Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Jan. 1, 1855.I put some wires into my little transit this morning.  I dreaded it so much, when I found yesterday that it must be done, that it disturbed my sleep.  It was much easier than I expected. 

I have blogged later portions of this adventure before.  This is the earliest account in the line – I did it backwards.  Maria would try to fix the lines in her transit with her own hair, then her nephew’s hair, and finally found success in using spider webs – individual strands!  Talk about patience – but also ingenuity and need!  The transit was important to Maria’s work – transits are still used today including for surveying.  They are used to determine the relative position of objects and lines.  They are extremely precise instruments and are used to establish reference lines and provide readings of angles in precise measurements.  Until she made the repairs, some of her work would have come to a screeching halt.


The Clicker

The Clicker

Instead of moving to the Library for the heat this year, I can’t. It’s going to be a bit of a job site with some of the work it’s going to have to become a lab/classroom. It won’t look too different however!

So, that said, I needed to find a new home for the winter. I will miss my view of Mitchell House and the Observatory as I sit at the original library desk but now I will be in the Observatory – or at least the 1987 seminar room. So now I will be looking back at the Library building instead. A new view.

So anyway, I was over there cleaning off the desk and cleaning out one drawer of probably 20 years worth of office supply debris and what did I come across? The clicker! And I really did exclaim out loud “Oh look, the clicker!” For the tow of you who read this (haha), this clicker was used at open nights all through my youth (and perhaps Vladimir used it too, I don’t remember). But I noted its use by Lee Belserene the MMA’s Director of Astronomy in the 1970s and 1980s. She used to let my brother click us in when we arrived for an open night – I think she had a soft spot for him. I had written a short piece about her a few years ago. So nevertheless, I was very excited to see it and maybe I was exclaiming to her or to Maria, who knows what was going on in my unconscious. But now, for the winter anyway, I will look at it as it sits over my winter desk. I will have to introduce it to our new Director of Astronomy who starts in January – Regina Jorgenson – she may have met it before too when she worked with Vladimir but maybe not. We will find out!


Our First Astronomer’s Family

Harwood Siblings

In mid-May, the great nephew and great-niece of our first MMA Astronomer and Director of the Observatory, Margaret Harwood, came to Nantucket for a visit. They had not been here since she was our astronomer and then they were young teenagers. I gave them a tour of the Observatory and chatted with them about what I knew of Miss Harwood – known as Marnie to her family and close friends – and they regaled me with some stories of their own. It was a nice visit and it was amazing to see just how strong genes are – Miss Harwood’s nephew looks just like her! At the end of his visit, Miss Harwood’s nephew pulled an envelope from his pocket and presented to me a sterling silver bracelet that belonged to her and which will now become a part of the MMA collection. I suspect it was given to her upon her retirement – I need to go back and look in the annual reports to see. Engraved on the small plate is: M. Harwood/ Observatory/ Nantucket, Mass. Coupled with her Radcliffe Graduate Chapter Medal and all her papers, astronomical glass plates, and other pieces, this makes a wonderful collection to better represent Miss Harwood, her time at MMA, and all she did fir this organization and Nantucket. Thank you to her nephew and niece!


Director of Astronomy is Published in the Wall Street Journal and USAToday

Astronomy Director Michael West recently published Op-Ed pieces in two of the nation’s largest newspapers. “The Heartbreak of Comets” appeared in the Wall Street Journal and discussed the demise of Comet Ison, which was destroyed when it passed near the sun. USA Today published his essay on “Life, the Universe, and the Peter Principle”, which considered the search for intelligent life in the universe.

Astronomy Program Well Represented at the 223rd Meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Washington D.C.

Last summer’s REU students in astronomy attended the American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington D.C. from January 5th-9th. The students presented results from their research projects and attended the many interesting talks. More than 3,000 astronomers attended the meeting. MMO Director, Michael West, also gave a talk about his research titled “The Spectacular Interacting Galaxy System Arp 105.”

Berkeley student and 2013 astronomy MMO REU intern Baylee Bordwell presented results of her research to more than 3000 astronomers at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington D.C.

Berkeley student and 2013 astronomy MMO REU intern Baylee Bordwell presented results of her research to more than 3000 astronomers at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington D.C.

New Astronomy After School Programs

MMA is offering new after school programs for kids during November and December in collaboration with the Nantucket Community School.

BLAST OFF!!: Children discover the wonders of space exploration by building and launching their own model rockets.

Artstronomy: Art and science collide in an afternoon of fun for young kids.

Robot Explorers of Alien Worlds: Teams control robot vehicles to explore a challenging ‘Martian’ surface like a real planetary rover would.

More information can be found on the Nantucket Community School website

Maria Mitchell Astronomer Part of Hubble Discovery Team

Dr. Michael West, Director of Astronomy at the Maria Mitchell Association, is part of an international team whose discovery is featured in the latest press release from Hubble Space Telescope. The team, led by astronomer John Blakeslee of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Canada, used Hubble to peer deep into the heart of a massive group of galaxies known as Abell 1689, where they discovered a swarm of more than 160,000 ancient star clusters, the largest population ever seen.

The full Hubble Space Telescope press release can be found here.

An Astronomer

Lee Belserene and Jane Stroup

I first remember her standing at the entry to Loines Observatory with a small metal clicker in her hand. It was summer and it was dark. Mosquitoes were swarming and we all smelled like bug spray. It was a Wednesday night and we had just made the long – or so it seemed in those days – journey from Tom Nevers for an Open Night – the event of the week for my family. She was sort of quiet and reserved but she reached out to my brother each Wednesday night when we arrived at the top of the stairs by saying, “Want to press the clicker?” Sounds like not much but to a nine year old budding astronomer, my brother was very excited to “click” his family members into the open night.

I got to know her a little more as I began to volunteer at the Mitchell House. I think she probably saw me as a pesky kid, but she seemed to warm up to me over time. Maybe I proved to her that I had some staying power – that I was not just a kid who got pushed into doing some summer volunteering. (Twenty-five plus years later I am still here and curator – really?! Time flies!) She was an interesting person, an incredibly intelligent woman who had a deep love and respect for Maria Mitchell, but she did not reveal too much about herself.

When I completed my masters’ degree in 2010, the MMA very nicely congratulated me via our monthly “eComet.” A week or so later, I went into my email and saw a sender with a familiar name, one I was completely shocked to see as I had never received an email from this person. The sender was “emiliab.” I was surprised, worried, and wondered what it was. I saved it. It reads:

“Congratulations on your degree. I am hoping you have a computer-readable copy of your thesis you can send me by email … I’ll do without the pictures if I can read {your} paper that way. Thanks! Lee (Emilia) Belserene.”

Wow! I practically burst my buttons – I was so proud and honored that she wanted to read my research.

I am so lucky to have worked for the MMA for all these years and to now serve as the Mitchell House curator. I have been fortunate to have such amazing people in my life – and so many of them tied to the MMA. What inspirations and mentors – what an incredible place and people to have grown up around and to be involved with today. Not many can be surrounded by such inspiring people – and such incredible women like Lee.

This is just one small memory of Lee Belserene. She served as the MMA’s astronomer and director of the Observatory from September 1978 through September 1991. She was a Life Member of the MMA. Emilia Pisano Belserene, Ph.D. passed away in Washington State on December 11, 2012 just one day shy of her 90th birthday. She leaves a daughter, Rita.