Father Secchi's Dim View

HUMANITIES, May/June 2009, Volume 30, Number 3

From Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of Science, Renée Bergland’s NEH-supported biography of one of America’s first professional astronomers. Mitchell’s comet sighting and mathematical abilities launched her career as a computer of the paths of Venus for The Nautical Almanac. In 1858, on a visit to Rome, she was determined to visit the observatory of Father Angelo Secchi who years before had spotted the same comet within days of Mitchell’s discovery.

When Mitchell began campaigning to get into the Vatican observatory, her purpose was much more political than astronomical. . . . She had read Secchi’s writings and spoken to him when he visited her in Rome, and he had already shown her his photographs of Saturn’s rings and told her about his work in spectroscopy. No—what she wanted was to fight against the sexist strictures that declared “my heretic feet must not enter the sanctuary, that my woman’s robe must not brush the seats of learning.” . . . An acquaintance whose uncle was a monsignor successfully interceded on her behalf. Permission was granted.

To enter the observatory, she walked through the Church of St. Ignasio “through rows of kneeling worshippers, by the strolling students, and past the lounging tourists” to meet Father Secchi, who waited behind a pillar near the altar. Mitchell’s Italian maid . . . begged to be allowed to accompany them, but Father Secchi demurred, so, as Mitchell described it: “alone, I entered the monastery walls. Through long halls, up winding staircases . . . ; then through the library of the monastery, full of manuscripts on which the monks had worked away their lives; then through the astronomical library, where young astronomers were working away theirs, we reached at length the dome and the telescope. One observatory is so much like another that it does not seem worth while to describe Father Secchi’s.” She noted perfunctorily that the telescope was about the size of the one in Washington, D.C., and that the Vatican had invested in a sophisticated transit-circle mechanism. There was a bit of historical irony there; as Mitchell put it, “the telescope must keep very accurately the motion of the earth on its axis; and so the papal government furnished nice machinery to keep up with this motion—the same motion for declaring whose existence Galileo suffered! The two hundred years had done their work.”

But if the struggle for heliocentrism had been settled long ago, the struggle for women’s access to scientific institutions was just beginning. “I should have been glad to stay until dark to look at nebulae,” she explained, “But the Father kindly informed me that my permission did not extend beyond the daylight which was fast leaving us, and conducting me to the door, he informed me that I must make my way home alone.” After all the long nights of observation with her own father, the months of hard night work with the men of the Coastal Survey, the hours and hours spent observing with the Bonds at Harvard, and even the nights spent tucked into the tiny makeshift bedroom in the turret of the Greenwich Observatory, this was Mitchell’s first experience of being excluded from nighttime observation, because, as a woman, she was seen as a sexual threat. As the back door of the Collegio Romano slammed shut behind her, leaving her unescorted in a dark Roman alley, Mitchell found herself rudely pushed into a battle for female access that she had never imagined she would need to fight. Rome had radicalized her.