Reaching Out to the Stars
Portrait of Maria Mitchell, H. Dassell, 1851

Reaching Out to the Stars

The Life of Maria Mitchell
Julia Fiedorczuk
time 14 minutes

Maria Mitchell – the first American woman astronomer, who discovered the comet known as ‘Miss Mitchell’s Comet’ – did not have a university education. Yet her knowledge was unmatched; her intelligence and personal class remarkable. She was prepared to question all authorities: those in the world of science, and those who dictated social norms and customs (including norms preventing women’s access to knowledge). In leaving her native island of Nantucket, she was determined to devote her life to the intellectual culture of women.

Question everything

“There is something elevating in the study of any of the natural sciences, and especially there must be in the study of other worlds. When we are chafed and fretted by small cares, a look at the stars will show us the littleness of our own interests,” said Maria Mitchell in 1865. She was greeting her students at Vassar College – the first American college for women, founded four years earlier by Matthew Vassar, a successful brewer from Poughkeepsie, New York. Vassar, an exceptional man, believed that women should enjoy the same access to knowledge as men. He also maintained that women students needed women teachers as role models.

Mitchell, the first American woman astronomer who could boast the discovery of a comet (officially referred to as C/1847T1, informally known as ‘Miss Mitchell’s comet’), did not have a university education, nor any experience of teaching at such an advanced level. But her knowledge of astronomy was unmatched, her literary competence – especially when it came to poetry – impressive, and her intelligence and personal class remarkable. Vassar did not doubt that Mitchell should be the first professor in his new school. Having completed only three years of formal education himself, he was able to appreciate the rebellious spirit of a woman who professed the dictum: “We cannot accept anything


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Watercolours Under a Spacesuit
From Galina Balashova's archives/DOM publishers

Watercolours Under a Spacesuit

The Story of Galina Balashova
Konstanty Usenko

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