PostHeaderIcon Henrietta Swan Leavitt… and Dolls

Happy Ada Lovelace Day everyone!

Because my birthday was this past weekend, I wanted to tell you about one of the great women of astrophysics: Henrietta Swan Leavitt.

What does this have to do with my birthday? I can hear you asking that. See, my parents are wonderful, thoughtful, creative geeks. And they got me an American Girl doll for my birthday. (YES, my birthday this year. YES, I’m an adult). But then they dressed her up like Henrietta Swan Leavitt. She even has accessories!

(Reply to this post to vote for my parents to create a whole line of women scientist outfits for American Girls dolls! I sure do…)

My American Girl Woman

I was in transports of delight. Yes, my mother sewed those new clothes for her. (The skirt is leftover fabric from my prom dress oh so many years ago.). My father worked on the accessories:

  • Light-box
  • Magnifying glass (it works)
  • Flyspankers (see paragraph 2:
  • Folio with “glass” plates of the Magellanic Clouds, Henrietta’s scientific paper on Cepheid Variables, and photographs

Henrietta Swan Leavitt

Henrietta Swan Leavitt made it possible for us to measure the size of the Universe.

Yup. read that again. Henrietta Swan Leavitt made it possible for us to measure the size of the Universe.

Ostensibly she was working as a “computer” (what women who did the computational or classification work in astronomy were called in those days) for Dr. Edward Pickering at the Harvard College Observatory.

It was there, rubbing elbows with other famous women of astrophsics like Annie Jump Cannon, as she was classifying the sizes of variable stars in the Magellanic Clouds that she discovered the period-luminosity relationship in Cepheid variable stars.

Variable stars are, as they sound, stars that vary in brightness. What Henrietta discovered, is that for Cepheid variables, the brightness of the star (luminosity) and the period (time between brightest moments) are related. The longer between “blinks” the brighter the star. This means that if you can see a star varying and time between the “blinks” you can figure out how bright that star actually is, not just how bright it looks. (Remember that farther away stars look dimmer, but if you got closer to them they’d look brighter).

By knowing how bright a star truly is, you can accurately measure the distance to that star by how dim it appears to be. Which means you can now measure the distances to things outside our galaxy.

Go read up some more… and let’s investigate the rest of those women computers from Pickering’s lab. Did they all make awesome discoveries? Margaret Harwood, Mollie O’Reilly, Edith Gill,  Evelyn Leland, Florence Cushman, Marion Whyte, Grace Brooks, Arville Walker, Johanna Mackie, Alta Carpenter, Mabel Gill, and Ida Woods.

Want More?

*In case you’re curious, the doll is the newest historical American Girl: Caroline, with her hair pulled back in a bun.

Henrietta Swan Leavitt from the AAS

Cepheid Variable Stars


~ A l i c e !

18 Responses to “Henrietta Swan Leavitt… and Dolls”

  • Barbara Joyce says:

    Yes, I vote for your parents to come out with a line of clothing and accessories honoring women scientists. And I’ll bet the beautiful lace on your Henrietta doll is hand-made bobbin lace. Lovely!

    • Alice says:

      Ah Barbara… the lace is a temporary measure. The plan was for handmade, but the plan had to be executed much too quickly. It is a repurposed crocheted doily. I got in a LOT of trouble for thinking it was tatting at first. (I saw the loops and knew the timeframe, so I was sure it wasn’t something more complex than thick tatting … but I was wrong.) I think there will be a bobbin lace collar at some undefined point in the future.

  • Brian says:

    I am on the verge of passing out from the radiation of utter coolness coming off of my computer screen right now. Your parents are amazing.

  • Worlebird says:

    That’s a fabulous gift idea! And I very much agree your mother should make more – maybe Hypatia of Alexandria and Carolyn Shoemaker, just for chronological variety!
    This is such a good idea, I might have to do something like this for my daughters, only as a computer scientist myself, I might choose Admiral Grace Hopper and Ada Lovelace. Hmmm…

  • Amanda says:

    Suggestions for Astronomy dolls:
    Caroline Herschel (especially if you can find Felicity’s colonial American clothes on Ebay)
    generic NASA jumpsuit
    Maria Mitchell (telescope for her
    Valentina Tereshkova (bonus points for a very tiny Order of Lenin medal)

  • debbie says:

    um….ok, i have never been a huge fan of the american girl doll enterprise, but this….WOW. this is beyond the best and most creative gift ever. i am a little worried for your daughter though…surely the collection will expand with no limits now that you’ve started!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! your parents clearly rock.

    • Alice says:

      I understand the reticence… American Girl is now owned by Mattel and it’s pretty commercial. But, but, but, but… they are high quality dolls, and appropriately scaled for various types of play including “following the rules” and playing only with the commercial stuff, as well as creative play like the above. Sewing can teach so much: dexterity, hand-eye, MATH, diagramming, following a schematic, MATH, measurement, MATH, fiber arts, creativity, MATH, useful future skills for basic clothing repair, MATH, art, MATH, ratios, division, etc, etc, etc. You also get social skills with dolls: you practice your social skills on the doll and with your friends when playing together.
      Also, the American Girl (historical) dolls have a strong link to reading and history, which is a big part of what I loved about them.
      A doll (any doll) is a classic toy, up there with the ball and the stick. American Girl makes a nice doll, and you do NOT have to follow their “rules” and use only the provided accessories. You can make up your own rules, as with any doll.

  • Whitney g says:

    Your parents are like the! I was always into the American Girl Dolls and I am currently working on a research project on Leavitt. I was looking for a certain picture to use in my report and I found this. I got so excited, because I thought that American Girl was making real historical figures. Once I read the story, I was wising for parent like yours. I am a geek also, so I would love a present like that!

  • Susan S says:

    As a longtime collector of AG dolls (from back in the Pleasant Co days) & a STEaM enthusiast, please please please encourage your parents to create historical women scientists outfits! I will be the first in line to buy – my daughter plays w/ her AG doll right below her Women in Science poster. How wonderful would it be if she could dress up her Molly as Maria Mitchell??

  • Pleasant Rowland says:

    I am the creator of The American Girls Collection. I have seen many homemade “interpretations” over the thirty years since I introduced the Collection, but absolutely none as wonderful as your parents made for you, Alice. I had never heard of Henrietta Leavitt until a few weeks ago when I purchased tickets for a wonderful new play written about her called Silent Sky. I will go next Wednesday evening, so soon I will know a great deal about her and her incredible contributions to astronomy. Your posting was sent to me by the play’s producer. As you can imagine, this lovely introduction to her just delighted me. Your parents’ care, craftsmanship and creativity is evident in every detail, and the idea of extending their concept into a line of dolls and books about historic female scientists went straight to my heart. With thanks, Pleasant T. Rowland

    • Alice says:

      Wait, you mean Pleasant Rowland as in the Pleasant Company? THE creator of … wow.
      I’m stunned and honored. I will pass your praise on to my parents.
      Now I need to finish up the pending post I have on dressing the next girl as Mae Jemison.

    • Susan S says:

      Ms. Rowland,
      Thank you for creating the American Girls Collection. You helped to inspire my love of history and, importantly, herstory.
      I know my friend Lauren Gunderson (the playwright of SILENT SKY) will be thrilled to hear that you are attending the show.

      Susan Shay

  • Pleasant Rowland says:

    What does “comment awaiting moderation” mean? P. Rowland

    • Alice says:

      It means I don’t allow spam or mean comments on my blog, and the only way to do that reliably is for me to read every comment and approve them. And I’m slow at reading them, so it’s usually a couple days before your comment goes live. Unless you have a previously-approved comment, then your comments should just go through.

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