguerite Kirch was born at Panitzch, near Leipsic, on the 25th of February, 1670. Her maiden name was Winckelmann, but she married the Berlin astronomer Godefroid Kirch, and became also his scientific companion. She assisted him in his calculations and observations, and in 1702 discovered a comet. Even after the death of her husband in 1710 she did not cease to devote herself entirely to astronomical science; and we have a considerable book which she wrote in 1712, in anticipation of the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn that was to take place in 1713. The conjunctions of the planets now only excite curiosity, and are of no particular interest to astronomers. But the case was different in the times when astronomy was mixed up with astrology, and a very capricious, occult influence over earthly fates was attributed to such especial positions of the stars. With the progress of theoretical astronomy, which showed that these conjunctions were regular events, subject to periodic laws, the ideas on this subject were modified, and the writers upon the phenomena took the pains to notify the public, by the titles of their works, that they had nothing in common with the astrologers. Marguerite Kirch's book consisted wholly of astronomical calculations—to the honor, says Bach, of the woman and her age.

The daughters of Madame Kirch continued to occupy themselves