‘Silent Sky’ shows how female astronomers found their voice

Posted March 2, 2018

During the first two decades of the 20th century, when American women were making their voices heard,  Henrietta Leavitt was going deaf and becoming an unlikely trailblazer in discovering how expansive the universe truly is.

She attended college in Massachusetts but had a serious illness that left her severely deaf. She had moved with her family back to Beloit, Wisconsin after her loss of hearing but knew her calling was back at Harvard in one of the top observatories in the world.

In the play that portrays her life titled “Silent Sky,” Leavitt expects to be able to do more theoretical work and get involved charting the stars right away. However, she quickly finds out that she is stuck working as a human “computer,” with limited opportunities to give her theories or thoughts on the work she’s charting.

“Science was not very kind to letting women in,” UWRF Physics professor Eileen Korenic said. “But they just didn’t give up, and eventually they could prove themselves. They had to say, ‘This is my hearts desire and I will stay with it.”‘

Korenic is a professor of astronomy, and she said how it wasn’t until these female “computers” tracked the data that it became clear to most astronomers that there may be other galaxies beyond their own.

This male-dominated society is where the production of “Silent Sky” begins. The play opened in the Blanche Davis Theatre this past weekend at UWRF and it continues this Thursday through Saturday. The play by Lauren Gunderson details Leavitt’s journey from living with her family in Wisconsin to taking on a job as a volunteer at Harvard to study photo images of stars to determine their magnitude, or brightness.

The characters are one of the biggest reasons that director Robin Murray chose the play to be performed this semester. The Stage And Screen Arts Department chair was a costume designer and professor for over 20 years and has now directed her sixth play at UWRF in addition to her teaching duties.

“I saw it as a play with strong women characters,” Murray said. “It has a really nice background that people can learn from it. I wanted it to have some kind of message about history and what we can learn from these women.”

Murray also said the lives that the main three “computers” led (Leavitt, Anna Cannon and Williamina Fleming) fits into contemporary women’s struggle to be equal.

“We need to be inspired by the passion of these women to keep going, even though they had to struggle,” Murray said.

Murray got input from the Women and Gender Studies Department, along with consultation from the Physics Department about the astronomical aspect of the play. A main point of the play hinges on Leavitt’s work on studying cepheids, which are variable stars that eventually helped astronomers discover the distance to other galaxies.

Murray had to make sure the actors understood what they were saying so that the audience could understand the intent of the complex language. Actors were also prepped by participating in a reading group of Dava Sobel’s book “The Glass Universe,” which detailed the women of the Harvard Observatory and how they measured the stars.

The cast only had five members, which is smaller than most productions the University Theatre performs. Murray said this allowed for a lot of behind-the-scenes work to be done by bigger student roles, including having a student assistant director and the stage manager designing sound.

She said it’s easier to direct a play of this size, but it puts a bigger challenge on the actors to be performing for that length of time with few breaks. This is especially true for Henrietta’s character, who was played by Emma Johnson.

“Henrietta is off for only a moment or two at a time, and it is a difficult thing to do,” Murray said. “When I cast, I knew I had to know they could learn all the lines and sustain the character, and they need a lot of energy. It’s an analogy to an athlete. It takes a lot of physical stamina, and they have to take care of themselves and have their voice hold up.”

The small play was also an opportunity to flesh out the characters, according to Kaleb Wick, who played Henrietta’s “advisor” Peter Shaw.

“It’s fulfilling because you can then put yourself in the spotlight and create these unique characters and capture the interest of your audience,” Wick said.  “It’s harder with large cast shows to create distinct characters. But here you can really solidify what kind of person you are.”

Wick described his own character as a culmination of all the men at Harvard, and a victim of his time. He added that Shaw probably felt threatened by the work that these women were able to accomplish.

“Part of what’s holding her back is the rigid male-oriented society,” Wick said. “It keeps her from discovering it sooner, and she probably would’ve found out about the blinking stars much quicker if she could’ve used the telescope, instead of just using the plates.”

A lot of discoveries stem from the work that Leavitt accomplished, and it completely changed the way people thought about the universe. Edwin Hubbel, famous for his telescope, would’ve never been able to give us the gorgeous shots we see today if not for Leavitt’s work.

Leavitt accomplished her discovery by years of hard work, where she wouldn’t even go home at night and would instead sleep at her work station. She eventually found out that the blinking patterns of the Cepheids was a way to determine their distance as they went from bright to dim to bright again.

“The whole time she’s been told that this is the way the universe is, and you shouldn’t even try to prove that there’s more,” Wick said.

However, her dedication allowed humans to understand the sky in a whole new way. Astronomy professor Korenic used an example of how to understand the way Leavitt’s discovery changed our knowledge. She compared it to knowing how bright a 100-watt light bulb is. Then if you see the same light bulb across the street, you know it’s just as bright, but it’s at a different distance.

In the same way, the variable stars, or stars whose brightness fluctuates, can be observed by observing the pulsation period as they go from dim to bright. The known luminosity is then compared to the observed brightness to find the distance to the star.

Henrietta Leavitt died in 1921, but the effects of her discovery are still being felt almost 100 years later. The plates, or pictures of stars, that Leavitt used to make her discoveries are still in the Harvard archives. Books like “The Glass Universe” and plays like “Silent Sky” are continuing to work at making sure that Leavitt receives the attention and notoriety she failed to receive at the time of her transcendent discovery.