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Pickering was born in Boston on 19 July 1846 the son of Edward Pickering and his wife, Charlotte Hammond. Pickering was interested in the stars as a boy and constructed his own telescope with an age of 12. He was educated at Boston Latin School, and then studied Science at Harvard, where he received his Bachelor of Science (BS) degree in 1865.
Career and research
Soon after graduating from Harvard, Pickering taught physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. During the 10 years he was there, he created the first physics lab in America that was designed for students to publish their own findings and research. Later, he served as director of Harvard College Observatory from 1877 to his death in 1919, where he made great leaps forward in the gathering of stellar spectra through the use of photography.
At Harvard, he recruited over 80 women to work for him, including Annie Jump Cannon, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Antonia Maury, and Florence Cushman. It was very unusual for such an accomplished scientist to work with this many women, but it has been said that "he became so exasperated with his male assistant's inefficiency, that even his maid could do a better job of copying and computing". These women, the Harvard Computers (also described as "Pickering's Harem" by the scientific community at the time), made several important discoveries at HCO. Leavitt's discovery of the period-luminosity relationship for Cepheids, published by Pickering, would prove the foundation for the modern understanding of cosmological distances.
In 1882, Pickering developed a method to photograph the spectra of multiple stars simultaneously by putting a large prism in front of the photographic plate.
In 1896, Pickering published observations of previously unknown lines in the spectra of the star ζ-Puppis. These lines became known as the Pickering series (or the Pickering-Fowler series) and Pickering attributed them to hydrogen in 1897.Alfred Fowler gave the same attribution to similar lines that he observed in a hydrogen-helium mixture in 1912. Analysis by Niels Bohr included in his 'trilogy' on atomic structure argued that the spectral lines arose from ionised helium, He+, and not from hydrogen. Fowler was initially-skeptical but was ultimately convinced that Bohr was correct, and by 1915 "spectroscopists had transferred [the Pickering series] definitively [from hydrogen] to helium." Bohr's theoretical work on the Pickering series had demonstrated the need for "a re-examination of problems that seemed already to have been solved within classical theories" and provided important confirmation for his atomic theory.
Pickering is credited for making the Harvard College Observatory known and respected around the world, and it continues today to be a well-respected observatory and program.
Pickering enjoyed his work at the observatory, but he was also found of mountain climbing and bicycling in earlier days and later he was an interested spectator of football games. He was co-founder and first president of the Appalachian Mountain Club. He was also a lover of classic music. During the first world war he was busy trying to devise useful applications to win the war. The Pickering Polaris Attachment was a device for finding the range of guns. In 1864 he married Lizzie Wadsworth Sparks, daughter of Jared Sparks, the historian and former president of Harvard College.
^Bunch, Bryan H. and Hellemans, Alexander (2004) The History of Science and Technology: A Browser's Guide to the Great Discoveries, Inventions, and the People Who Made Them, from the Dawn of Time to Today. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.