Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Finding Ada: Vioalle Hefferan

Today I would like to honor Vioalle Hefferan, a citizen scientist whose work assisted in the advance of technology. Vioalle Hefferan wasn't an engineer, unless a person considers what a feat of engineering it is to inspire dozens of teens to spend long, cold, silent—and often fruitless—hours glued to a telescope. As far as I know, she never invented anything, although she clearly was able to bootstrap equipment and solve problems. She was a historian who became a science teacher primarily to challenge herself. In the process she played a role in the unfolding events of the space age and made her students equal partners with professional researchers around the globe.

Today, the earth is attended by a buzzing swarm of orbiting tools...

 Not that long ago, hurricanes were virtually unpredictable until they were near landfall. Now, satellites can pick up the first spiral stirrings of tropical weather systems and make it possible to warn people of approaching storms.  Our communication systems—telephone, television, radio—all rely on satellite uplinks. If you want to know if and when a Great White is cruising off the beaches of Perth, Australia, you can get an email update—thanks to satellite monitoring of tagged sharks.

But this is all a relatively recent development.

In 1957 a rocket launched with 184 pounds of payload on board: Sputnik. It is hard to imagine how that beeping ball changed the world. Yes, there were the geopolitical tensions...but there was also the straight-up fact that this was new technology. Orbits were nigh on impossible to predict. And there were no sophisticated tracking stations in place to monitor this new thing in the sky. To be honest, no one was even certain where to look. That is where Vioalle Hefferan comes into the story.

 As part of her work as a teacher, she had started a science club, and she included the study of astronomy both in the classroom and as part of the club's activities. She had enjoyed stargazing as a child herself. She stated, the stars "always winked at me and and teased me with their mysteries." Her enthusiasm must have been infectious, because she created a group of well-trained, disciplined observers willing to spend their Saturday nights watching a patch of night sky—exactly the sort of citizen scientists mobilized by Operation Moonwatch to spot and track Sputnik.* Even though her team was composed of teens and many of their instruments and equipment were home-made, when it came to discipline and scientific rigor, Miss Hefferan's students were dependable members of the Moonwatch network. They did good science. Miss Hefferan wouldn't have it any other way.

The Moonwatchers made no individual shattering discoveries, but they made a genuine contribution. A truth about science, and about the advancement of technology, is that progress is often incremental. Great leaps forward are the aggregate of small achievements. Those teens in Albuqueque did spot Sputnik a couple of nights after the launch. The data that Vioalle Hefferan and her students collected was sound, and that data was essential to not only satellite launches, but all of the space exploration missions that follow. So, when you look at the amazing images brought to us by the Hubble, remember that bunch of kids working through the night so we could understand orbital trajectories. Because without that, without people like Vioalle Hefferan, there might not be a Hubble telescope at all.

Moonwatch was the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory's program through which thousands of volunteer amateur observers around the world participated in tracking the first artificial satellites launched by the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R., as part of the International Geophysical Year. I've depended on W. Patrick McCray's wonderful history Keep Watching the Skies!: The Story of Operation Moonwatch and the Dawn of the Space Age for my information about Vioalle Hefferan and her students. This is only a little slice of the story he tells. You really need to read the book. Any errors in content are my own. 
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