Science has been dominated by men for...well, a very long time, much like most of Western society. While that domination has gradually loosened over the last century, it still very much exists today, with women, on average, still having to overcome more obstacles than men in order to pursue a career in science. Because of this dominance, when looking at the history of science, as Cosmos has been doing in addition to explaining the science, it is inevitable that the majority of names will be those of men. However, they most certainly shouldn’t be all men’s names, for there have been many women working in science over the centuries (not even just this past one), and many women have made important discoveries. Yet, how many can we name off the tops of our heads? I’m embarrassed to admit that I can’t name many. Marie Curie comes to mind almost immediately, but after that, I have to stop and think in order to come up with a pitifully small sample. Yet asked to name men (or just scientists in general), numerous come immediately to mind before I have to stop and think a bit: Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Einstein, Hawking, Sagan, Tyson... As I said, there are more men, but surely I ought to be able to remember a few more women.
“Sisters of the Sun”, the eighth episode of Cosmos, takes steps to rectify that a little bit by introducing us to some of the pioneers of astronomical spectroscopy: Annie Jump Cannon, Henrietta Swan-Leavitt, and Cecilia Payne. Cannon developed the system used to classify stellar bodies and Swan-Leavitt the method to determine the distance to the stars and thus the size of the universe. Cecilia Payne took the work of Annie Jump Cannon and deciphered her spectral analyses to determine the composition of stars—particularly the ground-breaking discovery that hydrogen and helium are about a million times more abundant than any other element.