Tackling Your Thesis (Or how I researched and wrangled writing mine.)

What's to Come

  • How I found the ladies of Harvard College Observatory
  • Source materials: secondary versus primary
  • Brainstorming your topics
  • The Proposal Project

It all started with a photo, shared on Facebook

Margaret Hamilton wrote the code that allowed astronauts to safely land on the moon and take off again. Image Credit: Wiki Commons

As curator for my publication's social media, I look at what posts people engage with and then go looking for more. The summer before I was meant to start my thesis (on another topic!) I posted a story about Margaret Hamilton and it received more likes and shares than anything I'd ever posted before.

Sister Mary Kenneth Keller was the first woman to earn a PhD in computer science. Image Credit: Wiki Commons

Then I posted a story about Mary Kenneth Keller, a Catholic nun and computer scientist. While at Dartmouth, "Dartmouth relaxed the rule barring women from its computer center, which allowed Keller to help develop the computer language BASIC. (Before BASIC, only mathematicians and scientists could write custom software; BASIC allowed anyone who could learn the language to do so, making computer use accessible to a much larger swath of the population.)" This story also captured attention and I realized something important: people want to read about the accomplishments of women in STEM fields.

I also realized that conversations about pulling women and young girls into STEM fields today ignored the epic work women have already done. The fact that I kept tripping over stories of women from science history served, in my mind, to counter the narrative that women today had to break into a world they'd never really been a part of. So, I started looking for a central figure around which to build my work. I found Cecilia Payne and the wonderful Harvard Computers.

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (1900-1979) was the first woman to earn a PhD in astronomy from Harvard University. Her dissertation, to this day, is considered to be one of the most important works in astronomy, but few people know who she is. Image Credit: Wiki Commons

Many today credit Cecilia with discovering the composition of the stars. That may or may not be the case as there were so many noteworthy astronomers working on this question. The nature of science and research is one of cumulative efforts and incremental progress. And while the head of Princeton's observatory and famous astronomer Henry Norris Russell received the credit for this discovery at the time, he was a big fan of Cecilia’s work. When asked who should be groomed as his replacement at Princeton, Russell replied that the ideal replacement “alas, is a woman!, -- not at present on our staff.”

How did I get started?

  • Preliminary (and somewhat superficial) research: I read every article I could find in the popular press. I visited all the astronomy websites and used Google as my guide in the early stages.
  • I looked for books (there weren't many) and started trying to understand the topic.
  • I read Cecilia's autobiography, and then I reread it and read it again.
  • I visited the local science museum and talked to an astronomer to get a feel for what I needed to learn to write intelligently about a topic that is incredibly complex (and I barely understand).

In Cecilia's autobiography, she wrote about attending a lecture given by Sir Author Eddington where he describes an expedition that proved Einstein's Theory of Relativity to be true. The event transformed her completely - she knew at that moment that she wanted to be an astronomer. I realized this was a key moment for Cecilia -- and for me because it got me writing. Here's an excerpt from one of the first chapters I wrote called Relativity and the Gravitational Pull of Stars:

There are certain facts we take for granted. Gravity exists. In a right triangle, A squared plus B squared equals C squared. The Earth rotates around the sun, and force equals mass times acceleration. Whether we truly understand these ideas or not, for all of these commonly held truths, there was a time when they simply weren’t. There is always some point wherein this knowledge remains unfound, or too new to really make sense. Then, a paradigm shift occurs, like tectonic plates pulling apart the ocean floor, releasing volumes of magma and creating new earth – new knowledge replaces the old. New ideas change how we view ourselves in relation to each other and the universe we inhabit.
Since the 17th century, Sir Isaac Newton’s Laws reliably predicted the outcome of observations about the movement of stars and planets across the night sky with at least one exception: Mercury. Over the centuries following Newton’s work, it appeared that Mercury’s orbit around the sun was moving just a tiny bit faster in one spot, gaining an extra degree every 8400 years. No explanations for this anomaly succeeded in explaining it until 1905, when Einstein introduced the first of two papers that would eventually become the General Theory of Relativity; the second paper was published in 1916. Up until that point E=MC2 meant nothing. Our understanding of movement and time was constrained by our understanding of these phenomena on Earth. It turns out we weren’t paying enough attention to our own movement as we hurtled through space aboard planet Earth. Einstein believed, correctly, that space and time were relative to the speed and location of the person making the observation. He also theorized that the gravitational pull of a body could warp or bend light traveling through space, which would account for Mercury’s anomaly.
Arthur Eddington learned of Einstein’s new work during World War I, and became the first advocate for the theory in England. In 1919, Eddington along with his colleague, Frank Dyson, embarked on a dual expedition to prove Einstein’s theory correct. Eddington sailed to Africa, Dyson to Brazil. They hoped to observe a solar eclipse, which would block the sun’s bright light just long enough to make light from a large cluster of stars, the Hyades, passing through the sun’s gravitational field visible here on Earth. If there were no clouds in the sky, the two astronomers should be able to photograph and measure the stars’ positions and determine if the light was bending at all – and they did. When Eddington announced their findings, Einstein became famous around the world, almost overnight.
While Cecilia read widely in other scientific disciplines, up until this point, she had been immersed in what she describes as utterly uninspired botany courses at Newnham College. When she first learned about a new theory, which stated that all motion was relative, she wondered: relative to what? She wrote, “The solid ground failed beneath my feet…I had my first sense of the Cosmos.” On December 2, 1919, a schoolmate became ill and offered her a ticket to see Eddington give a lecture about relativity at Cambridge.
Several accounts of the event recount how scores of men gathered in a line that wrapped halfway around Thomas Neville’s Great Court at Trinity College. They may not have noticed Cecilia bundled up – protected from a squally winter night. A westerly wind blew storms in from Iceland, making the day and evening rainy and overcast. Was she the only woman in the crowd? Maybe. Although it is hard to imagine her blending in, given her stature, regardless of any desire she had to hide in plain sight.
Inside, the stoic portraits of Francis Bacon, Sir Isaac Newton, and Lord Tennyson looked down on the attendees, and the sound of people fidgeting and settling in their wooden chairs bounced off of the huge hammer beamed ceiling in the medieval hall. The smell of wet wool lingered in the air. Cecilia sat enthralled as she listened to this young, dark-haired Quaker walk the audience through the basic concepts of Einstein’s theory. The knowledge he shared changed everything, but he spoke with ease, as if he were describing some familiar every-day occurrence.
Eddington expressed a desire to explain the theory and their subsequent experiment without using complex mathematic and scientific explanations. He saw himself as a sort of translator for the common man, or woman as it turns out. He wrote, “The mind is not content to leave scientific Truth in a dry husk of mathematical symbols, and demands that it shall be alloyed with familiar images.” Eddington wanted everyone to understand the importance of this work that he believed was a “revolution of thought in physical science.”
When Cecilia returned home that evening, she found she was able to write down the lecture, verbatim. She wasn’t able to sleep that night, or the two that followed. “The result was a complete transformation of my world picture,” she wrote. Cecilia was done with biology, a path she originally chose partly by default because her school didn’t offer physical science courses and because her Aunt Dora, a plant biologist, had inspired her. She would dedicate her energies to studying physics. She wasn’t permitted to switch to astronomy, which was situated in the mathematics department and would have required starting from the very beginning again, but she attended every lecture she could find and read voraciously on the subject.
The British system is and was fairly different than the U.S. – students could pick which lectures they chose to attend – or, as you can also imagine, chose not to attend. At the end of the year, students took general examinations in what we would now think of as their major. It would make sense for students to go to lectures in their own area of study, and not dabble in other complex subjects simply for the fun of it.
Unless that student were to be Cecilia – who, at the age of 12, rebelled against the lack of science classes for younger students in her school by reading Newton’s Principia on her own and memorizing the Linnaean taxonomy. By the age of 15, she’d taught herself German, calculus, and geometry because these subjects weren’t taught to girls and she thought they might be important to her scientific interests. In her free time between these Herculean and entirely self-imposed tasks, she used to sneak into the science classroom used by the upper grades just to gaze on the apparati of science – the beakers and flasks, lengths of tubing and bits of wire, small jars of chemical elements. A hodge-podge of materials just out of her reach: “Here were the warp and woof of the world, a world that was later to expand into a Universe . . . I had yet to realize that the heavenly bodies were within my reach.”

To properly write this one chapter, I had to work with these primary and secondary sources (and many more):

  • Trinity College to confirm date, time, location, and what the hall looked like (secondary)
  • The MET office to obtain the weather forecast (primary)
  • Eddington's writings on relativity (primary)
  • Cecilia's brief but telling account (primary)
  • James Hilton's Random Harvest excerpt (it is a novel, but the fiction author wrote a scene about attending this very lecture) (secondary)

Ithaca College Library has a nice write up on primary and secondary sources, check it out here!

This image, taken in 1919, proved Einstein's "new" theory to be true. Image Credit: Wiki Commons

But wait, there's more...

  • Once I gathered all of the materials I could find, I started looking for common threads and holes: All the stories I found seemed to say exactly the same thing, many in almost the same words. Discussion Question: What does that mean?
  • My thesis advisor and I met regularly - he offered so much wonderful advice. Then he recommended something I hadn't even considered: go to Harvard. DQ: What do you think I found at Harvard?
Harvard College Observatory Plate Stacks hold over 500,000 glass plates dating back to the late 1800s -- photographs of the stars. Image Credit: Jenny Woodman

The trick to making your thesis something that makes you stronger rather than something that launches you into the abyss is to approach the topic with curiosity. In the coming days and weeks, we'll discuss your topics, develop your ideas, and get cracking on the research. My bit of advice is to look for ways to do more than laptop researching. Find a topic you can connect with in multiple ways, because you will enjoy the process so much more when it is an authentic adventure. I don't know if I'll ever tire of writing and talking about the incredible women from Harvard College Observatory. They changed me forever.

  • What excites you?
  • What are you passionate about?
  • What do you want to know more about? Why?
  • What topic will offer opportunities to explore myriad sources and keep you interested until the very end when you hand in your work?

I sat where the women sat.

I looked at the objects they handled and used every day.

And, I saw infinite possibilities in the stories I could to tell about women who've changed the world, for the better. 

What story will you tell with your research?

Created By
Jenny Woodman

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