Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun, makes a rare appearance in the early evening sky at the moment. If you look just north of west, at about 9pm, you should see Mercury as a bright point of light above the setting sun. This photo shows Mercury, captured in conjunction with the new crescent Moon and the Pleiades star cluster, above Canary Wharf on Sunday evening.
Continuing the theme of women connected to the ROG, this post leaps forward from Margaret Flamsteed in the 17th century to Annie Scott Dill Russell, in the 19th. Hired as a ‘lady computer’ at the ROG in 1891, Annie spent five years calculating and observing at Greenwich. In 1895 she then married E. Walter Maunder, the ROG First Assistant in charge of the Photographic and Spectroscopic Department. And, unusually for this period, marriage did not spell the end of her career in astronomy.
Annie was born in County Tyrone in 1868, and was educated at home and at the Ladies’ Collegiate School in Belfast before gaining a scholarship to Girton College, Cambridge, and graduating with second-class honours in the mathematical tripos of 1889. She spent a year teaching mathematics before, in September 1891, she was hired to work at the ROG as one of the few female ‘supernumerary computers’ – those hired on a short-term basis rather than being permanent members of staff.
Usually computers were boys, arriving straight from local schools. But hiring women allowed William Christie, then Astronomer Royal, the luxury of gaining well-trained mathematicians at a cheap rate (they were paid about £4 a month, rising to £6 as ‘soon as efficiency in the use of the Photographic Equatorial is acquired’). The experiment was something of a stop-gap, for Christie was in the process of persuading the Admiralty to increase the Observatory’s (male) workforce. There may also have been a shortage of women prepared to accept the low wages: as Annie wrote, it ‘is so small that I could scarcely live on it’.
Annie resigned her post in 1895, in preparation for marriage, although she did return to formal duties at Greenwich as a volunteer during the First World War. In between these periods she continued to pursue her interests in practical astronomy, receiving a small grant from Girton College to make a photographic study of the Milky Way. However, it was her husband’s connection with Greenwich and her involvement with the British Astronomical Association that allowed Annie access to the equipment and resources needed for serious astronomical work.
She accompanied Walter on several eclipse expeditions and worked with him on the periodicity of sunspot activity, as well as publishing a number of books and papers under her own name or jointly with her husband. These included a catalogue of some 600 recurrent sunspot groups observed and photographed at Greenwich (1907), and The Heavens and their Story (1910). She was also editor of the BAA’s journal for 15 years.
Maunder (centre) preparing to observe the 1900 eclipse in Algiers with the
British Astronomical Association (from E. Walter Maunder (ed.), The Total
Solar Eclipse of May 1900).
In 1916 Annie became one of the first female fellows of the Royal Astronomical Society. She survived her husband by almost 20 years and late in life became an authority in ancient astronomies. Although she lived in Greenwich for at least 33 years, she later moved to Wandsworth, where she died in 1947.