# This Mathematician Was Smarter Than A Computer, Did All The Ridiculously Complex Math To Discover Pluto Just By Hand

Aadhya Khatri - Feb 19, 2020

The poor mathematician was Elizabeth Williams. She worked with Clyde Tombaugh’s predecessor Percival Lowell, who suspected that Pluto existed

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Over nineteen years ago, Clyde Tombaugh, an astronomer, proved the existence of a planet which we later called Pluto. However, he would not be able to make that achievement without the calculations of a mathematician who has been forgotten by history.

The poor mathematician was Elizabeth Williams. She worked with Clyde Tombaugh’s predecessor Percival Lowell, who suspected that a ninth planet existed. However, Lowell died before he could prove his theory.

The work of the two men relied heavily on the calculations of Elizabeth Williams but her math was lost when the discovery was made public and so did the talented woman behind it.

According to Catherine Clark, a doctoral student in astronomy, history did not record much about Elizabeth Williams. We have a lot on both Clyde Tombaugh and Percival Lowell but next to nothing on the person who was responsible for the day-to-day calculations.

Williams’s calculations were the basis for the discovery of Pluto. The discovery was also driven by the observation of Percival Lowell, which begged the question of why the orbits of Uranus and Neptune were not what astronomers thought they should be. At that point, Lowell knew that the then map of the solar system was missing something.

However, to prove the existence of the unknown planet, the astronomers needed the assistance of mathematicians to do extremely complex math. At that time, calculators were still the stuff of the future, so the human computers, mostly women, did all the hard work manually. This is because the job was unglamorous so it was thought to be suitable for female **mathematicians** only.

Williams’ work revealed to Lowell the place he should look for and the estimated size of the object. Lowell never discovered what the missing piece was and the quest was put on hold for a few years before another astronomer picked up where he left off.

In 1930, all of the years of hard work paid off as Tombaugh saw a moving object, which we now call Pluto.

Williams was not there to see the outcome of her work. In 1922, she married and was fired because Lowell’s widow thought it was inappropriate to have a married woman working for the project.

Elizabeth Williams later moved to Jamaica to work for a Harvard observatory. In 1935, five years after the discovery of Pluto, she moved to New Hampshire as her husband died and lived there until she passed away in poverty.

Catherine Clark gave a speech about Williams and her incredible work in a meeting of the American Astronomical Society. The complex math she did back then can even challenge many of today’s mathematicians, who could probably not do what she did all by hand.

Williams’s talent is undeniable. She was capable of not only doing really advanced math but also writing with both hands simultaneously.

Astronomers today do not need human computers anymore as they have machines that can do complex calculations faster than any human can. However, Clark said, learning about the past could make us grateful for the work these female mathematicians pulled off, especially when history does not seem to pay much attention to them and their incredible achievements.

The story of Elizabeth Williams is also a proof of women’s contribution to science, even though they were left in the shadow most of the time, or being forgotten by history like Williams was.

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