Dr. Carolyn Shoemaker, discoverer of 32 comets and eight hundred asteroids, passed away, August 13, 2021, at the age of 92. Best known for co-discovering Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 with her husband, Dr. Eugene Merle Shoemaker and Canadian astronomer David Levy.
She was born Carolyn Jean Spellman in Gallup, New Mexico, USA on June 24, 1929. She married geologist Gene Shoemaker on August 18, 1951. Mrs. Shoemaker received an honorary doctorate from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona, USA in 1996.
Liberal Arts for the win…
Shoemaker’s academic background was in the liberal arts. She earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in history, English literature, and political science from California State University, Chico. As a young woman, she had no interest in science. However, she fell in love with and married a scientist. Thanks to his enthusiasm, Carolyn began her career in astronomy when she was over half a century old. Mrs. Shoemaker said “listening to Gene explaining geology made what she had thought was a boring subject into an exciting and interesting pursuit of knowledge.”
She and her husband had three children, Christy, Linda, and Patrick. She devoted herself to raising her family, as was customary for women of that era.
After her children moved out, Carolyn was a student at Lowell Observatory and her love of astronomy was born. She began to assist her husband with his research, mapping and analyzing impact craters. Her husband, Dr. Gene Shoemaker, had already established the USGS Center for Astrogeology in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Patience Plus Stereoscopic Vision
Uniquely gifted for the career in astronomy, Carolyn was the perfect fusion of breath-taking patience and infectious enthusiasm. Her natural better-than-average stereoscopic vision gave her an advantage in recognizing differences in photographs. Think of a 19th century stereopticon or 20th century View-Master stereoscopic toys, which engaged binocular vision differently, creating enhanced images. These gifts permitted her to examine star charts and notice asteroids better than the average person.
Her work required “studying photographic plates and films taken 45 minutes to an hour apart of the night sky. The technique uses a stereoscope, allowing the researcher to view two plates or films simultaneously. When one eye looks at one film and the other looks at the second film, the brain ‘meshes’ or melds the images together. Asteroids and comets appear to ‘float’ above the flat surface of the stars. It is slow, methodical work, which requires training to discriminate between dust or grains of the film and near-Earth objects. The x, y coordinates of the comet are measured, relative to their position to known stars. One must record the times and lengths of film exposure. A typical night’s work lasts 13 hours, as well as the hours scanning the pairs of films afterward. Shoemaker’s discovery rate is about 100 search hours per comet find.”USGS: Carolyn Shoemaker
Carolyn Shoemaker Was an Astronomy Star in Her Own Right
Lisa Gaddis, Director of the Lunar and Planetary Institute, lamented, “Carolyn was quite extraordinary….
“Although her scientific career began after she and her husband Gene raised their family, she became one of the world’s foremost discoverers of comets and asteroids.
She was smart, witty, and just so practical; she was an example to younger women and budding scientists everywhere as someone who made a difference in her own way. Later in life, she was celebrated widely for her many scientific accomplishments, but as a friend and colleague to many across the world, she also will be remembered for her kindness and humor. She will be deeply missed.”Planetary News
When asked what role her gender and background had on her career Carolyn Shoemaker said, “she believe[d] ‘motherhood teaches patience for detail and that women tend to look at the fine details more than men.’ Her ability to attend to detail would pay off in her later astronomy career. In addition, motherhood had left her yearning for a higher level of thought.”
Honors and Awards
Carolyn Shoemaker held the record for the most comets and asteroids discovered by a single person. Carolyn has an asteroid named after her 4446 Carolyn, discovered by Edward Bowell in 1985.
1988 She became only the third woman to win the Rittenhouse Medal from the Rittenhouse Astronomical Society.
1995 Awarded Scientist of the Year Award.
1996 Carolyn Shoemaker received an honorary doctorate from Northern Arizona University
1996 Awarded the U. S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration Exceptional Scientific Achievement Award
1998 Carolyn and Gene Shoemaker co-awarded the James Craig Watson Medal by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.
Dr. Carolyn Shoemaker was predeceased by her husband, Dr. Gene Shoemaker, in 1997. She is survived by two daughters, Christy and Linda, and a son, Patrick.
Susan Macdonald is the author of the children’s book “R is for Renaissance Faire”, as well as short stories in “Alternative Truths”, “Swords and Sorceress #30”, “Supernatural Colorado”, “Barbarian Crowns”, “Cat Tails””Under Western Stars”, and “Knee-High Drummond and the Durango Kid”. Her articles have appeared on SCIFI.radio’s web site, in The Inquisitr, and in The Millington Star. She enjoys Renaissance Faires (see book above), science fiction conventions, Highland Games, and Native American pow-wows.