Hot Science: Maria Mitchell House

What to read, see and visit for February 2004.

Feb 5, 2004 6:00 AMMay 2, 2023 3:32 PM


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Search the Night Sky

How do you find a comet like Maria? A Quaker education helps

By Tim Folger

The Maria Mitchell House

1 Vestal Street, Nantucket, Massachusetts

Down a quiet lane leading off Nantucket’s cobblestoned Main Street stands a two-story house covered with unpainted shingles weathered gray by rain and fog. Built in 1790, its clean lines and lack of ornamentation mark it as a Quaker home. Beyond the threshold is a world shaped by a culture that prized integrity, humility, and equality—Quaker values that nurtured Maria Mitchell, America’s first female professional astronomer.

The furnishings are simple and spare, with one gleaming exception: Maria’s precious brass telescope. On the night of October 1, 1847, Maria (pronounced Ma-RYE-uh), then 29, excused herself from a family party and climbed, lantern in hand, to the roof. Her nocturnal ascent surprised no one. Maria was a highly skilled amateur astronomer, tutored from childhood by her father, and had been using her 2.75-inch refracting telescope up on the roof walk for years.

What did surprise her family was the proud announcement she made around 10:30 p.m.: She had spotted a comet. Prior to that night, all the first sightings of comets had been with the naked eye. Indeed, the King of Denmark had offered a gold medal for the first telescopic sighting of a new comet, and he gave it to Maria. The discovery of comet Mitchell 1847VI made her world famous and led to her appointment as a professor of astronomy at Vassar, soon after it was founded in Poughkeepsie, New York.

Maria’s unusually bold career was a reflection of her unorthodox upbringing. Her parents, William and Lydia, egalitarian Quakers to the core, believed in educating all their children. The Mitchell family members were so principled that they refused to wear clothing made from cotton picked by slaves. Instead they wore silk in the summer and wool in the winter. But they were not so devout that they were beyond bending a few rules. William and Lydia even bought their children a piano, although Quakers often frowned upon music.

William Mitchell supported his family in a variety of ways, including servicing ships’ chronometers. He taught all nine of his children, boys and girls alike, to help him, but Maria was his best student, and like him, she loved astronomy. By the time she was 12, she had helped her father record the exact time of a solar eclipse. By age 17 she had started her own school for girls, emphasizing the study of science and math. Upstairs from the parlor is a closet-size study that her father built for her with wood left over from the addition of a new kitchen downstairs. On the wall outside the room is a note in Maria’s handwriting: “Miss Mitchell is busy. Do not knock.”

For her part, Maria never shied from knocking on doors—or opening them. She traveled to Europe in 1858 and during her trip was eager to visit the Vatican’s observatory. Officials there at first refused to grant a woman access, but they later relented, allowing Mitchell to look at the telescope during the day but not by night. She was also the first woman admitted—grudgingly—to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Hanging on the wall opposite her study is an invitation of membership, dated 1848. But the document is marred in several places by messy handwritten corrections. Asa Gray, the academy’s secretary, did not think Maria deserved the title “Fellow” (the usual category of membership), so he crossed the word out and scrawled “Honorary member” above it. It would be 95 years before another woman joined the academy.

Maria never married or had children of her own, but she left a shining legacy that still endures, long after her death in 1889 at age 70. At Vassar, where she studied sunspots, Jupiter, and Saturn, she mentored several women who became astronomers and who helped make the astronomy department there among the best in the country. Not far from Maria’s own Nantucket house, and within sight of her simple tombstone in the Prospect Hill Cemetery, are two small domed observatories. Inside them, on summer nights, children can still study a night sky that once so enchanted a determined young Quaker woman.


Soundbug Wave Industries Ltd., $20

The average office desk makes a lousy loudspeaker. But as Samuel Johnson said of a dog walking upright, “It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” With the Soundbug, a computer-mouse-size device that plugs into the headphone jack of any portable stereo unit or laptop and attaches to any flat, smooth surface with a suction cup, you can make a desk, a window, or even a metal lampshade sing. Better yet, you can provide the accompaniment for a dog to do a fancy two-step. The source of the Soundbug’s amplifying abilities is a shape-changing metal alloy called Terfenol-D. At the heart of a traditional speaker is a magnet that vibrates, moving a flexible cone in response to an electric signal. By contrast, Terfenol-D responds to a magnetic field by stretching toward it with great speed and force, enabling it to vibrate solid surfaces. Wood booms out, metal sounds a bit tinny, and for a clear crystal sound, you can’t beat a pane of glass. You can even get pretty good fidelity by pressing the Soundbug against your forehead and letting it vibrate your skull.

Baby Bright Eyes Playmates Toys, $49.95

Another shape-changing metal—a nickel-titanium alloy manufactured by NanoMuscle Inc.—helps animate the recently released Baby Bright Eyes doll. The alloy, which can switch between two different shapes when hit with an electric current, is incorporated into paper-clip-size actuators that smoothly and silently move weights up to half a pound. In response to electric signals from sensors that indicate how the doll is oriented and what she is holding—a small brown bear or a bottle—the actuators contract or expand much as muscles would, slowly moving the eyes from side to side in a highly convincing, if slightly creepy, manner. Four-year-olds are mesmerized by the watchful gaze of Baby Bright Eyes. Anyone older might opt for the off switch—or a bit of doll brain surgery.

William Jacobs


Clean Hands Save Lives: Lessons from a 19th-century medical crusade still resonate By Leyla Sanai

The Doctors’ Plague: Germs, Childbed Fever, and the Strange Story of Ignác Semmelweis by Sherwin B. Nuland

In a famous drawing by Leonardo da Vinci of sexual congress, a narrow duct winds its way upward from the top of a woman’s uterus to the tip of her nipple. The drawing helped perpetuate the notion that mother’s milk arose from transmuted menstrual blood—a popular misconception that remained largely unchallenged long after da Vinci’s death in 1519. So when early-19th-century doctors in Europe discovered a milky white pus in the abdomens of women who had died of childbed fever, they traced the cause of their deaths to “clotted milk” that had backed up and clung to their intestines. This was only one of the bizarre theories put forward to explain a scourge that was then killing up to one-third of women who delivered their babies in hospitals. Another hypothesis was that an indefinable aura hung over the wards.

The pall of death might have continued to hover had it not been for an indefatigable Hungarian obstetrician named Ignác Semmelweis. Two decades before Louis Pasteur discovered that bacteria could cause disease, Semmelweis found that doctors could stop the spread of childbed fever if they washed their hands in chloride of lime between patients. In this captivating biography, Sherwin Nuland, a surgeon at Yale and winner of the National Book Award for How We Die, chronicles Semmelweis’s battle to win recognition for his discovery.

Semmelweis’s lonely campaign began in 1846, when he noted that the death rate among women whose babies were delivered by doctors at the Allgemeine Krankenhaus hospital in Vienna averaged about 24 percent and sometimes rose as high as 30 percent. Among women in wards attended by midwives, the death rate was a mere 2.4 percent, as it was among women who delivered at home. He also observed that the doctors frequently performed internal examinations after spending their mornings dissecting corpses in the morgue. He concluded that the doctors were carrying some sort of particle directly from the dead bodies to the mothers, then transferring it from one woman to another. (The disease is now known to be caused by a strain of streptococcal bacteria.) By 1848, after he had ordered doctors to wash their hands in chloride solution before entering the wards, the death rate had dropped dramatically, to about 1 percent.

Despite making a discovery that would later save the lives of millions, Semmelweis was largely ignored by a hostile medical establishment. Nuland reveals that Semmelweis was partly to blame for his lack of acceptance. Not only did he fail to reproduce his findings in laboratory animals, but he also neglected to write up his results in an accessible manner in medical journals. More than a decade later, Semmelweis did write a book—a 543-page tome that Nuland describes as “logorrheic, repetitious, hectoring, accusatory, self-glorifying . . . in sum, virtually unreadable.” Many of his detractors failed to grasp the fundamental principle of his work, and when they questioned his conclusions, he responded with personal insults, denouncing one professor of obstetrics as a murderer. Sadly, Semmelweis later succumbed to symptoms of Alzheimer’s. In 1865 he was consigned to a mental asylum, where he was probably beaten to death by the staff within hours of arriving.

It is tempting to dismiss this piece of history as an artifact of a dark age, and yet the struggle of Semmelweis is eerily prescient. In 1856 he berated a hospital manager for sending sheets to a laundry that returned them in the same filthy state. Last June, a century and a half later, the London Times reported that 68 percent of nurses surveyed in Britain had no laundry facilities for uniforms in their hospitals, forcing them to wash them in nonsterile conditions at home. That practice has been implicated in the spread of hospital infections. Simple disinfectant use has been shown to reduce rates of infection by antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and yet hospitals in many countries, including the United States, often neglect such basic measures. Ignorance and slovenliness may be the demons in Semmelweis’s story, but they are no strangers to the sophisticated 21st century, either.

Darwin and Evolution for Kids: His Life and Ideas, with 21 Activities

By Kristan Lawson

The evolution debate is like a school-yard brawl that breaks out around the monkey bars: Curses are hurled, punches are thrown, and no one is willing to listen. Indeed, rational argument seems strangely absent from campaigns such as the one waged last year in Texas, which demanded that the state board of education ditch texts that fail to teach the “weaknesses of evolutionary theory.” It’s a fine time, therefore, for a book that shows in lively detail just how Charles Darwin arrived at his theory of evolution—through careful collection of evidence from around the world, followed by 20 years of meticulous research that finally led him to publish, in 1859, On the Origin of Species.

Darwin for Kids focuses foremost on the great naturalist’s five-year voyage aboard the HMS Beagle and later on his intellectual odyssey. As Lawson explains, Darwin was fascinated by Charles Lyell’s theory that geologic forces had shaped Earth over millions of years. As he trekked through the Andean foothills of South America, Darwin discovered fossilized seashells thousands of feet above sea level, which confirmed Lyell’s theory that mountain ranges were thrust upward by slow-moving geologic forces. Later, he saw mussel-covered rocky outcrops that had been thrown from the seabed during an earthquake in Chile. “Here was the most direct proof of all,” he wrote.

Back in England, Darwin pored over his notes and studied the birds, beetles, and fossils—including an extinct giant ground sloth of the genus Megatherium—that he had gathered on his voyage. To demonstrate the rigor of Darwin’s research, Lawson suggests a variety of activities: Use beans and pebbles to build geologic strata like those that Darwin chipped at in the Andes. Collect seeds and examine how saltwater tolerance enables plants to migrate to isolated islands. Lawson too does not shrink from controversy, carefully citing biological and geologic data to confound the creationist stand. In the end, both children and curious adults will attain a clear understanding of Darwin’s grand idea and how it changed science forever.

Hannah Hoag

Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love Helen Fisher

Sleepless? Jittery? Jolted by sudden mood swings? You must be in love. It’s an obsession on a physiological par with drug addiction, writes Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University. With the aid of brain scans from lovelorn volunteers, she shows that elevated levels of the hormones dopamine and norepinephrine can lead to the euphoria and the agony felt by those in the throes of passion.

Pandora’s Baby: How the First Test Tube Babies Sparked the Reproductive Revolution Robin Marantz Henig

Louise Brown, the first baby conceived through in vitro fertilization, celebrated her 25th birthday last year. Henig relates the early history of conception in a dish, giving center stage to Columbia University scientist Landrum Shettles, who in 1973 tried to create the first American fetus in a lab before a zealous administrator destroyed the stewing gametes.

Maia Weinstock

Science Best Sellers

1. A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING by Bill Bryson, Broadway Books

2. THE ILLUSTRATED THEORY OF EVERYTHING by Stephen W. Hawking, New Millennium Press

3. THE SCIENCE BOOK edited by Peter Tallack, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

4. THE SNOWFLAKE: Winter’s Secret Beauty by Patricia Rasmussen (photographer) and Kenneth Libbrecht, Voyageur Press

5. LIVING ON THE EDGE: Amazing Relationships in the Natural World by Jeff Corwin, Rodale Press

6. STIFF: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach, W. W. Norton

7. THE ELEGANT UNIVERSE: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory by Brian Greene, W. W. Norton

8. EVERYTHING AND MORE: A Compact History of Infinity by David Foster Wallace, W. W. Norton

9. THE LAST SORCERERS: The Path From Alchemy to the Periodic Table by Richard Morris, Joseph Henry Press

10. LONELY PLANETS: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life by David Grinspoon, Ecco

A quirky look at the quest for life outside Earth, from Greek Epicureans to alien abductions.


Olafur Eliasson:The Weather Project Tate Modern, Bankside, London

Climate is fickle. It probably doomed Mayan civilization with a 150-year drought that began in the eighth century A.D., and it may yet drown our own if it continues to heat up. Controlling the weather has been an elusive goal throughout history: The Maya of Chichén Itzá in Mexico sacrificed humans to their rain god, Chac, and during the Vietnam War, the U.S. military seeded monsoon clouds with silver iodide to trigger torrential downpours. The vainglory of such efforts fascinates artist Olafur Eliasson, who has installed a giant weather system inside London’s Tate Modern art museum on the South Bank of the Thames. A 50-foot-wide yellow disk glows like a dying sun in the gallery’s 500-foot-long Turbine Hall. Beneath its rays, hundreds of visitors disport themselves upon the concrete floor, watching their reflections in the mirrored ceiling as steam wafts from the walls. Indeed, the awe-inspiring grandeur of the art seems to cast a spell on the viewers. Girls join hands and dance in a circle. One person creeps along like a turtle. Others simply lie on their backs in the misty gloom, contemplating, perhaps, the question provoked by the piece: Will our mild climate be transformed one day into a museum exhibit, like a crumbling Mayan relic?

Josie Glausiusz

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