In its eighth episode, Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey highlighted the achievements of female scientists, describing the major contributions -- and challenges -- of Cecilia Payne, Annie Jump Cannon and Henrietta Leavitt. The three researchers played key roles in molding our modern understanding of the stars, and paving the way for future astronomers to predict the ages of stars and when they might beautifully, explosively cease to exist.
Heey Ladies. Do You Work for NASA? 'Cause You're Out of This World.
Danielle: Finally, women! After seven episodes with nary a mention of female scientists, this episode focused on three women, “the sisters of the sun,” who helped found modern astrophysics. According to Tyson, “one of them provided the key to our understanding of the substance of the stars, and another devised a way for us to calculate the size of the universe. For some reason you’ve probably never heard of either of them… I wonder why.” To be honest, I wasn’t totally sure how to interpret this. Clearly, Tyson is commenting on sexism, but I’m not sure whether he’s talking about barriers of entry to women in the sciences at large or biased coverage of female researchers.
Abby: Right. The story of Cecilia Payne (later, Payne-Gaposchkin) deserves its place in Cosmos. And sure, narratively, it makes sense to anchor an episode about women or sexism in science around her. She completed the work for a degree at Cambridge, but was not awarded the degree because she was a woman. That’s why she ended up at Harvard (or I guess technically, Radcliffe College) in order to earn her PhD. At which point she was still not treated as anything resembling an equal for quite some time. Although she earned her degree in 1925 and spent her career at Harvard, the school didn’t make her a full professor until 1954. However: I am worried that this episode’s framing as “the one about women” could undermine its own point about overcoming institutional prejudices, if the show continues to reserve the bulk of its history of science stories for the biographies of white men.
Danielle: Agreed; I’m a little bit conflicted about this episode. I’m happy to learn about these women and see their accomplishments acknowledged, but I wish that we’d gotten a fuller picture of what it was like for women scientists at the time. Tyson tells us that the female computers—among them Annie Jump Cannon, who was key to the development of the stellar classification system—were hired by Edward Pickering, and were known as “Pickering’s women.” He adds that Cecilia Payne, who was the first to work out that the sun is made up of mostly hydrogen and helium, was given credit for her work by the (male) professor who rejected her findings four years after she presented her dissertations for review. I think with a bit more context it could have been clearer why the two men were sort-of portrayed as champions of these women. Obviously, there were institutionally sexist policies that must have made it difficult for them to even bring on female scientists. But I still think that if, as it seems, this is the “women” episode it could have benefited from a broader explanation of the struggles of women in science in the early 20th century.
Abby: I was kind of wondering what, say, a 10-year-old girl, an aspiring astrophysicist, would take away about women in science after watching this episode. But I don’t think we can completely write off the show’s attempt to make the Cosmos feel closer to all of its viewers. Host Neil deGrasse Tyson himself is a counterexample to the parade of white men the show has relied on to tell the story of science’s history. And the show’s lead writer is Ann Druyan. Those are not insignificant developments.
I noticed that both of us kind of raised an eyebrow at the same line towards the end of this week’s episode. That might help us dig into what’s going on here a bit more. After finishing Payne’s story, Tyson says to the viewers that in science, “the only thing that counts is the evidence and the logic.“
Danielle: Yes. How did you interpret that?
Abby: I think what he is saying is that the evidence of reality will ultimately prevail, no matter what societal prejudices stand in the way of the scientist who did the work. That in Payne's case, her published PhD dissertation was ultimately proven right by future research, even if it faced immense, sexist pressure at the time.
But while that does seem to be the case in this story, what if Payne hadn't been able to afford to get to the U.S. to continue her studies at an institution that would, this time, actually award the degree she earned? What if her advisor had buried her work, or taken credit for it when it was eventually proven correct? Or what about a previous episode, when Tyson himself noted how many geniuses may have never overcome poverty, abuse, or prejudice to even begin making contributions to our understanding of the world? I don't think he's directly contradicting himself by noting that the “evidence” did indeed overcome the initial bias of Payne’s advisor, but there is a contradiction there on a wider scale. Know what I mean?
Danielle: Yeah. I feel like he's again pointing to science as a democratic force. You can't be prejudiced against facts—Payne's research speaks for itself, even if her byline speaks to her gender. But this is a somewhat optimistic view of science, that negates some details that allow individuals to make significant scientific discoveries. Like, how many women were thwarted by scale needed to conduct research? I doubt that Payne would have been able to hire a team of computers to bolster her work, like Pickering did. One point in the episode sort of points to this discrepancy. When Payne shares her discovery with Cannon, her fellow researcher asks if anyone has checked her calculations. The answer is no, and we're left to wonder how many scientists scoffed at the idea of checking Payne's work.
Abby: I am not sure that this is what he meant, but if Tyson's intention is to suggest that science isn’t sexist because it is evidence-based, I feel like there are countless examples beyond the Payne story to challenge that through the present day. Plus, it’s very similar to the “merit culture” argument used to justify broad sexism in Silicon Valley.
Danielle: This episode also discussed the folklore behind the constellations, which is kind of a fun thing to know about -- even if its not all that scientific. I like the stories but I sort of wish there hadn’t been all that stuff about chasing women into the stars during the lady-scientist episode.
Abby: Ha ha yes, good point. Look at all these females around the world contributing to science by being fictional, imperiled women (probably imagined by men) asking deities to save them! Cool stories, bro.
Danielle: In addition to women, this episode was also about stars -- how hot they are, how far they are, how old they are, and how they die. That last is one of the sexier parts of science, i.e. supernovas, which are violent and beautiful. And according to Tyson, we might witness the dramatic explosion of the Eta Carinae, which in reality happened several thousands of light-years ago but might only reach our sky within a century. Which would be pretty cool.
Abby: Yes, possibly as a hypernova. But sadly for us in New York, only visible in the southern hemisphere.
But what did the Internet say?
Most people, it seems, were whole-heartedly excited about having women in the episode, and excited about it as a jumping off point to explore women's role in science more generally:
Great to see the 'Sisters of the Sun' toasted to in this ep of #Cosmos but women scientists deserve a permanent seat at the table.— Taryn O'Neill (@tarynoneill) April 28, 2014
But some were a little concerned about the implications of how the episode was structured, and shared our feelings:
Highlighting the contributions of female scientists on #Cosmos: Good. Saving them all up for a Lady Science episode: Not so good.— Katie Mack (@AstroKatie) April 28, 2014
At least one person picked up on the opening scene’s nod to International Dark Sky week:
#Cosmos effectively starts off with an ode to International Dark Sky week— The Earth Story (@TheEarthStory) April 28, 2014
What we learned
Abby: Well, there's the fact that there could be a visible hypernova in the sky in our lifetime. And while I think most people who took science in school know that the sun will eventually die, Tyson's narrative did a great job putting it in perspective. I am all about mentioning aliens at every given opportunity, and this week's delivered. Will we escape the Earth before the sun becomes a red giant? Where will we go? Will the history of humankind survive the Sun? Do any of these other stars contain life able of understanding that history? I want to believe. Plus that hypernova? Hope we weren't thinking about going to any of the planets nearby.
Danielle: Seriously. Cosmos did not skimp on the "terrifying space" portion of the episode. I also didn't know about the possibility of seeing a hypernova. And I'm sad to say that I didn't know about the three scientists featured in the episode. Also! I did not know until later, that Cannon was voiced by deaf actress Marlee Matlin.
Cosmos is racking up quite the list of celebrity cameos.
Check out our discussions of previous Cosmos episodes below:
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.