American astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt’s thorough research helped other scientists realize that the cosmos is always expanding. She was also the first to discover the relationship between brightness and Cepheid variables. She attended Harvard University after attending Lancaster, Massachusetts, her birthplace and upbringing. She studied a great deal of philosophy, calculus, fine arts, analytic geometry, and classical Greek during her time at “Harvard.” She began working at the “Harvard College Observatory” in the early 1900s, where her job was to investigate variable stars. In one of her earliest works, she came to the conclusion that a variable’s brightness was directly related to the duration of its luminance. Despite spending the majority of her life in anonymity, her articles were later examined and helped lead to several scientific discoveries. Her study’s findings were recognized as the first “standard candle” for calculating the separation between our galaxy and other galaxies. Edwin Hubble attributed his discovery—that the universe was expanding perpetually—to Henrietta Lacks’ luminosity–period correlation.
Early Life & Childhood
George Roswell Leavitt and Henrietta Swan Kendrick welcomed Henrietta Swan Leavitt into the world on July 4, 1868, in Lancaster, Massachusetts. Her father served as a minister in a nearby congregational church. She was the oldest of her seven siblings, and their family was well off financially. As babies, two of the siblings passed away. There was a medical history in the family, and Henrietta herself battled illness for most of her early years.
Because of his job, her father had to move around a lot. She was raised in Cleveland, Ohio, where her father was employed at a nearby church. Henrietta enrolled in a year-long preparatory course at “Oberlin College” in Ohio following her high school graduation.
Over the next two years, she studied in several college programs and took a year off to learn music. In her early twenties, the family relocated to Massachusetts. Then, she desired to enroll at the esteemed “Harvard University.”
She was shocked to learn that at the time, the prestigious university did not admit female students. Nonetheless, the “Harvard Annex,” a facility run by the “Society for the Collegiate Instruction for Women,” accepted female students. Henrietta studied a wide range of subjects at “Harvard” and “Oberlin,” including calculus, analytical geometry, philosophy, visual arts, and classical Greek.
In her fourth year of college, her hobbies took a significant turn when she developed a strong interest in astronomy. She faced some difficulties at first because there weren’t many women astronomers at the time, but she was adamant about continuing.
Henrietta received what was essentially a “Harvard” BA degree at 23. Despite receiving numerous job offers unrelated to astronomy, she chose to remain in her hometown and serve as Edward Charles Pickering’s research assistant.
Career of Henrietta Swan Leavitt
Women were not worthy to study stars and other celestial bodies using telescopes or to operate them, according to the American Educational Society. She therefore visited Europe after graduating and worked as an art assistant at Wisconsin’s “Beloit College.” But shortly after, she became ill and partially lost her hearing.
She returned to the “Harvard College Observatory” in 1903 and started working there for free. She was well-known for belonging to the ‘Harvard Computers’ group. Pickering had personally selected a group of exceptionally talented women to sift through the vast amount of data that scientists had gathered.
Her father sent her money, which was all she needed to subsist. A few months later, “Harvard” began paying her thirty cents per hour.
Henrietta was tasked with researching variable stars, while each group member was given a particular topic to study. The precise cause of those variable stars’ varying illumination at different periods was unknown to astronomers at the time.
She spotted an odd pattern while concentrating on thousands of variable stars in the “Magellanic Clouds.” She continued her research and came to the conclusion that a variable star’s brightness controlled how long it would vary. Her research was published in the “Annals of the Astronomical Observatory of Harvard College” in 1908.
She concentrated on a cluster of extremely bright stars known as the Cepheid variables. She became the first person to ever ascertain the relationship between their luminosity and pulse period. She also developed a method to determine the stars’ period-luminosity relationship.
In 1912, she released a second paper that Pickering himself signed. In recognition of her enormous contribution to the field of astronomy, she received multiple honors during her lifetime. She became a member of organizations including the American Astronomical and Astrophysical Society, Phi Beta Cappa, the American Association of University Women, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Additionally, the “American Association of Variable Star Observers” appointed her an honorary member. Renowned physicist Harlow Shapley appointed Henrietta as head of stellar photometry after he became the director of the “Harvard” observatory in 1921.
The Astronomical Impact of Henrietta
The discoveries of various later astronomers were based on the work of Henrietta Swan Leavitt. The astronomical hypothesis of the “standard candle,” which was essential for determining the distance to the most distant galaxies in the observable universe, was based on the period–luminosity connection.
It was discovered that other galaxies also contained Cepheids when astronomers began concentrating on those galaxies. As a result, they were instrumental in establishing the existence of “spiral nebulae,” which are distinct galaxies situated distant from the “Milky Way.” This resulted in what is arguably one of the greatest discoveries in astronomy, disproving the Milky Way’s long-held center location.
“Leavitt’s Law” helped to clarify the universe’s overall scale and structure. Edwin Hubble’s comprehension of Henrietta’s study works directly led to several significant discoveries and greatly increased recognition for him.
Hubble declared that Henrietta’s contributions merited a “Nobel Prize.” In 1924, Gösta Mittag-Leffler, a member of the “Swedish Academy of Sciences,” almost nominated her for the prize, but by then, she had passed away. Regretfully, there is no posthumous “Nobel Prize.”
Individual Death & Life
Throughout her life, Henrietta Swan Leavitt was a deeply devout individual. She never got married and spent her whole life learning about celestial bodies.
Her life was filled with health problems. She had lost much hearing throughout the final few decades of her life. She passed away in Massachusetts on December 21, 1912, following a protracted battle with illness.
She was laid to rest in the same cemetery as her parents and two younger siblings who had passed away.
“Silent Sky,” a play based on her life, chronicles her journey from “Harvard” to her demise.
“Miss Leavitt’s Stars,” George Johnson’s biography of her, was written.
The net worth of Henrietta Swan Leavitt
The estimated net worth of Henrietta Swan Leavitt is about $1 million.