Einstein and My Grandmother



My grandmother with Albert Einstein and colleagues, Yerkes Observatory, 6 May 1921


In May 1921, Albert Einstein came to visit Yerkes Observatory, and posed for a photograph with the staff and students. Einstein, with his distinctive moustache and mop of hair, is the eighth figure from the right. Near him at the center of the picture, in the light colored skirt and blouse, is my grandmother, Harriet McWilliams Parsons, who was at the time a graduate student in astronomy at the University of Chicago, doing her doctoral research on stellar spectroscopy at Yerkes. She taught at Vassar (her alma mater) and Smith Colleges before marrying my grandfather. She retained her interest in astronomy, however, teaching briefly at Columbia during the Second World War. In 1973, the year after her 80th birthday, she went with my parents to see a total solar eclipse in Nova Scotia (the one made famous by Carly Simon in “You're So Vain”—but they did not go by LearJet). It was, she told my mother, the first eclipse she had been able to watch. She had been on several eclipse expeditions, but she had had to pay attention to the instruments rather than the eclipses themselves.

Late in her life, she used to reminisce about her days in graduate school, where she studied with some of the giants of physics at the time, like Albert Michelson and Robert Millikan, both Nobel laureates. She also told stories of baby-sitting for Professor Millikan's children.

She died in 1986 at the age of 93. The morning of the day she died she asked to be read to from Sky and Telescope magazine.