When the King of Denmark announced a major prize for the discovery of comets by telescope, it was seemingly inconceivable that the winner be a woman.
At the time, midway through the 1800s, women could not vote, much less receive a formal education in the sciences. Yet, in due time, the winner would prove to be just that — the daughter of a schoolteacher and library worker from Nantucket, Massachusetts:
Maria Mitchell — a woman and a trailblazer indeed.
"What invigorated Maria Mitchell (the evening she first encountered "Miss Mitchell's Comet"), and what would drive her for the remaining decades of her life, was not the king's medal, nor the luster of worldwide recognition," Maria Popova recounts in her book “Figuring,” "but the sheer thrill of discovery — the ecstasy of having personally chipped a small fragment of knowledge from the immense monolith of the unknown, that elemental motive force of every sincere scientist."
Having started at the ripe age of 12, Mitchell's discovery was the result of unbounded tenacity and an innate capacity never to relent — despite whatever obstacles seemed to obscure the path she chose for herself.
"Within months, the discovery would make Mitchell the first woman elected, unanimously, to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences," writes Popova, a writer born in Communist Bulgaria whose life and work make her a trailblazer in her own right.
In the years following her discovery, Mitchell's achievements and intellect would make her a conglomerate of firsts — America's first professional woman astronomer, the first woman named to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the winner of King Christian VIII of Denmark's coveted gold medal.
However, Mitchell's life and accomplishments were not just a triumph for astronomy or her gender, but humanity. The richness of her inner life, inscribed in the journals discovered after her death, may be her most important legacy of all.
The philosophy by which Maria Mitchell lived, and her place as a thinker, seems a rather prescient critique of the tribalism plaguing America and its politics in the present day.
Most prominently, Mitchell embodied the intersection of intellect and humility — a phenomenon uncommon but never more relevant than today — once remarking in her journal, "...he who has never failed somewhere, that man cannot be great. Failure is the true test of greatness." She spent hours, as evidenced by her journals, seeking to acknowledge, presumably for her own sake, the degree to which her ideas and judgments were the product of the company she held so much as place and time.
"Whatever our degree of friends may be, we come more under their influence than we are aware," she wrote in a diary entry from 1855.
Emblematic of the mathematical genius required for astronomical discovery in the 18th century juxtaposed with the sheer allure of watching a comet dash across the sky, her life seemed focused on the unification of truth and beauty.
This life-long mission cannot be summarized better than Mitchell's reflection on the Roman Catholic Inquisition's trial of Galileo in 1633, which is worth being quoted in full:
"I knew of no sadder picture in the history of science than that of the old man, Galileo, worn by a long life of scientific research, weak and feeble, trembling before that tribunal whose frown was torture, and declaring that to be false which he knew to be true. And I know of no picture in the history of religion more weakly pitiable than that of the Holy Church trembling before Galileo, and denouncing him because he found in the Book of Nature truths not stated in their own Book of God — forgetting that the Book of Nature is also a Book of God. It seems to be difficult for anyone to take in the idea that two truths cannot conflict."
Maria Mitchell was a trailblazer indeed. And her life should be reimagined, in the American consciousness, as a lesson for the 21st century.
Hancen A. Sale is a senior majoring in economics. He can be reached at email@example.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @hancen4sale.
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