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Montreal artist Bettina Forget’s drawing of the moon’s Resnik crater, named for Judith Arlene Resnik (1949-1986), an American engineer and astronaut who was one of the crewmembers killed in the Challenger space shuttle disaster of January, 1986. (Bettina Forget)
Montreal artist Bettina Forget’s drawing of the moon’s Resnik crater, named for Judith Arlene Resnik (1949-1986), an American engineer and astronaut who was one of the crewmembers killed in the Challenger space shuttle disaster of January, 1986. (Bettina Forget)

WORK IN PROGRESS

Artist draws moon’s craters named after women to illustrate inequality Add to ...

This story is part of Work in Progress, The Globe's look at the global struggle for gender parity.

Last year, Montreal artist Bettina Forget was looking at an atlas of the moon when something suddenly struck her as odd.

She knew the moon’s surface is pockmarked with craters of varying size. These circular depressions are the lasting record of billions of years’ worth of interplanetary bombardment dating back to the formation of the solar system. But, in a way, they also record an artifact of science and culture that hits much closer to home – because, no matter where Ms. Forget looked, the craters were named after men.

“You see philosophers, mathematicians and astronomers – great men like Plato, Kepler, Newton and Planck have all been immortalized by naming craters after them,” she says. “But what about the women?”

Soon, Ms. Forget found herself combing through the International Astronomical Union’s catalogue of lunar features. Of the more than 1,600 named craters on the moon, she discovered that a mere 27 honour famous women in science and space exploration.

That’s when she decided to draw all 27 by hand.

“Each one is basically like a portrait of a person,” says Ms. Forget, whose artwork is strongly inspired by scientific themes.

“I do it as an exact drawing, emphasizing topography, every little nook and cranny, like you would do when you draw somebody’s face.”

The preponderance of male names adorning the moon’s surface is no secret. Astronomers began the tradition of naming lunar craters in the 17th century, back when female participation in science was a very rare exception. Yet, the absence of women’s names reminded Ms. Forget of the generations of untapped talent and intellect from all those who might have contributed to human knowledge had they lived in a less restrictive era.

As she worked on her crater project, Ms. Forget soon got to know the unique women represented by the 27 craters. Among them, a few reach up from the distant past, including Hypatia, a scholar and mathematician of Alexandria whom the chroniclers of late Antiquity tell us was murdered by a Christian mob in 415.

But most represent women who managed to make an impact in the past two centuries as science entered the modern era. They include Williamina Fleming, whose scientific career began in 1881, when, as a housekeeper for the director of the Harvard College Observatory, she was asked to do clerical work. She went on to manage a team of female “computers” – women whose exhaustive number crunching and classification of stars would lay the foundations for all of astrophysics.

And, of course, there’s Marie Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, but who is honoured with a lunar crater under her maiden name, Sklodowska – the somewhat larger crater “Curie” having already been named after her husband, Pierre.

About half of the craters that bear women’s names are located on the far side of the moon. That means they can never be seen or photographed from Earth. To create her sketches, Ms. Forget worked with photographic data from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which imaged and mapped the entire lunar surface in 2009-10.

“First, I sketch it out very lightly to get the proportions right and then I go straight for the darkest blacks to lock in all the shadows,” Ms. Forget says of her process.

“When you do a sketch, it sort of tattoos itself into your brain and you never forget what the crater looks like,” she adds. “Over time, I was really struck by the variety. You think of a crater as just this bowl-shaped hole in the ground, but there are no two that are alike.”

The most challenging to draw was the most recent addition to the list. The crater that is provisionally dubbed Earhart after the famous female aviator is not apparent to the eye. It was spotted last year by researchers at Purdue University working with gravitational data from an orbiting lunar probe called GRAIL. To create that sketch, Ms. Forget had to compare the gravitational data with visual information about the surface and choose what to draw.

When Ms. Forget displays her crater series at her Saint Catherine Street gallery, she provides just enough information to let people discover on their own what makes them special.

“People tend to stay a while. It makes them look at moon craters in a different way.”

As a next step, she is working with data from the orbiter’s laser altimeter – an instrument that measures changes in elevation on the lunar surface – to create three-dimensional versions of the craters using a 3-D printer.

In her description of the series, Ms. Forget notes that each crater is a void that “echoes the underrepresentation of women in positions of power, in the scientific canon and in history,” but she adds that the 27 women whose names are attached to the craters still managed to make an impact despite the often significant barriers they faced.

Reflecting on her own history, she acknowledges that had she received different messages growing up in the 1970s and 1980s in Hamburg, Germany, she might have considered a career in the sciences.

“My parents had some pretty old-fashioned ideas about gender roles,” she says. “I had to beg for a chemistry set and for my mineralogy books. But I was automatically given paints. I showed talent, so that was encouraged.”

She adds that her family was very supportive of her artistic endeavours, for which she is grateful. And after working at the intersection of science and art for nearly two decades – a creative blend that she thrives on – Ms. Forget says, “I get to do both so I feel it worked out perfectly.”

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