Fog, clouds, and light pollution limit the effectiveness of even the biggest optical telescopes on Earth. Astronomers who study ultraviolet or X-ray emission of stars have been more limited because Earth’s atmosphere blocks almost all of that radiation. Nancy Roman has devoted her career to designing telescopes that orbit the Earth. Outside the Earth’s atmosphere, these telescopes easily detect and measure gamma ray, X-ray, and ultraviolet wavelengths.
Mother of the Hubble
Swarthmore College Newsletter
Whispers and giggles floated up through the dark as the girls of the sixth-grade Astronomy Club spread their blankets on the lawn of the Roman family’s backyard.
“I see Orion.”
“Look! There’s Cassiopeia.”
“Do you think we’ll see any meteorites tonight?”
This would be the last star party for the club. When school started next week, twelve-year-old Nancy Roman and her friends would be going to bed too early for star watching. After tonight, they would meet inside and study star charts to learn the names of stars and constellations.
Born in Nashville, Tennessee, Nancy Roman says she can’t recall a time when she was not determined to be an astronomer and to learn everything she could about stars. Her father, Irwin, was a U.S. Geological Survey geophysicist who encouraged her interest in science. Many of her friends and teachers tried to discourage Nancy from studying astronomy, telling her it was not a field for women. But she persisted, and read every astronomy book she could find in school and city libraries. “I am glad I was stubborn,” she says now. “I have had a wonderful career.”
After high school, Nancy studied astronomy at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, where she worked at the Sproul Observatory. She studied for her PhD in astronomy at the University of Chicago and worked at the Yerkes Observatory, earning her degree in 1949. Roman did research at the McDonald Observatory in West Texas also. “In those days, we could get substantial telescope time, and I often spent as much as four months a year at [McDonald],” she said in an interview. “I enjoyed both research and teaching, but forty years ago it was nearly impossible for a woman to get tenure in an astronomy research department. Therefore, I left the university to join the radio astronomy branch at the Naval Research Laboratory.”
Roman’s focus in astronomy has always been to try to understand the nature of stars. In her effort to understand the life cycle of stars, she used optical, radio, and X-ray telescopes. In time, other astronomers also became more interested in the formation and evolution of stars. “Where they used to think it would be possible to identify all the stars in the sky, now they don’t try so hard to discover more stars as to understand the ones we know about,” says Roman. “The Milky Way holds enough stars for anyone.”