More than 60 years ago, a woman with no advanced training in mathematics devised a theory about the magnetic fields of planets. her name? Donna Elbert. her job? A human “computer” works for the famous astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar.

Now, researchers Susan Horn of Coventry University and Jonathan Orno of the University of California combine Elbert’s work with modern computing power to discover more about the complex physics that give rise to planetary magnetic fields, or magnetospheres, that are still poorly understood.

The findings may help scientists better understand Earth’s magnetic field, as well as potentially pointing to exoplanets that can also maintain global magnetic fields strong enough to protect life.

The new research was published on August 10 in Proceedings of the Royal Society A.

human touch

Computers, at their most basic level, are arithmetic machines. But before computers sat on the desks of every researcher and office worker, they occupied entire rooms and specialists were asked to operate them. Before that, “computers” were humans who performed a slew of calculations manually – or, at best, with a calculator, a minor aid when it comes to complex analytical physics.

The vast majority of these human computers were women. Some had advanced mathematics backgrounds, but many had only high school diplomas. The job is usually treated like a secretarial position, as it often requires meticulous attention to detail. While some human computers stuck to the calculations by heart, more than a number of them did the math with great skill, yielding insights and improvements that showed they had a deep understanding of the theories behind the equations.

One such particularly gifted computer was Donna de Eta Elbert. For more than 30 years I have worked with legendary astrophysicist and Nobel laureate Subramanian Chadrasekhar, who is best known for discovering the eponymous Chandrasekhar limit.

This limit indicates the maximum mass a white dwarf can reach before it collapses into a black hole. (A white dwarf is the dense remnant left after the normal life of a Sun-like star ends.) Chandrasekhar was also ahead of its time. When he published the limit of the same name, the existence of black holes was still in doubt. For many years, his predictions were often seen as a mathematical whim, and were unlikely to have much of an impact on the real world.

Elbert was originally brought in as Chandrasekhar’s computer, but it soon became an integral part of his research process. Elbert shares publication credit with Chandrasekhar on multiple papers, and references them in the margins of several other articles.

Today, anyone who contributes to the extent that you have contributed to Chandrasekhar’s work will be listed as a co-author and treated and recognized as a full fellow researcher. But in the 1950s, Albert was seen simply as a computer.

“He wasn’t taking her work,” Horn notes of Chandrasekhar. He really tried to take credit for her. It was only in the fifties.”

Magnets: It’s complicated

Elbert and Chandrasekhar have worked on many different topics during their long professional partnership. And in the early 1950s, they focused on the complex magnetic fields of the planets.

Each planet spins or spins, causing the Coriolis effect, an inertial force that deflects everything from air and water to rockets. Its power depends on the speed of rotation of the planet. A fast-rotating planet like Jupiter, where one day is only 10 hours long, has a very strong Coriolis effect. You can see the effects in wide and visible ranges in Jupiter’s atmosphere. Meanwhile, a slowly rotating planet, such as Venus, which rotates only once every 243 days, has almost no Coriolis effect or the appearance of bands.

Magnetic fields arise from moving charged particles, and Earth has a liquid metal core. Other planets have salty oceans. When these materials tumble, they create magnetic fields, which then exert forces on the particles inside.

Many planets with warm or humid interiors, including Earth, also experience convection. This phenomenon appears in the movement of the lava lamp, where the warm material rises upward, cools, and then falls to be heated again.

Taken together, these factors lead to complex skew and rotation within planets with partially liquid interiors. And since the motion of Earth’s liquid metal core creates its magnetic field, the field itself is complex—much more than standard illustrations of Earth’s magnets indicate.

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