"With the North
Star as a guide, you will never be lost."
As astronomical websites go, ”the Woman Astronomer” is a real winner. Created by astronomer and writer Debra Davis for women amateur and professional astronomers, it is celebrating a 10 year milestone. Her site covers many female-friendly features such as timely articles about education, biographies of leading female astronomers, and even games, along with technical astronomical news and information. The menu provides easy-to access to an on-line zine or Cosmic Campus. Even professional associations have this site on their favorites list. I think you will agree after reading this review.
You can find the website at</>. Topping the Home page is a Chinese quote, “women hold up half the sky” - a bold statement that feminine voices really do exist in astronomy. On the black-background, catching our eye is a false-colored image of the planet Venus, with Botticelli’s Venus bearing witness to the beauty of astronomy, according to an interview with the Tucson native Davis (interview, September 10, 2007). An equal opportunity astronomer, she welcomes “guys” to the site all the while targeting the female “astronomers and hobbyists”. Her mission statement on the Welcome (contact) page offers her wisdom to “encourage women and girls” and “spark interest in astronomy through profiles of the inspirational lives of women….role models…(to) educate and motivate (them) into the 21st Century. This is a truly high goal, which in many ways she succeeds in attaining.
You can read the biographies off her “Women Astronomers” menus selection, or check out the ones she highlights on her Home page. The only item lacking for researchers using this site would be a list of references to her original data sources. She has a wry footnote amongst the bios stating she removed all these references (to save space?).
Antonia Maury (1866-1935) a pioneer in stellar astrophysics is currently highlighted on the site. Anyone who has ever looked at the Big Dipper can thank Maury for her work on spectroscopic binaries, and her co-discovery of the properties of its handle “star” Mizar (of Alcor-Mizar fame). When I was just a girl, the “star” could easily be visually separated into two of its component stars. I found it encouraging learning a woman helped understand this important binary. Now with light pollution so prevalent, to split it you need a minimum of a pair of binoculars.
I am fascinated by the Cosmic Campus’ “Women of the Moon” article Debra provides on lunar craters named for female astronomers. In the Phase I section, the article is accompanied by a simple (or not according to your interest level) word game she created to find these craters on Earth’s Moon. Once you find the names and thus the map coordinates, you can follow a link to the United States’ government’s USGS Map-a-planet ( <http://www.mapaplanet.org/>) site that will allow you to plus in the latitude and longitude and create a printable Moon map. After completing this and the following game/exercise you will receive a certificate of accomplishment. And remember, with this map and clear skies, you can try locating the craters for your own personal viewing session in your backyard.
Current and back copies of the on-line zine (magazine or newsletter) can be pulled up on-line for free. The on-line version is new (as of summer 2007) to the website, so don’t expect to get freebies of the old printed issues. Those rags can be purchased through her “Store” in a hardcopy edition. The Store also has favorite jewelry purchases and links to books she recommends. I’ve been around amateur astronomy for most of my life, even marrying a (practically) professional male astronomer. When I saw a book my husband contributed to on the list I was astonished that the world is not a big as I thought, not when I find familiar and close-to-home objects on a web site I was reviewing for the first time.
Debra encourages anyone interested in writing articles for her site or zine to review the “Writer’s Guidelines” menu item prior to submitting articles. She encourages both professional and amateurs to write about their passions. Recently, 10th grader Shelby Cook had her article on “Pluto Demoted” printed in June, 2007. In an advanced placement college biology class through her high school, she was given the opportunity to write a paper on any science subject. Shelby chose astronomy, because, as she says, “I am much more interested in astronomy than I am in biology”. For “The Woman Astronomer” site to carry an article by a 10th grader is truly far-sighted in the web mistress.
Even Steinke in his article “Science in cyberspace” (Steinke, 2004) stresses the importance of appealing to all ages of females to encourage their interest in science. Added value is found in the content Debra Davis has captured in this website: biographies, articles by professional and amateur females, job listings, games, external links, and educational teaching tools. These are all areas that Steinke looks for in websites to encourage women in science. I recommend you take a look at The Woman Astronomer’s Letters to the Editor, you will even find letters from girls. That in itself shows interest, as how many young girls write fan letters to an astronomical website? The role model Debra herself provides in her help to aspiring young astronomers is inspirational.
As with most websites, this one has advertisements to support its existence, and unfortunately they are prominent on the Home Page, with the colors somewhat distracting to the eye. Occasionally, the links pages on her Cosmic page die which can be frustrating when trying to return to a menu page from several levels into a series of articles. Davis continues to tweak the site, and admits that this is still a beta version. Open to criticism, she wants to know of any problems or suggestions viewers care to share.
However, the popularity of this site does seem to indicate the content and the varied menu appeals to the public. With over 100,000 visitors to her site (according to my interview with her and her site counter), she has been attracting attention from ordinary amateurs, professionals and other media writers. One of those advertisements I spoke of is for Astronomy Magazine, probably the most beautiful amateur mag in the United States. The managing editor of Astronomy Technology Today site (and magazine) and Thomas Bopp (famed co-discoverer of the Hale-Bopp comet) have written complimentary and supportive letters which can be viewed under Letters to the Editor. While I was still researching websites, I discovered the Committee on the Status of Women and Astronomy (<http://www.aas.org/cswa/>) include Debra’s “The Woman Astronomer” in their External Links as a resource.
The more I surf through this website, the more impressed I have become with the scope of information she presents and her enthusiasm for the subject. As her on-line zine grows, I’m sure she will attract more articles from a wider field of writers and astronomical subjects. I highly recommend this website and hope other women interested in the future of women in science, especially in the field of astronomy, will consider visiting this site and contributing articles to The Woman Astronomer, Debra Davis.
About the Author
Kathy Goles Piorkowski's love of astronomy started when her mother first showed her how to find Polaris. From there it was a short step to Orion and a long journey of promoting astronomy, especially to young girls, as an amateur astronomer. Kathy is currently a student at Northern Illinois University, completing her course work toward a Bachelor of General Studies. The above paper was for a "Women in Science" class. Her grade was 50 points out of 50!
We congratulate her on her hard work and are honored that she chose theWoman Astronomer as the subject of her review.