Traveling to Totality: Maria Mitchell and her Impact

On a clear summer night in 1835, Nantucket astronomer Maria Mitchell was doing what she loved, observing the cosmic jewels of the the night sky with her telescope. That particular night was unlike any other, because that was the night Maria Mitchell observed a telescopic comet (one that can’t be seen with just your naked eye), something that no one else in the United States had ever done, and she was just 29 years old! She went on to be the first full time female American astronomer, and teach at Vassar College.

Image Credit: Colorado Public Radio

Decades later, in 1878, a total solar eclipse was due to sweep across America. It was an incredible astronomical opportunity for scientists, inquiring minds and curious citizens, yet despite her achievements Maria Mitchell was systematically excluded from taking part in any official astronomical observations. However, rules and doctrines never stop a determined scientist for long, and so despite facing rejection, Maria and a group of female astronomers traveled from Massachusetts by horseback, road, rail, and foot all the way to to an Indian Reservation near Denver, CO to observe the cosmic event. For women in the 19th century, this was no small feat. It showed guts, determination and persistence, and blazed the trail for women not only in science, but in society. While not a lot of new data emerged from observing this eclipse, it was an amazing opportunity to promote science within a then industrial minded United States, and inspire a citizenry of men, women and children about the wonders of science, and it was Maria Mitchell who showed that anyone, no matter gender or age could participate.

The Great American Eclipse of 2017 was a modern celestial event that inspired millions of people to follow in Mitchell’s footsteps and traverse the country for a better view. Whether astronomers, media personnel, or just interested citizens these people followed their curiosity to the path of totality to witness the event. This astronomical call to action is so important for us as a society, because it inspires the next generation of scientists, and unites the country behind a visible representation of the science that surrounds us. It has been over 150 years since Maria Mitchell’s expedition and much has changed in science, yet a solar eclipse remains just as beautiful and inspiring. The fact that so many people were interested in this years solar eclipse is extremely encouraging, and we can’t wait to see the turnout for the next American eclipse in 2024.

For those of you who couldn’t make the journey to see this year’s eclipse, check out this great vlog by Casey Neistat:

Authors: Kristen Bigland & Leo Borasio