Ann Boesgaard with Maunakea telescopes in the background
Ann Merchant Boesgaard

Ann Merchant Boesgaard, astronomer emerita at the University of Hawaiʻi Institute for Astronomy (IfA), is featured in the new book The Sky Is for Everyone, an internationally diverse collection of autobiographical essays by women who broke down barriers and changed the face of modern astronomy.

Boesgaard began her career at IfA in 1967, just one year after earning her PhD in 1966 from the University of California, Berkeley, under famed astronomer George Herbig, who would go on to join IfA 20 years later. She has spent her career studying the light elements—lithium, beryllium and boron—in the atmospheres of stars, to better understand their hidden inner workings.

“The light elements, lithium and beryllium, are extremely rare—a mere 2 Li atoms for every billion hydrogen atoms, and a measly 25 atoms of Be for every trillion H atoms,” said Boesgaard. “Despite their rarity, the amounts of Li and Be on the surfaces of stars reveal exciting information we can obtain no other way about the insides of stars and how they change with age. It is very rewarding to pursue this work on Maunakea because of the clarity of the skies and the advanced instruments on the telescopes there.”

Ann and Hans Boesgaard
Ann and her late husband Hans, a former IfA chief engineer

In 2019, Boesgaard became one of only five women ever awarded the coveted Henry Norris Russell Lectureship by the American Astronomical Society (AAS). The Russell prize is the AAS‘ highest award, and is bestowed annually on the basis of a lifetime of eminence in astronomical research. Boesgaard follows in the footsteps of female pioneers who have received the award since its inception in 1946; the first was famed astronomer Cecelia Payne-Gaposckin (1976), E. Margaret Burbidge (1984), Vera Rubin (1994), Margaret Geller (2010) and Sandra Faber (2011).

Edited by astronomer Virginia Trimble and author David Weintraub, The Sky is for Everyone, is a collection of personal essays by 37 women astronomers from around the world. They describe their experiences navigating and revolutionizing a historically male-dominated field, including having no female role models or being the first in their family to attend a university. Their collective stories shed light on the decades of difficult struggles that have brought women closer to equality in astronomy than ever before.

“Before the 1970s, very few graduate programs in astronomy offered admission to women, very few major observatories accepted proposals from women, very few telescopes were open for use by women, and very few universities hired women onto their faculties. This was true globally,” said Weintraub. “Over half a century, all of that changed. We need to know about, remember and celebrate the courage of the women who made these changes happen.”

The book has received critical acclaim, the Publisher’s Weekly review wrote, “Filled with moving testimonies and awe-inspiring discoveries, this is a wonderful tribute to the joys of science and the tough road many women had on the way to forging their careers.”