By Emily Levesque, University of Washington
One may think of astronomers as being concerned only with far-reaching challenges like the beginning of the early universe and the physics of stars and galaxies. However, many astronomers have, alongside their ground-breaking research in space, dedicated their time and energy to fighting discrimination and advocating for equal opportunities in astronomy and the broader fields of science.
Frank Kameny: Ensuring Equal Opportunities
America’s first LGBT civil rights claim was filed by astronomer Frank Kameny, who fought for his right to continue studying the stars and became a leading figure in the country’s gay rights movement. The first women and astronomers of color to work at telescopes also combined universe-changing research with the ongoing fight to ensure opportunities in astronomy for everyone who has something to contribute to our study of the universe.
These heroes’ love of the stars and passion for studying the cosmos not only shaped our understanding of the universe, it drove change and progress right here on Earth.
Another hero of astronomy is Oscar Duhalde, who became one of only a handful of human beings in history to make an exceptionally rare astronomical discovery. In 1987, Oscar, a telescope operator in Chile, became the only living person to discover a supernova with the naked eye.
The distinction is a rare one, shared with Johannes Kepler in 1604, Tycho Brahe in 1572, and Arabic, Chinese, and indigenous North American astronomers observing the heavens in the 1050s. These discoveries made crucial contributions to our understanding of what supernovae are, how we work, and how we study them today.
The Electromagnetic Spectrum
This article comes directly from content in the video series Great Heroes and Discoveries of Astronomy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Supernovae are incredible energetic events, produced in the final moments of a dying star’s life. Events like this emit energy across the entire electromagnetic spectrum, a fact of physics that can be easy to forget for those of us used to seeing the world through the narrow range of wavelengths detectable by the human eye.
In fact, dying stars and many other objects in space emit radiation in the high-energy regime of the electromagnetic spectrum, at energies so high and wavelengths so tiny that we need to invent new techniques in astronomy, or even leave Earth entirely, in order to study them. These wavelengths include x-ray and ultraviolet light.
X-Ray and Ultraviolet Light
Most of us think of x-rays as medical tools used to study our bones, and of ultraviolet light as the pesky thing that causes sunburns. In reality, observing x-ray and ultraviolet light from space can offer us a fascinating window into things like newborn stars, enormous black holes, and even the workings of our own Sun.
Several pioneers of astronomy led the field in how to study this light—a particular challenge since it can only be detected from space! Years before the Hubble Space Telescope launched, visionaries like George Carruthers, Riccardo Giacconi, and Arthur B. C. Walker Jr developed the cameras, technology, and techniques required to capture this invaluable data from the cosmos.
At the other end of the spectrum, radio telescopes also offered us the opportunity to uncover strange and exotic physics in space. In 1967, an astronomer named Jocelyn Bell discovered a strange signal—perfectly regular pulses of radio emission—in data from a radio telescope in Cambridge, England.
Her discovery proved to be the very first observations of something called a neutron star, the tiny and dense remnant left behind by the supernova death of a massive star.
Neutron stars and their higher-mass cousins, black holes, are some of the most extreme objects in the universe, and the astronomers who have studied them over the years have transformed our understanding of how stars, gravity, space, and time work.
General Theory of Relativity
Published in 1915, after eight years of work, Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity connected the properties of gravity, space, and time. In the years that followed, it fell to Einstein’s fellow astrophysicists to seek out observational proof of his theory.
In 1919, the astronomer Arthur Eddington found the first proof that Einstein’s theory was correct during a solar eclipse expedition. Fifty-five years later, after Jocelyn Bell’s ground-breaking discovery of neutron stars, Russell Hulse and Joseph Taylor found more evidence for Einstein’s general theory of relativity by closely observing a pair of neutron stars as they orbited one another.
Combined, these observations have revolutionized our understanding of the fabric of our universe and the mysteries of gravity.
One long-standing mystery of gravity was the phenomenon of gravitational waves. Predicted by Einstein’s theories, in a mathematical result that drew skepticism even from Einstein himself, gravitational waves are miniscule ripples in the fabric of spacetime.
They are caused by the collisions of enormous black holes, but are tinier than the width of a proton when they arrive at Earth. Gravitational waves were first successfully detected in 2015, the result of decades of effort by thousands of researchers to build and operate the most sensitive observatories on the planet.
This discovery in astronomy came about thanks to a combination of cutting-edge physics, exquisitely precise engineering, and the management of an immense team of thousands of scientists. Today, gravitational wave astronomy is an exhilarating new subfield propelled by this same large team of scientific heroes.
With phenomena like gravitational waves, supernovae, and other transient events happening all over the cosmos, it’s become clear that astronomers need to keep a constant watchful eye (or many large eyes) on the sky.
Common Questions about Some Heroes of Astronomy and Their Legacies
America’s first LGBT civil rights claim was filed by astronomer Frank Kameny, who fought for his right to continue studying the stars and became a leading figure in the country’s gay rights movement.
In 1919, astronomer Arthur Eddington found the first proof that Einstein’s general theory of relativity was correct during a solar eclipse expedition.
In 1987, Oscar Duhalde made an exceptionally rare astronomical discovery. He became the only living person to discover a supernova with the naked eye.