Annie Jump Cannon: Teaching the value in the details

The Google Doodle features Annie Jump Cannon, the astronomer who revolutionized the way we classify stars today.

Screenshot from Google
The Google doodle for Thursday, December 11, features Annie Jump Cannon, a 19th century astronomer who was instrumental in the way we classify stars today.

Annie Jump Cannon, whose stellar accomplishments in astronomy are highlighted in the Google Doodle, became fascinated by the stars because her mother, Mary Jump, taught her the constellations, and in so doing stimulated her passion for astronomy.

Cataloguing the night sky using her own little mnemonic phrase, Ms. Cannon (born in Dover, Delaware, December 11, 1863) showed male scientists of her day how to connect the dots between what they saw in the heavens and how to make sense of it all.

 “Oh, Be A Fine Girl – Kiss Me!” is the mnemonic phrase Annie Jump Cannon is known for in scientific circles.

Ordered from highest temperature to lowest, the seven main stellar types are O, B, A, F, G, K, and M – Oh Be A Fine Girl – Kiss Me!

While there have been many attempts to alter the memorable mnemonic device over the ensuing decades – Overseas Bulletin: A Flash! Godzilla Kills Mothra! (Rodan Named Successor is often added on for the new classifications R,N, and S) just never really caught on. Cannon’s method is the one that stuck. 

Cannon was among those female scientists hired to do the tedious grunt work of accumulating and cataloguing facts for a busy band of male scientists in 1896, according to the San Diego Supercomputer Center website Women in Science (WIS) which highlights 16 significant women.

Few among us, children and teenagers in particular, like to do the grunt work of sorting, tidying, researching, and generally slogging through the usually thankless, uncelebrated, tasks which greet us daily from laundry to returning our library books.

Much like the fictional character Mary Poppins once said for any dreary task “well begun is half done.”

Ms. Cannon’s professional life may have begun with piles and piles of unsorted data but she organized, classified, and turned it into a career that guided us like a star to see how anonymity and dogged hard work can be transformed into discovery and respect.

Make no mistake, Ms. Cannon didn’t just come up with a handy phrase for remembering the order for categorizing the stars, but ingeniously thought to build on the work of Henry Draper and use light spectra to make the categorizations.

“Since even before the discovery of spectra, scientists had tried to find ways to categorize stars,” the WIS site reports. “By observing spectra, astronomers realized that large numbers of stars exhibit a small number of distinct patterns in their spectral lines. Classification by spectral features quickly proved to be a powerful tool for understanding stars.”

According to the WIS site, Henry Draper was the first to photograph the light spectrum of Vega in 1872. After his death, his wife donated the equipment and some money to the Harvard College Observatory where she hoped his work would be continued.

Cannon began her career in astronomy as a member of the group dubbed "Pickering's Women" because they were hired by Harvard College (now Harvard University) Observatory Director Edward Pickering “to reduce data and carry out astronomical calculations” according to the Women In Science site. She worked on that project from 1918 to 1924.

Mr. Pickering believed the first step in science was to gather all the facts. That is one whopping task when it comes to the cosmos. However, in doing that heavy lifting for the men in her field Cannon was the one to make the strides in classification.

The systems she created for herself and other women to make this tedious easier to bear has served both genders and sped research for generations.

It is also how she became the one to become a star herself for finding ways to take the mundane and make it both memorable and spectacular.

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