Question everything! — Maria Mitchell (1818-1889), Unitarian, astronomer
IN TODAY’S SESSION… The magnifying glass symbolizes questioning and looking deeper. The children learned about questioning because Unitarian Universalism considers each person’s path of questioning and search for truth to be a key, ongoing part of growing in faith and deepening in religious understanding; Unitarian Universalism’s Fourth Principle affirms a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. The session also demonstrated that Unitarian Universalism takes as one of its Sources humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.
This session focuses on the value of questioning assumptions and wondering, “Why?” We emphasized that there is a continuing need for questioning, both in science and in society. The children heard the story of Unitarian astronomer, Maria (pronounced “ma-RYE-ah”) Mitchell (1818-1889), the first woman to discover a comet and have it named after her and the first professor of astronomy at Vassar College. Maria Mitchell embodied the truth-seeking quality of Unitarian faith in both her spiritual and scientific life. Her story also illuminates the value of questioning gender stereotypes.
EXPLORE THE TOPIC TOGETHER. Talk about… To extend the learning of this session, look to current events. What issues are being discussed publicly in your community? in our nation? globally? In what ways do current controversies involve the questioning of assumptions?
EXTEND THE TOPIC TOGETHER. Try… Learn more about Maria Mitchell. Borrow from a library, or purchase, a biography of Maria Mitchell, such as (for 9- to 12-year-olds) Rooftop Astronomer: A Story about Maria Mitchell by Stephanie Sammartino McPherson (Minneapolis, MN: Carolrhoda Books, Inc.,1990). One reviewer, Margaret M. Hagel of the Norfolk, VA Public Library System, said:
More than just a biography of the female astronomer, this is also the story of Mitchell’s contribution to the quest for equality for women. McPherson’s easily flowing narrative recounts Mitchell’s childhood on Nantucket, a good spot to observe the stars and a place where women, especially whalers’ wives, were of necessity independent and respected members of the community.
Of Maria Mitchell: The Soul of an Astronomer by Beatrice Gormley (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2004), Kirkus Review said:
Gormley successfully paints a picture of a world that failed to mold Mitchell to its standards, focusing on the telling details that bring the story to life. Inspiring and incisive.
Explore the universe. Children interested in astronomy and natural sciences may like to investigate the stars some more, with a Unitarian Universalist-written activity book for children. The Kids’ Book of Awesome Stuff by Barbara Marshfield and Charlene Brotman (Biddeford, ME: Brotman-Marshfield Curriculums, 2004) is a collection of pictures, puzzles, and writings exploring our connection to the natural world through topics from the Big Bang and bugs to snowflakes, frost and “poop and pee and other stinky stuff.”
Is there a museum or planetarium near you, where visitors can have the experience of looking through a telescope like Maria Mitchell did? If the city nearest you does not have an observatory open to the public, find out whether the nearest college or university has an astronomy lab that your family might visit.
Learn about Maria Mitchell on Wikipedia or read her biography in the online Vassar Encyclopedia. A site search of the Vassar College website will also yield the article, “Eclipse Chaser,” which describes her trip to Colorado for the eclipse of 1878.
A FAMILY GAME