Paying respects

Last Saturday I visited the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Many of the astronomers who worked at the Harvard College Observatory are buried there, and I wanted to pay my respects. It was a perfect spring day. Mount Auburn is as much an arboretum as a burial ground, and the flowering trees made light of the long, white winter suffered in these parts. Thanks to astronomer Owen Gingerich and astronomy librarian Maria McEachern, I had a map of the territory, with stars marking the sites of the relevant graves. I found almost the entire cast of characters of my current book project, from the observatory's founding director, William Cranch Bond, to the celebrated telescope makers of the Alvan Clark family, and Williamina Paton Fleming, the first lady among my several heroines.

I stopped a long time at the side-by-side tombstones of Edward Pickering and his wife, nee Lizzie Wadsworth Sparks. Pickering ran the observatory for more than forty years, from 1877 until his death in 1919. He gave employment with encouragement to a score of women who fulfilled careers as computers and astronomers. Aside from his name and the dates defining his life, Pickering's epitaph consisted of a single word, Thanatopsis. I recognized it as the title of William Cullen Bryant's poem about facing death -- the same poem my mother had asked me to read aloud at her funeral.

I placed a small stone on top of the marker, and moved on.