Valuing Toilets

As the World Toilet Day site says: ‘Life without a toilet is dirty, dangerous and undignified. Public health depends on toilets. Toilets also drive improvements in gender equality, education, economics and the environment. There will be no sustainable future without toilets.’

3.6 billion people across the world still lack access to safe sanitation.

World Toilet Day is observed on 19 Nov every year as a way to remind ourselves of this situation. This year, the theme as declared by the UN is Valuing Toilets. World Toilet Day is an occasion to remind ourselves of a goal the world is committed to, viz, Sustainable Development Goal  6, which is about Clean Water and Sanitation. Specifically under this Goal, the sub-goals related to sanitation are:

6.1 By 2030, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all

6.2 By 2030, achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations

6.A By 2030, expand international cooperation and capacity-building support to developing countries in water- and sanitation-related activities and programmes, including water harvesting, desalination, water efficiency, wastewater treatment, recycling and reuse technologies

6.B Support and strengthen the participation of local communities in improving water and sanitation management

India has made some progress, but there is still a long way to go. Creating infrastructure is the easier part. Bringing about behaviour change to get people to use toilets; to ensure water supply; to ensure maintenance and functionality—these are the bigger challenges that we still have to tackle.

This is where innovations are needed. And are happening. A very interesting publication ‘ 10 Innovative Approaches To Improve The Urban Wa-S-H Sector In India’ brought out by the  USAID and the National Institute of Urban Affairs documents some of these. Here are some of the most interesting:

Creation Of A Urine Bank and Collection by A Special Vehicle and Its Utilization as Fertilizer: Society for Community Organization and People’s Education (SCOPE), a Trichy based NGO, has tried this experiment in Musiri, Tamilnadu. Basically, they separated urine and faeces at the household/institution level through the use of ECOSAN toilets. About 400 litres of urine, which is good fertilizer, were collected with the help of a special van, suitably treated, diluted and put into use in agriculture. The application increased yields and was found to be cost-effective.

Waterless Urinals to Conserve Fresh Water, Save Energy and Reduce Maintenance Costs: This IIT-Delhi incubated innovation is for urinals in public spaces. It avoids the use of water for flushing. This is a considerable amount of water saved, for each flush uses from 4 to as much as 15 litres of water. The odour control mechanism like the sealant liquid, membrane trap and biological blocks are used to substitute for flushing.

I have personally had some experience of this innovation, having installed it in one of the public toilets we built and maintained in Hyderabad, and it worked pretty well.

Vandal Proof, Easy to Maintain and Durable Toilets: Anyone, like me, who has experience of managing public toilets, knows that vandalism, breakage, and irresponsible usage of the facilities are an inevitable and unpleasant part of a difficult job. This is one reason why the recurring costs of running such toilets is high. GARV toilets, an innovation tried in Faridabad, use stainless steel for the superstructure of the toilet pan and wash basin, rather than the less durable china clay or porcelain. This not only increases the life of various utilities in, but also reduces maintenance cost and water needed for cleaning. This innovation was apparently born out of the desire of a manufacturer who wanted to use the steel lying around in his factory. If you think through it, it is the approach used by the Indian Railways for maybe over a century now, and if it can work in our trains, it can work anywhere!

The publication is over five years old, and the innovations discussed go back even a decade. Some, like waterless urinals, have found wide application. Hopefully, the others have been also diffused far and wide, picked up and improved further.

The need to scale up and innovate in the sanitation sector is urgent. There is no better way to put it than to sum it up than in Gandhiji’s words: ‘A lavatory must be as clean as a drawing-room ‘.


VASCSC: Dr. Vikram Sarabhai’s Vision for Science Education

As we approach Dr. Sarabhai’s birth anniversary (12 August), time to pay tribute to a great visionary, scientist and institution-builder.

His role in the nation’s space and atomic energy programmes, in creating institutions like ISRO, PRL, IIM-A, ATIRA is well known, as was his zeal for the planned use of science and technology in the development of a newly-independent India are known. His passion for science education however, needs to be more widely discussed.

Dr. Sarabhai was keenly aware that creating a scientific temper and promoting scientific thinking among the population was fundamental in our progress as a nation. He felt that science teaching needed to be innovative to achieve this, and also that the best scientists should engage with young minds, and inspire them towards science. His own background of being home-schooled in a very open learning environment, where exploring and innovating were the key, may have been the foundation of his conception of science education.  

Vikram Sarabhai as a boy, with his model train

It was in this background that in 1963, Vikrambhai got scientists of the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) involved in a project called ‘Experiment for Improvement of Science Education’, to take science to citizens. These early efforts were institutionalized in 1966, with the creation of an institution called the Community Science Centre (CSC), whose foundation stone was laid by Dr. Sarabhai’s guru, the Nobel Laureate, Sir CV Raman.  The famous lecture ‘Why the Sky is Blue’ was delivered by Sir Raman at the Centre on this occasion.

CSC was the trailblazer in the country, and the country’s active Science Centre/ Science Museum movement owes a lot to the pioneering work of this institution. CSC was re-named Vikram A. Sarabhai Community Science Centre (VASCSC) after the passing away of Dr. Sarabhai.

To quote VASCSC’s website, ‘The core of the Centre’s philosophy is to take school and college students out of the rigid framework of textbooks and encourage them to think, explore and create. Over the years, the Centre has combined formal and non-formal techniques to formulate many innovative methods to give students a better understanding of Science and Mathematics, which not only make the process of learning enjoyable but also sustained and long-lasting.’  It aims to bring teachers, students, research workers, administrators and the community together for a better appreciation and understanding of science.

VASCSC has been the pioneer of several innovative science education programmes, including interactive science exhibitions, open laboratories, math-lab, science playgrounds. These are today the backbone of many a science education programme in the country.  The educational kits and materials developed by it are of a very high quality.

A landmark initiative of VASCSC was the Science Express, done for the Department of Science (DST), which ran for several years. This was an innovative science exhibition mounted on a 16-bogey train, specially designed by the Indian Railways. Launched in October 2007 by DST, Science Express covered over 1,22,000 km across the country, receiving more than 1.33 crore visitors at its 391 halts, over 1,404 days. It has thus become the largest, longest running and most visited mobile science exhibition, probably in the world and has created several records in its wake’ (DST). The exhibition has six entries in the Limca Book of Records.

Mrs. Mrinalini Sarabhai wrote of Dr. Sarabhai: ‘‘He often said that on retirement he would like to spend time with young children talking to them about science.’ Sadly Dr. Sarabhai died young, so he could not fulfill this dream. But the initiative he started at the CSC has indeed contributed to the vision of transforming science-education in India


I am privileged to be a member of the Governing Council of VASCSC.

Vikram Sarabhai Centenary

A Life Too Short: A Tribute to Dr. Vikram Sarabhai

Vikram Sarabhai Centenary

A Life Too Short: A Tribute to Dr. Vikram Sarabhai

Vikram Sarabhai Centenary

A Life Too Short: A Tribute to Dr. Vikram Sarabhai


It is butterfly season again. After a few hot, dry months, it is a treat to see so many different kinds of butterflies fluttering and flitting among the flowers and leaves. Butterflies have inspired art and poetry; and they have also been the subject of the scientific study by lepidopterists. The distance between the art and the science has always been distinct, starting from primary school where children learn about the life cycle of butterflies in Science class and draw and paint these colourful creatures in the Art class.

It is amazing to know that nearly four centuries before there was a woman who successfully and brilliantly combined the art and the science to produce some of the most groundbreaking work on butterflies and other insects. This is her inspiring story.

Maria Sibylla Merian was born in 1647 in Frankfurt at a time when scientific study of life was still in its infancy. Her father was an engraver and publisher, who died when Maria was a baby. When she was three years old, Maria’s mother married Jacob Marrel who was a renowned still-life painter. He encouraged young Maria’s interest in collecting live insects and also taught her the art of flower painting. As she grew, so did her passion for both these hobbies—which became lifelong commitments.

Women of Maria’s class and era collected butterflies as a hobby. Their catches were displayed as pinned specimens. Maria was driven by a different approach. She was not interested in dead specimens. She was fascinated by live insects and wanted to understand not just the insects and their life stages; but also their habits and habitats, the plants that they associated with and fed on, and their interactions with other species.

From the age of 13 she started collecting caterpillars and raising silkworms. She observed how they changed form at different stages, until they developed into butterflies or moths. She not only kept meticulous records and notes of her observations, but also detailed drawings of the process. She often painted by candlelight as she awaited the moment when the caterpillar made its cocoon, or a butterfly emerged from one. She painted caterpillars feeding on their host plants and being fed upon by their predators.

The metamorphosis of the garden tiger moth, its plant host, and parasitic wasp by Maria Merian. Source:

She publishing her first book of illustrations at age 28; this was followed by a two-volume set on caterpillars (published in 1679 and 1683) that showed the metamorphosis and host plants of 186 species.

Maria Merian was the first person to document the life cycle of butterflies. At that time it was widely believed that life originated spontaneously from inanimate matter. For example, that flies arose from rotting meat; other insects, including butterflies formed from mud, and that raindrops produced frogs. Maria’s observations and documentation opened up a new dimension.

This was also an era when most women did not have the opportunity of going to university. Maria was far from a being an academic scientist, nor did she have the freedom to devote all her time and energy to this pursuit. At the age of 18 she married her stepfather’s apprentice, and had two daughters. The marriage was not a happy one, and she left her husband, taking both her daughters, to live in a religious community; eventually getting a divorce. For many years she brought up her daughters as a single mother, supporting the family by teaching paining to daughters of wealthy families; and still making time for her art and scientific studies. By then she had moved to the Netherlands, where she spent the rest of her life.

For the first fifty years of her life, Maria observed and documented hundreds of  European insects, from caterpillars to spiders. She became well known for her work; collectors and art dealers would frequently come to her and show her insect dead specimens for her to observe.

But in 1699, at the age of 52, she embarked on one of the first purely scientific expeditions in history. She sold 255 of her paintings to finance the trip. Her goal was to illustrate new species of insects in Surinam, a South American country which had been recently colonised by the Dutch. After two months of dangerous travel, accompanied by her 20-year-old younger daughter, she reached Surinam.

For Maria Merian this was an entomologist’s paradise. She was itching to collect and paint everything she saw. But the Dutch planters of the island were not willing to accompany the two women into the forests to collect insects. So she forged relationships with enslaved Africans and indigenous people who agreed to bring her specimens and who shared with her the medicinal and culinary uses of many plants. Merian and daughter spent two years in Surinam before Maria’s failing health from frequent bouts of malaria, forced then to return to the Netherlands.

But the compilation of all her work in documenting and illustrating flora and fauna in Surinam resulted in a book titled Metamorphosis insectorum Surnamensium. It was written in Latin, the international language of science, with 60 stunning copperplate engravings that brought the exotic world of the rainforest to the damp drawing rooms of Europe. The book became well known in scientific and artistic circles.

Merian’s eldest daughter, Joanna, subsequently made the journey to Surinam and would send her mother new specimens and paintings until Merian’s death, at the age of almost 70, in 1717.

For a woman of her time, with no university education, Maria Merian’s meticulous scientific and artistic work earned her respect. Karl Linnaeus, famous for developing a system for classifying life, referred heavily to her illustrations in his species descriptions. The grandfather of Charles Darwin, Erasmus Darwin, cited Merian’s work in his book The Botanic Garden. 

Merian also published works in German and Dutch, which allowed lay readers unprecedented access to scientific discoveries, arguably making her one of the earliest science communicators.

Merian was also proved to be a successful businesswoman. She sold her drawings and engravings to finance the printing of her own books, which she would later sell. This financial security also allowed her the freedom her to pursue her interests and ideas.

In the 1800’s, by which time university-trained academics laid stake to “biological knowledge” there was a trend to discredit Maria Merian and her work. As she had no formal scientific training she was written off as a woman with a hobby who painted beautiful – but entirely unscientific – pictures of butterflies. Although her work continued to inspire and influence generations of artists, her contributions as a scientist were largely forgotten. It is only in more recent years that her scientific work has been revisited and revived.

Maria Sibylla Merian was a pioneering naturalist, who also managed a successful career as an artist, botanist, and entomologist. Merian studied the behaviour and interactions of living things at a time when taxonomy and systematics (naming and cataloguing) were still at a nascent stage. She laid the groundwork for the fields of entomology, animal behaviour and ecology. She was the first ever to show the interaction between species, food chains, and the struggle for survival in nature. And how environment affects development and behaviour. She captured the ecology of species, centuries before the term even existed.   

At a time when other scientists were trying to make sense of the natural world by classifying plants and animals into narrow categories, Merian looked at their place within the wider natural world. She searched for connections where others were looking for separation.

Today when there is so much talk of encouraging women in STEM, it is more than worthwhile to remind ourselves of this inspiring woman who not only successfully combined her artistic and scientific work, but also pioneered fields of study that we erroneously believe to have more recent origins.


Defence Science: Remembering Dr. DS Kothari on his Birth Anniversary, 6 July

‘Dr Daulat Singh Kothari, a theoretical physicist and Dean of the Faculty of Science of Delhi University, was appointed the first Scientific Adviser in July 1948, at the age of 42. He formed Defence Science Organisation by hand-picking scientists from the various universities in India who were proficient in aeronautics, electronics, chemistry, mathematics, nutrition, physics, psychology to start research work in ballistics, electronics, chemistry related to explosives, paints and corrosion, food preservation and nutrition, psychological fitness profile for selection of Service personnel, battlefield stress and physical fatigue. He made the Services conscious of the role a scientist could play in the solution of defence problems. Dr Kothari aimed to build a boundaryless learning organisation stripped of hierarchical trappings and with two-way communication between him and his scientists. The basic science laboratory raised by Dr Kothari provided the nucleus for the formation of the Defence Research and Development Organisation.’

–DRDO Website

The first Boss is the most formative influence on one’s career, work ethics and leadership style. And if he/she is a good boss, then they are almost Gods to impressionable young minds.

Dr. DS Kothari was my father’s first Boss. And was God to him.

Each line in the DRDO (Defense Research and Development Organization) write-up resonates with what I have heard about Dr. Kothari from my father.

DRDO was officialy established in 1958, but many constituent labs came into being before that. My father applied and was interviewed for the junior-most position in the Defence Science hierarchy around 1953. And who should be the head of the panel but Dr. DS! He sat through days and days of interviews in the midst of all his responsibilities as Scientific Advisor to Raksha Mantri. He saw this as his most important responsibility—hand-picking young scientists of promise from across the country to build a unique institution and an ambitious one for a newly independent India.   

The first problem he set my father and a few of that cohort was to work out the ideal thickness of rotis for high-altitude troops. The parameters to be optimized for a given weight of atta were time for the cook to roll out the roti, cooking time, and fuel consumption. And of course the rotis had to be edible! I think the realization that science could be brought to bear on such everyday problems was a lesson that scientists of that generation imbibed and made a way of life.

In 1955, PM Pandit Nehru set the scientists the task of studying the consequences of nuclear, thermonuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. Dr. DS had the major responsibility of bringing out the report, along with Dr. Homi Bhabha and Dr. Khanolkar. A small group of young Defence scientists—my father among them–was tasked to assist these stalwarts. Due to various reasons, it was Dr. Kothari who took up most of the burden of the work.

The 10-12 months were among the most hectic and most memorable ones of my father’s career. There was very little information on this subject in the public domain at that time, and India did not belong to any elite clubs which could get access to any classified information. Yet, in less than a year, the group brought out a data-rich 212-page report ‘Nuclear Explosions and Their Effects’ (subsequently published by the Publications Division). The book had a foreword by Pandit Nehru and was a seminal report at the time, not only in India but internationally.

The powers that be were also gracious in acknowledging the contribution not only of the leaders but also the young scientists.

But what is part of family history is something that captures Dr. Kothari’s essence. Apparently, at 4 pm on a Sunday afternoon, there was a knock on the door of my parents’ house. When they opened the door, there was Dr. DS himself! He had wanted to urgently discuss a point related to the book. In the days before home-telephones, he got his office to dig out my parents’ address, and rather than send someone to fetch my father, decided to come himself and save time.

My mother, till her last days, recalled this incident with not only awe, but also a feeling of being overwhelmed. A young girl newly arrived from Tamilnadu, with a very cranky baby on her hip. and no Hindi and only a smattering of English, she was confronted with having to entertain God himself! I think the sum total of furniture in the tiny house consisted of a few Godrej chairs, a study table and a cot. I don’t know if Dr. DS partook of anything, but I surely hope he asked for coffee rather than tea, because there would have been no tea leaves in a good South Indian household of that time. Nor would my mother have known how to brew a cup of tea. And steel tumblers and dawaras were the only serving utensils.

But Dr. DS, by family accounts was completely oblivious of all this. He came, made himself completely at home on the Godrej chair, stayed for almost an hour discussing what he had come to discuss, and then with blessings to my brother and a warm smile to my mother, was off.

All in a day’s work for him. But for us, family history for generations!

Dr DS Kothari: Scientist of international renown who worked with Dr. P Blackett in Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge University, under the guidance of Lord Ernst Rutherford, the Father of Nuclear physics, and contributed immensely to the fields of statistical thermodynamics and Theory of White Dwarf Stars. Steering-hand of DRDO and the founder of many of the labs in the system. Played a key role in setting up UGC and NCERT, and was Chair of India’s first Education Commission.


In memory of my father, Shri A. Nagaratnam, a physicist, who worked with DRDO for almost half a century. And my brother, Dr. N. Prabhakar, an aeronautical engineer, who also spent his entire career with the same organization, and was awarded a Padma Shri. They knew no other life, and were immensely proud to be a part of DRDO.

Indicator Tea

Those who have gone through high school science will remember lab-experiments involving indicators. Adding a drop of phenolphthalein and noting that critical point at which the colourless liquid in the flask turned a bright pink. Or when the litmus paper turned red or blue. Remember how critical it was for our grades to observe these colour changes correctly? As a B.Sc Chemistry student, indicators played a pretty large part in my life!

Those colour changes are what my experiences with butterfly-pea tea took me back to. This tea has been much in vogue for some time now. But keeping in character, I am of course about two years behind the trend.

This in spite of having the creeper literally at my doorstep. Planted there to supply flowers for my mother’s puja– the shankpushpi flower is specially a favorite of Lord Shiva–it has proven itself a hardy survivor of my spurts of inept gardening. It grows and flowers and flourishes. The indigo-blue flowers are equally beautiful on the plant and in the puja.

Clitoria ternatea commonly known as Asian pigeonwings, bluebellvine, blue pea, butterfly pea or  Darwin pea, is known for its blue flowers, though there is a less common white variant. In India, it is called shankpusham, girikarnika or aprajita.

Here it is used mainly for worship and to some extent in Ayurveda, mainly for de-stressing, and to boost memory and brain function.

The use in Southeast Asia is more varied. It is an integral part of many Thai, Malaysian and Burmese recipes as an ingredient and as a colouring agent, and is very widely used in Chinese medicines.

Which brings me to the visually-stunning butterfly-pea tea, which is a wildly popular drink in those countries (and now the world). Made by steeping a handful of flowers (fresh or dry) in hot water, the resulting tea is a lovely blue. Squeeze a lemon into it, and it turns pink or even violet—taking you right back to your school lab! It is basically the same phenomenon—a change in pH resulting in a change in colour.

Research on the use of Butterfly Pea in managing Alzheimer’s has been ongoing for some time now. The latest is a research study from National Centre for Biological Sciences, India, published in Journal of Medicinal Chemistry, which takes forward the hypothesis that extracts from this plant ‘can help in neuroprotection and prevent progressions that cause the ailment’.

So go ahead and plant a shankpushi in your garden or a pot—only making sure that it gets enough sun. It is not at all difficult to grow—my creeper sheds seeds all around, and each week, I find tens of little plants wanting to curl around the nearest support and climb. It will do well in most soils, even enriching them, as it is leguminous and will fix nitrogen. Apart from watering it once in a while, you don’t need to do much.

And in return, it will add beauty to your garden, adorn your puja room, help you make conversation-piece teas, salad additions and coloured rice. And hopefully also boost your brain-power. A winning proposition all around!


Thinking About Science

A few days ago, on Feb 28, we marked National Science Day. This commemorates the discovery of the Raman Effect.

As we think about the state of Science in India, there are two historical documents I would like to quote as my contribution to this day, to remind ourselves of the vision of the early national leaders, as well as the scientific leaders of yore.

The first is India’s earliest policy statement on the subject, tilted “Scientific Policy Resolution’, brought out by the Govt. of India in March 1958:

‘1. The key to national prosperity, apart from the spirit of the people, lies, in the modern age, in the effective combination of three factors, technology, raw materials and capital, of which the first is perhaps the most important, since the creation and adoption of new scientific techniques can, in fact, make up for a deficiency in natural resources, and reduce the demands on capital. But technology can only grow out of the study of science and its applications.

2. The dominating feature of the contemporary world is the intense cultivation of science on a large scale, and its application to meet a country’s requirements.

3. It is only through the scientific approach and method and the use of scientific knowledge that reasonable material and cultural amenities and services can be provided for every member of the community, and it is out of a recognition of this possibility that the idea of a welfare state has grown.

4. The wealth and prosperity of a nation depend on the effective utilisation of its human and material resources through industrialisation. The use of human material for industrialization demands its education in science and training in technical skills.

5. Science and technology can make up for deficiencies in raw materials by providing substitutes, or, indeed, by providing skills which can be exported in return for raw materials. In industrialising a country, heavy price has to be paid in importing science and technology in the form of plant and machinery, highly paid personnel and technical consultants. An early and large scale development of science and technology in the country could therefore greatly reduce the drain on capital during the early and critical stages of industrialisation.

6.  It is an inherent obligation of a great country like India, with its traditions of scholarship and original thinking and its great cultural heritage, to participate fully in the march of science, which is probably mankind’s greatest enterprise today.

The Government of India have accordingly decided that the aims of their scientific policy will be

1. to foster, promote, and sustain, by all appropriate means, the cultivation of science, and scientific research in all its aspects – pure, applied, and educational;

2. to ensure an adequate supply, within the country, of research scientists of the highest quality, and to recognize their work as an important component of the strength of the nation;

3. to encourage, and initiate, with all possible speed, programmes for the training of scientific and technical personnel, on a scale adequate to fulfil the country’s needs in science and education, agriculture and industry, and defence;

4. to ensure that the creative talent of men and women is encouraged and finds full scope in scientific activity;

5. to encourage individual initiative for the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge, and for the discovery of new knowledge, in an atmosphere of academic freedom ;

6. and, in general, to secure for the people of the country all the benefits that can accrue from the acquisition and application of scientific knowledge.

The Government of India have decided to pursue and accomplish these aims by offering good conditions of service to scientists and according them an honoured position, by associating scientists with the formulation of policies, and by taking such other measures as may be deemed.’

The second quote is from an important document called ‘A Statement on Scientific Temper’, put out by the Nehru Centre, Mumbai, in 1980, which lays down what scientific temper is:


Spread of scientific temper in society is much more than the spread of science or technology. Scientific temper is neither a collection of knowledge or facts, although it promotes such knowledge; nor is it rationalism although it promotes rational thinking. It is something more. It is an attitude of mind which calls for a particular outlook and pattern of behaviour. It is of universal applicability and has to permeate through our society as the dominant value system powerfully influencing the way we think and approach our problems—political, social, economic, cultural and educational. 

Scientific temper involves the acceptance, amongst others, of the following premises:

  1. that the method of science provides a viable method of acquiring knowledge;
  2. that human problems can be understood and solved in terms of knowledge gained through the application of the method of science;
  3. that the fullest use of the method of science in everyday life and in every aspect of human endeavour—from ethics to politics and economics—is essential for ensuring human survival and progress; and
  4. that one should accept knowledge gained through the application of the method of science as the closest approximation to truth at that time, and question what is incompatible with such knowledge; and that one should from time to time re-examine the basic foundations of contemporary knowledge.’

There is no need to re-articulate anything. The path is clear. What needs to be done is to ask ourselves, why we are not there!

We can judge for ourselves whether the Science Policy articulated close to 65 years ago has achieved what it set out to. And agonize how to put the focus back on ‘scientific temper’ which is relegated to the archives as a quaint and old-fashioned term.

Definitely needed more today than ever before!


Stargazer to Trailblazer

Photo source:

As we continue to celebrate women and girls in science, here is an inspiring story that goes back two hundred years.

 The common belief in nineteenth-century American society was that too much intellectual education would damage a woman’s health, and that too much thought would fracture or destroy the weaker among them. Women were expected to spend their time in household chores and needlework, in their role as dutiful wives and mothers.

In 1818, a daughter was born to William and Lydia Mitchell. They named her Maria. The Mitchells lived on Nantucket Island, a community of seafarers. The family were Quakers, a community that had somewhat different beliefs and lifestyle than the mainstream population.  One of the tenets of Quaker religion was intellectual equality between the sexes. They valued education and believed that the same quality of education should be given to boys as well as girls. Maria, one of ten children, was encouraged from a young age to exercise the power of her mind.

Maria began attending private elementary schools at the age of four. When she was nine, Maria’s father, who was an amateur astronomer, established a free, private school that Maria joined. Her father was an unconventional teacher who believed in hands-on education and a learning-by-doing curriculum. Students learned about the natural world by being outdoors and direct observation and collection of natural objects. This approach to scientific study had a profound effect on Maria who, throughout her life inculcated the same process of exploration, investigation and persistence.

Maria’s father played an important role in the seafaring community of whalers and fishermen who relied entirely on the stars and the compass for nautical navigation; there were no sophisticated and accurate devices. William Mitchell with his amateur interest in astronomy and daily roof top observations and astronomical recording was the person they all consulted to check the accuracy of their charts, sextants, and chronometers.

From an early age Maria developed a love of astronomy and learnt much from her father’s instruction on astronomy, mathematics, surveying and navigation. When she was twelve years old, the family observed a solar eclipse over the island and Maria counted the seconds of the eclipse to pinpoint the longitude of their house. Two years later, whaling captains entrusted the fourteen-year-old Maria to rate their chronometers on her own. Maria continued to pursue what was becoming a passion, with basic equipment from the small attic of their home.

When her father’s school wound up, Maria joined Cyrus Pierce’s School for Young Ladies. Cyrus Pierce was one of the first people outside of Maria’s own family to recognize her sharp mind, facility for mathematics and self-discipline. He encouraged and supported Maria in her intellectual journey. Later she worked for Pierce as his teaching assistant before she opened her own school in 1835. In a bold step at a time when schools were still segregated she opened her school to non-white children. One year later, she was offered a job as the first librarian of the Nantucket Atheneum, where she worked for 20 years while continuing to pursue her astronomy studies.

On 1 October 1847, while the rest of the family was having a party, Maria was scanning the skies on the roof of the Bank where her father then worked. She spotted a blurry object that was not on any of the charts. She told her father that she had discovered a new comet. Her father was keen that the discovery be made public, but Maria was hesitant because she feared that the scientific community would not take seriously a discovery made by a woman. William was determined and wrote to the noted astronomers of the day, but was met with scepticism. Until he came to know that the Frederick VI the King of Denmark, himself an amateur astronomer was offering a gold medal to the first observer to spot a new telescopic comet. After a prolonged effort to get Maria’s discovery recognised, she was awarded the gold medal over a year later. The new comet was given the official name Comet 1847-VI, but commonly known as “Miss Mitchell’s Comet”.

Maria Mitchell’s discovery was recognised in a largely male-dominated field. In 1848 she was elected as the first female member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and one of the first women members of the American Philosophical Society. She also became one of the first women to work for the US Federal Government as part of the US Nautical Almanac. She continued her post as librarian even as she took on new roles and responsibilities in the world of science.

In 1856, she resigned her post at the Atheneum to travel to Europe as the chaperone of the daughter of a rich businessman. She took the opportunity to meet scientists and visit observatories, but also found that even in Europe biases against women scientists were well entrenched.  For example, she was not allowed to observe the stars through the Pope’s telescope because she was a woman.

In 1865, Mathew Vassar a wealthy and enlightened man started the Vassar College. This was the second women’s college in America, and was unusually progressive in many respects, including being the first to hire women as professors. Mathew Vassar saw Maria as a role model for intelligent and ambitious young women and hired her as the first professor to teach at Vassar, even as he faced a lot of opposition. Maria continued to teach at the college for 23 years. Though she was by far the most popular professor she was initially paid only one-third the salary of the male professors, and she was constantly subjected to the deep-rooted prejudice that women were unsuited to mathematical and scientific pursuits.

As a teacher Maria followed her father’s approach of hands-on learning, taking her students of study trips to observe and record. She infused her students with a sense of excitement, and a hunger for knowledge, while sowing the seeds of respect for the scientific method and temperament. She followed unconventional teaching practices; she slept in the same dormitory as her students and would often wake them to observe the night sky. Then she would invite them to her room to drink coffee and discuss astronomy.

On nights when the sky was too cloudy for observations, she would invite the students to the observatory for a social get together. As they entered, she would personally hand out a scroll to each student, with a poem that she had specially written for that student. Then they would go around the room reading each person’s poem in turn. This tradition of Dome Parties continues to this day at Vassar.

Thus Maria became more than a teacher for her students; she was guardian, mentor and surrogate mother. But she expected much from her students, especially a dedication to accuracy and scientific temper, just as she had been taught by her father. She treated her students as equals; as she told her class that “We are women studying together.” Above all she paved the way for women in science with the words to her first class of female astronomers at Vassar in 1876: “No woman should say, ‘I am but a woman!’ But a woman! What more can you ask to be?” 

Maria Mitchell retired from her teaching post in 1888, after a long distinguished career as the first professional female astronomer in America, She died a year later in 1889.

Maria Mitchell was more than just a trailblazer in astronomy. She was deeply involved in the emerging movement for woman’s rights to vote, own property, and receive the same type of education and opportunities offered to men. She was one of the founders of the Association for the Advancement of Women in 1873. She proved to the world that women, especially nineteenth-century women, could do much more, than just embroider samplers or oversee the household help. As she wrote, “The eye that directs a needle in the delicate meshes of embroidery, will equally well bisect a star with the spider web of a micrometer.”

The trail that Maria laid continues to open further every day. Just a week ago, the European Space Agency has put the call out for new astronaut candidates, the first time in 11 years. The agency is strongly encouraging women to apply for a place on the new team. The sky is certainly not the limit!