New children’s book celebrates pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell
Pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell stars in a children’s book in which she uses an ancient language she happened to know: Latin.
Massachusetts-born Maria Mitchell (1818-1889) is best known for discovering a comet in 1847 and for working to inspire female astronomers as a professor of astronomy at Vassar College, which she joined in 1865. Some 205 years after her birth, Mitchell is still in the process of becoming the first American female astronomer to inspire her.
Her legacy inspired Rachel Beth Cunning, a Latin and English Second Language teacher, to take on the challenge of writing a children’s science book — a journey that brought Cunning back to her childhood days of subscribing to and reading about astronomy magazines from the stars. Her Latin language book is called Astronomia: Fabula Planetarium (Astronomy: Stories of the Planets; Bombax Press, 2022) and you can buy it on Amazon (opens in new tab).
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“One of the things that I’m generally very interested in — as someone who loves history and who loves nerdy science things and who loves literature and languages — is all the voices that get lost over time,” Cunning said in one Interview with Space.com in early March, Women’s History Month.
“There are many voices that get lost,” Cunning continued, “and unfortunately they tend to be women’s voices.”
Latin was the language of ancient Rome and for a time the imperialist ancients conquered much of the world; Latin then remained the main language of the Christian Church for centuries.
Much of the Latin literature in existence today is male, but a valuable minority of writing is female and receives more scholarly attention. It is believed that female voices were lost over time, not only due to a lack of education or time to write, but also because of the medieval keepers who rewrote fading ancient manuscripts in what we now call Europe and the Middle East , were not so inclined to include female voices.
Mitchell was fluent enough to read Latin-language science books (opens in new tab) in her childhood, which was not uncommon in the 19th century; today, however, the scholastic role of Latin has shifted significantly.
The descendants of Latin live on today in languages such as French, Spanish and Portuguese (as well as English, since the language began to borrow heavily from French after the Norman Conquest). But Latin is hardly taught in schools or universities anymore. However, there is a growing “Living Latin” movement of YouTubers, novelists, and teachers using Latin as a spoken language in class, rather than as a grammar puzzle. That’s where the book about Mitchell comes in.
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Cunning paid tribute to numerous educators who came before her who sought to make Latin more adaptable to modern times. She herself found clever translations for “spaceship” and other modern technical terms into Latin thanks to research in the community.
The story is intended to motivate young Latin learners to keep pursuing their interests in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), Cunning said, through the example Mitchell set himself at a time when women couldn’t even vote.
“You see this ballerina who is committed to education and the importance of education and her role in helping other women access education. She’s really cool, plus she’s done so much for so many different groups,” Cunning said. particularly pointing to the days of Mitchell’s Vassar College.
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Cunning added that she wanted to help expand the available Latin-language literature and continue writing novellas from a female perspective, or at least incorporating female voices. Some of her other Latin language works (opens in new tab) These include the myths of Cupid and Psyche, as well as a fictional story of a young girl living in Pompeii.
These female voices are needed for students, emphasized Cunning. “I want them to feel like they’re part of a long story because they’re part of a long group of women who are wonderful and smart and funny who have made amazing contributions to science, to the world, and to our understanding of It’s what I’ve often missed in my own education, that sense of continuity.
Elizabeth Howell is co-author of “why am i taller (opens in new tab)?” (ECW Press, 2022; starring Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book on space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or Facebook (opens in new tab).