'Silent Sky' Shines a Spotlight on a Woman in Love with Astronomy

1 min
Henrietta (Maria Giere Marquis) is captivated by a look into the heavens.  (Photo: Courtesy of Taylor Sanders)

Which is worse? To have your work minimized as boring and routine? Or trumpeted to the heavens but the credit hogged by the man you work for? These narratives are sadly common when you look at the history of women in science — but they make for good theater, as in the play Silent Sky in San Jose.

The play focuses on a woman named Henrietta Swan Leavitt, whose work laid the ground for later revelations, like the idea the universe is much bigger than our little solar system.

When the Harvard Observatory hired her at the turn of the 20th century, women weren't allowed to look through its telescopes. The delicate dears might catch a chill in the evening air. Also, they could be paid a whole lot less than men.

Leavitt and other “computers,” as female mathematicians were called then, volunteered or worked for 30 cents an hour cataloguing the brightness of stars on photographic plates taken by astronomer Edward Charles Pickering. But Leavitt, looking down at those plates of Cepheid variable stars, had an a-ha moment. Well, two of them, really.

The brightness of these "variable" stars varies, from day to day or week to week. Leavitt figured out that the longer a star took to change brightness, the brighter it actually was. So, if a star took a longer time to change brightness than others but didn’t appear brighter, it must be farther away.

Three pioneering woman astronomers at work in the Harvard Observatory: from left, Williamina Fleming (Karen DeHart), Henrietta Leavitt (Maria Giere Marquis) and Annie Jump Cannon (April Green).
Three pioneering woman astronomers at work in the Harvard Observatory: from left, Williamina Fleming (Karen DeHart), Henrietta Leavitt (Maria Giere Marquis) and Annie Jump Cannon (April Green). (Photo: Courtesy of Taylor Sanders)

Looking at a clutch of these stars in the same astronomic neighborhood, the Magellanic Clouds, she came to another conclusion: if one star looked much brighter than another, it was probably brighter. Together, these observations help astronomers figure out relative distances between stars and the Earth.

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"If you know how quickly the star is changing brightness, you can actually measure its distance. It helped us establish the size and scale of the universe," said Elinor Gates of Lick Observatory was a local science consultant for the City Lights production of Silent Sky, written by Lauren Gunderson of San Francisco.

Gunderson has a taste for science and a habit of profiling women under-represented in history. Leavitt, she said, was an obvious choice. "Her story is a beautiful one. Her scientific discovery is profound. She really had a major impact. It was a real pleasure and an honor to tell her story," Gunderson said.

Silent Sky has been making the rounds of small community theaters around the country since its publication in 2010. It debuted in the Bay Area in 2014 with a TheatreWorks Silicon Valley production.

Science and Leavitt's love for it may be at the heart of the play, but Gunderson externalizes what could be a quiet internal drama by exploring Leavitt's relationships with family and colleagues.

"Pickering's Harem," so-called, for the group of women computers at the Harvard College Observatory, who worked for the astronomer Edward Charles Pickering. The group included Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Annie Jump Cannon, and Williamina Fleming.
"Pickering's Harem," so-called, for the group of women computers at the Harvard College Observatory, who worked for the astronomer Edward Charles Pickering. The group included Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Annie Jump Cannon, and Williamina Fleming. (Photo: Courtesy of Harvard College Observatory)

Married sister Margaret provides a convenient Victorian Era counterpoint, content to keep to the domestic sphere as society expected at the time.

Wisecracking buddies Williamina Fleming and Annie Jump Cannon stand in for the team of Harvard computers Leavitt worked with. Of course, Fleming and Cannon were accomplished astronomers as well, stultified in many of the same ways. The Harvard Computers in that room you see pictured above were full of scientific talent, and if they weren't respected properly, they were surrounded by data they could use.

In real life, Cannon shares credit with Pickering for designing the Harvard Classification Scheme, the first serious attempt to classify stars based on their temperatures and spectral types. Fleming, who first came to Harvard to work as a maid, is best known now for her discovery of the Horsehead Nebula in 1888.

"It's not actually the story of one incredible woman. It's the story of four!" said Gunderson. "I'm inspired because it's a true story. They were doing this menial work, but even so, they discovered things that changed the course of astronomy."

"It's about all of these people who are just so hungry for the truth," said actress Maria Marquis, who plays Leavitt. Her favorite line in the play? "The real point is seeing something bigger, and knowing you're a small part of it, if you're lucky. In the end, that is a life well lived."

For women in the early 1900s, balancing career and family was never easy. Here, Henrietta's (Maria Giere Marquis, left) relationship with her sister Margaret (Jessica Whittemore) has become strained.
For women in the early 1900s, balancing career and family was never easy. Here, Henrietta's (Maria Giere Marquis, left) relationship with her sister Margaret (Jessica Whittemore) has become strained. (Photo: Courtesy of Taylor Sanders)

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Marquis is a stand in for all of us who admire astronomy from a distance. "If you talk to astronomers, they all know who [Leavitt] is. But we aren’t taught about her at all. So I did a bunch of research then, after being cast, and was like, ‘Why are we not yelling her name from the rooftops?’"

Leavitt did publish her findings, and her name was on those papers, but their importance didn't become clear to the world until years later, when Edwin Hubble used her work to show how the universe is expanding.

Hubble often said Leavitt deserved a Nobel Prize for her work, but even though he was a nominator on the Nobel committee, it was Swedish mathematician Gustaf Mittag-Leffler who tried to nominate Leavitt in 1924. He was too late. Leavitt died in 1921, and Nobel Prizes can't be awarded posthumously.

She never got proper credit during her lifetime, but Leavitt's work lit the way for later discoveries. It would take decades for the rest of the world to catch up to a woman with an irrepressible passion for astronomy.

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Silent Sky runs May 16 - June 16, 2019 at City Lights Theater Company in San Jose. For more information, click here.

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