Women in Physics: Annie Maunder

 Annie Maunder, 1921. (National Portrait Gallery)

Annie Maunder, 1921. (National Portrait Gallery)

Annie Maunder was a 19th century solar physicist from the United States who developed the butterfly diagram, which demonstrated that sunspots migrate towards poles during a solar cycle.

It was my second week in the Solar Physics Summer School workshop at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and it was finally the day we got a tour of the building. We walked by the instrumentation recently used on weather balloons and older equipment which were used to study the Sun’s atmosphere but the grand finale we came to was a drawing. Not just any drawing - the original butterfly diagram by Annie Maunder.

 The Maunders' original butterfly diagram, showing the latitude at which sunspots are located over time. On 21 May 1940, Annie mailed it from London to her friend Stephen Ionides in the US, to save it from possible destruction during the Blitz. It was then given on indefinite loan to Walter Orr Roberts of Harvard College Observatory (renamed the High Altitude Observatory in 1946 and now part of NCAR in Boulder, Colorado), where it is on display. (via Dalla & Fletcher, 2016)

The Maunders' original butterfly diagram, showing the latitude at which sunspots are located over time. On 21 May 1940, Annie mailed it from London to her friend Stephen Ionides in the US, to save it from possible destruction during the Blitz. It was then given on indefinite loan to Walter Orr Roberts of Harvard College Observatory (renamed the High Altitude Observatory in 1946 and now part of NCAR in Boulder, Colorado), where it is on display. (via Dalla & Fletcher, 2016)

Annie was born in 1868 in Northern Ireland. She attended the University of Cambridge studying Mathematics. Despite passing her exams and exceeding in school (she qualified for honors recognition), she was not able to get a degree for the sole purpose of her gender. She then became a “lady computer” at the Solar department at Greenwich. Bu when she decided to marry her husband, Walter Maunder, she had to leave her job because married women were not allowed to work. Although not technically employed, Annie continued her work in solar physics working alongside her husband and accompanying him eclipses to draw the Sun’s atmosphere or Corona.

Her most famous work and contribution is that drawing that stole the show, the butterfly diagram. The diagram was instrumental to our understanding of how sunspots migrate towards the poles during the solar cycle. This helped provide a clearer representation of how solar weather acts on large time scales. She and her husband Walt recorded dots on respective latitudes of their diagram where they saw sunspots. As the years progressed, those spots would appear at latitudes closer and closer to the equator giving the drawing the infamous butterfly shapes. This mapping of sunspots is still used as a tool to teach solar physicists how the sun changes over a solar cycle. It is no surprise that this is the centers most precious piece.

Annie Maunder was finally elected as a Royal Astronomical Fellow in 1916, 30 years before her passing. She continues to carry the distinction of being a pioneer of solar astronomy.


Sources and Further Reading:

Chasing the Sun: The woman forgotten by science. 2016. Helen Briggs. BBC News.

A pioneer of solar astronomy. 2016. Silvia Dalla & Lyndsay Fletcher. Astronomy & Geophysics, Volume 57, Issue 5, Pages 5.21–5.23. https://doi.org/10.1093/astrogeo/atw181

Annie Maunder: A Pioneer of Solar Astronomy. 2016 National Center for Atmospheric Research.


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Marielle Pellegrino

Marielle is a second year PhD student studying Aerospace Engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her work is in how space debris moves at GPS and other high orbits. She also runs her blog Miss Aerospace which covers Astrophysics and Aerospace Engineering News and helps get people involved with night sky, no telescope needed.

You can follow her on instagram, twitter, and facebook.

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