Surface of the Moon with Earth in the background

Book review: ‘The Women of the Moon’

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Celebrating a small but diverse group of women whose achievements are commemorated in an unusual way.

The Moon many not have any seas, but it has an estimated 300,000 craters. Of these, 1,586 have been named after those who’ve achieved eminence, most often in the sciences and in particular astronomy. But of these named craters, only 28 honour a woman.

The authors of ‘The Women of the Moon: Tales of Science, Love, Sorrow and Courage’ (Oxford University Press, £20, ISBN 9780198844419) – ironically two male academics, an astrophysicist and an astronomer – are determined to redress this injustice by highlighting the extraordinary achievements of the 28.

Daniel R Altschuler and Fernando J Ballesteros admit it’s an ‘incongruent set’. They present them in chronological order, beginning with 3rd-century celebrated mathematician Hypatia of Alexandria, who wasn’t given a lunar crater to call her own until 1973. They end with cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, the only living woman to have a lunar crater named after her. Their scientific subjects range from the well known (‘Queen of Science’ mathematician Mary Somerville) to the unknown (Victorian philanthropist and supporter of astronomy Anne Sheepshanks).

Each of this diverse female tribe of achievers is given one chapter, containing a cradle-to-grave account of her life. The final paragraph in each chapter identifies the crater named after them with an accompanying photograph – all indistinguishable black and white pimples or dimples in a sea of grey.

Annie Maunder (1868-1947) has a large 55km crater on the far side of the Moon. Maunder travelled the globe to make observations using a special wide-angle camera that she had built herself, capturing many astronomical phenomena for the first time. Caroline Herschel (1750-1848) is brought out from the scientific male shadow cast by her father, brothers and nephew over her considerable body of work, and her contribution to astronomy outlined. But despite her huge accomplishments, the authors lament that “her crater is small, 13.4km, in the western part of Mare Imbrium”, as if the size of crater C Herschel is a further injustice.

Five of the women are ‘Harvard computers’ – women who, from the 1870s onwards, were employed at the Harvard Observatory to process and make sense of astronomical data by sorting the stars into categories. Highly skilled, many like Henrietta Leavitt (1868-1921) and Priscilla Bok (1896-1975) went on to publish their own work. Another way for a woman to have a better chance of getting her name on the Moon is to have sacrificed her life in the name of science. Four of the 28 are astronauts killed on Nasa missions.

The authors are critical of the International Astronomical Union, founded in 1919 to oversee all nomenclature of celestial bodies. When the body was established, 1.7 per cent of craters were named after women. One hundred years and over one thousand more namings later, that figure remains at 1.7 per cent.

The authors urge us to submit suggestions to name the hundreds of thousands of craters that remain blanks on the lunar map. Anyone can submit a proposal on an IAU Name Request Form. The authors have their own favourites, but say “We wish to encourage others”. Why not fill it out? It could be one small step for man, one giant leap for womankind.

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