Venus on Mars

Wrexie, Ada, let’s celebrate!

Posted in Author's Notes by janmillsapps on March 24, 2010
Ada Lovelace, computer scientist

Ada Lovelace, computer scientist

Wrexie Louise Leonard, astronomer

I know way more about Wrexie Louise Leonard than Ada Lovelace; I’ve been researching and writing about her for several years.

She’s become “Lulu,” a primary character in my novel “Venus on Mars,” a secretary-turned-stargazer who learned more about the universe than the male astronomers of her time; yet due to constraints of Victorian culture she could not reveal her findings. She kept a secret journal instead; this book passes through generations of women in her family, finally landing in the uncertain hands of her great niece Venus Dawson, a young woman of the seventies trying unsuccessfully to “find herself,” meanwhile earning a living at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where she prints scientifically enhanced photos of Mars as captured by a series of Mars Mariner missions (she is not allowed to make adjustments to images – only the all-male science team can do this).

While Venus is a fictional character, Wrexie was real, lived and worked at Lowell Observatory from 1896 to 1916; she was fired and sent away upon the sudden death of her beloved boss Percival Lowell by his jealous widow and was never able to look through a telescope again. Her presence in the Lowell archives extends through years of observing logs, thousands of letters she typed for her boss Percival Lowell, and one exquisite photo of her posed beneath the big telescope, wearing her Victorian finery.  She was admitted into the French Astronomical Society in 1904 and published her drawings of Mars in “Popular Astronomy” in 1907.

Wrexie is not mentioned in written histories of women in astronomy; I’ve published one article about her in the Lowell Observer, but she deserves much more attention.

On this day in which we honor pioneers like Ada Lovelace, let’s not forget our ongoing collective struggle to achieve gender parity in science and technology.

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