The Art of Knowing What to Do in Life: Pioneering Astronomer Maria Mitchell on Purpose Beyond Expectation and Choice Unbounded by Convention

Maria Mitchell, at telescope, with her students

On rising above the maze of conditions and conditionings that limit who we can be.

“To know what one ought to do is certainly the hardest thing in life. ‘Doing’ is comparatively easy,” pioneering 19th-century astronomer Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818–June 28, 1889), who paved the way for American women in science, wrote as she contemplated science and life in her diary. A century earlier, the French mathematician Émilie du Châtelet, who defied the vocational expectations of her era to become a world authority on Newtonian physics, articulated the same sentiment in writing about gender and the nature of genius: “One must know what one wants to be. In the latter endeavors irresolution produces false steps, and in the life of the mind confused ideas.”

And yet there are myriad conditions and conditionings outside ourselves that color and confuse that knowing — not even the fortunate few whose inner eye is animated by an uncommon clarity of vision can claim such a thing as absolute purity of purpose. Even if we were to lay aside the perennially thorny question of free will, the choices we make in life in discerning what we ought to do are invariably limited by our perception of what we can do, which are in turn a function of our individual talents and the cultural canvas of permission and possibility onto which these talents can unfold.

Maria Mitchell

I was reminded of this dependency in a recent conversation with an astrophysicist friend about Maria Mitchell and the following generation of women astronomers, many of whom never married and chose science over family life. We wondered how much of a choice that really was — what the opportunities were for women, decades before they could vote or even attend university, to pursue and excel at occupations only available to men at the time, men who were able to devote their days to science because they had someone at home to launder their long-johns and boil their breakfast porridge.

My friend then relayed a turning point in her own life and career as a scientist: In watching a male colleague emulate their shared elders — those typically and therefore stereotypically masculine scientists of yore — she realized, almost with a shock, that being this person was simply not an option available to her. But with the horror and the wistfulness of the realization also came a tremendous sense of liberation — it was in that moment that she found herself free to create different options, to be a different kind of scientist unbounded by the convention of expectations she could never meet. That she is now one of the world’s most venerated astrophysicists is in no small measure thanks to that moment of permission to choose for herself a destiny beyond convention — one which was, then and only then, not a prescription but truly a choice.

In a complete revolution, our conversation reminded me of something Maria Mitchell herself, always eons ahead of her time, had articulated in her diary exactly a decade after America’s first class of women astronomers graduated from her program at Vassar. In an entry from August of 1886, found in Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals (public library | free ebook), Mitchell considers the interplay of convention and opportunity with relation to gender in light of the then-novel trend of cooking colleges for women:

I am always afraid of manual-labor schools. I am not afraid that these girls could not read, for every American girl reads, and to read is much more important than to cook; but I am afraid that not all can write — some of them were not more than twelve years old.

And what of the boys? Must a common cook always be a girl? and must a boy not cook unless on the top of the ladder, with the pay of the president of Harvard College?…



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