First found only on the sun, scientists doubted the mysterious element even existed for more than a decade. Throughout the mid-1800s, improvements on the spectroscope allowed physicists to more accurately measure the wavelengths of light and identify new elements—like helium. (Wikimedia Commons)
by Lorraine Boissoneault,
“I have obtained one of the finest and least expected results—Spectra of the stars!—and beautiful spectra with colors and magnificent lines. Just one more step and the chemical composition of the universe will be revealed,” wrote astrophysicist Pierre Jules César Janssen to his wife from an observatory in Italy in December 1862.
Armed with the latest technology of the day and observations made by other Western astrophysicists, Janssen was determined to pry open the secrets of the galaxy.
On August 18, 1868, Janssen managed to do just that. He became the first person to observe helium, an element never before seen on Earth, in the solar spectrum. At the time, though, Janssen didn’t know what he’d seen—just that it was something new.
The mid-1800s was an exciting time to peer at the heavens. A new instrument called a spectroscope was upending the field of astronomy. Similar in design to a telescope, the spectroscope worked like a super-powered prism, dispersing light into measurable wavelengths.
An early model had allowed physicist Joseph Fraunhofer to observe the sun in the early 1800s, but he was puzzled by black lines interrupting the normal colors. These black lines were named for Fraunhofer, even though he didn’t understand what they were.
That knowledge would come several decades later, with German researchers Gustav Kirchhoff and Robert Bunsen. In 1859, Bunsen and Kirchoff discovered that heating different elements produced bright lines of light in the spectroscope—and those lines of light sometimes corresponded to the dark Fraunhofer lines.
In 1958, a woman stumped the panelists on the game show “What’s My Line?”
When they finally discovered what she did, the show’s host admitted that he, himself, was surprised by her occupation.
Who was Mary G. Ross? She was another ‘hidden figure,’ a mathematician and engineer whose role in America’s space age is largely unknown.
Her life’s work is celebrated in the August 9, 2018, Google Doodle. Born in 1908, Ross was a Native American and member of the Cherokee Nation.
After earning a master’s degree in 1938, she eventually moved to California in 1941, where she landed a job as a mathematician at Lockheed, working on the P-38 Lightning fighter plane.
She worked her way up the ranks at Lockheed and become the only woman among on the original team at Skunk Works.
As a mathematician and engineer, she wrote a number of professional and theoretical works and was one of the authors of the NASA Planetary Flight Handbook Vol. III, about space travel to Mars and Venus.
Image Credit: “Ad Astra per Astra” Portrait of Mary Golda Ross, by America Meredith, acrylic on canvas, 30″ x 40″, 2011,
from the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. Courtesy of the National Museum of the American Indian.