Tag Archives: Lauren Gunderson

Taproot tells the story of astronomer Henrietta Leavitt

Henrietta Leavitt blew up the universe. It’s amazing that so few people know about her. The numbers of the informed grow with each performance of Silent Sky, a play by San Francisco-based playwright Lauren Gunderson running through this weekend at Taproot Theatre in Greenwood.

Leavitt is the early 20th century Harvard Observatory astronomer who, while examining and cataloging photographic plates of stars, discovered the relationship between the luminosity and the period of Cepheid variable stars. This breakthrough enabled astronomers to calculate the distances to these stars, some of which turned out to be at vast distances from Earth. What were then called spiral nebulae were actually other galaxies and not part of our own Milky Way. The universe suddenly became a far, far bigger place.

The play, directed by Karen Lund at Taproot, explores Leavitt’s life as she moves away from home to work at Harvard, examines the struggles she and her colleagues faced as women in astronomy, and delves into the ways in which art and faith influenced her life and work. There’s also a sad tale of love.

Hana Lass as Henrietta Leavitt in Taproot Theatre's Silent Sky, running through Feb. 27. Taproot photo.

Hana Lass as Henrietta Leavitt in Taproot Theatre’s Silent Sky, running through Feb. 27. Taproot photo.

The show features five actors, and all did a marvelous job. Hana Lass played Henrietta. Kim Morris played Willamina Fleming, who was actually the housekeeper for Harvard Observatory director Edward Pickering until he hired her, at a pittance of a wage, as a human computer to measure and catalog the brightness of stars on the observatory’s photographic plates. Nikki Visel played Annie Cannon, another computer who developed the stellar classification system still in use today. Candace Vance played Margaret Leavitt, Henrietta’s sister. Calder Jameson Shilling portrayed Peter Shaw, an assistant to Pickering and a faculty member at Harvard.

Toiling in obscurity

Even many people close to astronomy did not know of Leavitt.

Lund and Wyard

Director Karen Lund and Adrian Wyard of the Counterbalance Foundation drew a large and engaged crowd to Taproot Theatre on a recent Tuesday for a discussion about Silent Sky and the interplay between science and faith. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“I am a historian of science and had never heard of any of these people,” said Adrian Wyard, director of the Counterbalance Foundation, a Seattle-based nonprofit educational organization working to promote the public understanding of science and how the sciences relate to wider society. We did a story about our interview with Wyard earlier this month, in which we discussed the interplay between art, science, and faith. Taproot held a conversation at the theater last week for discussion of similar topics as they relate to Silent Sky. Wyard gave the play a nod of approval, noting that it was highly entertaining and that the science was right on.

“It’s so rare to see great art where the science is represented faithfully,” he said. “Henrietta Leavitt played a major role in an important discovery in the 1900s. It’s fair to say that she blew up the universe.”

Telling the story of Silent Sky

Lund, the director, said that the actors did extensive research about the people they were to portray, and turned up some facts that were not depicted in the play. For example, both Henrietta Leavitt and Cannon were hearing impaired, but only Leavitt was depicted as such for Silent Sky. Lund pointed out that the playwright Gunderson really captured the personalities and the times.

“It’s beautiful, in a composite way, how accurate she is,” Lund said, adding that their own research helped a great deal. “We use the information that we gather as a way of supporting the characters that we build and create.”

The set pieces of the work stations the computers used are faithful reproductions of the gear the women used at Harvard more than a century ago. Lund also brought in an astronomer from the University of Washington to talk the cast through the science of the play, which Lund said was a rewarding day of rehearsal.

“We wanted to be able to speak with authority as those characters,” she said.

Science, faith, and art

Faith came into the story because Leavitt was the daughter of a Congregational minister, and art entered because Henrietta was inspired to recognize the patterns of the Cepheids in part because there were similar tonal relationships in her sister’s piano playing. Art informed and nurtured the scientific mind.

Wyard pointed out that there are some pretty bright lines around what science is supposed to do.

“The job is to understand the natural world that we can measure, and to establish mathematical theories which could be falsifiable,” he said, adding that science must tackle some pretty narrow questions. “Purpose and meaning and value are things we need to eject from science if science is going to do a good job.”

Silent Sky is excellent theater, and one need not be interested in astronomy to enjoy the story. The performances and the staging are grand. Sadly, this is its last weekend, with the final performance on Saturday. We also enjoyed another Gunderson play about women in science, Emilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight, which was produced at ArtsWest in West Seattle in 2011. Emilie was a major force in early 18th century math and physics.

Check out Silent Sky if you can.

Read Lauren Gunderson’s plays

SAS banquet Saturday, Leavitt play opens this week

An appearance by “Mr. Eclipse” and the opening of a play about noted astronomer Henrietta Leavitt highlight the events on this week’s Seattle Astronomy calendar.

SAS banquet

EspenakThe Seattle Astronomical Society will hold its annual banquet on Saturday, Jan. 30 at the Swedish Club on Dexter Avenue in Seattle. The keynote speaker for the event will be Fred Espenak, known as “Mr. Eclipse” for his long career tracking, viewing, and writing histories of eclipses. Espenak will speak about preparing to view the Great American Solar Eclipse, the total solar eclipse coming up in August 2017 that will be the first visible from the lower-48 since 1979.

Tickets for the banquet are sold out. Check our preview of the event from earlier this month.

Silent Sky opens at Taproot

FB_Silent_Sky_banner_lowline_700x259Silent Sky, the true story of the work of American astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, will have its Northwest premiere when it opens Wednesday at Taproot Theatre in Greenwood.

The play, written by Lauren Gunderson and directed by Karen Lund, will run through Feb. 27. Leavitt discovered the relationship between the luminosity and the period of Cepheid variable stars. Her work at Harvard College Observatory received little attention during her lifetime, which spanned 1868–1921, but her discovery was the key to our ability to accurately determine the distances to faraway galaxies.

Remembering fallen astronauts

It’s hard to believe that Thursday marks the 30th anniversary of the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger that killed seven astronauts. Oddly enough, all three U.S. space disasters happened about this time of year. This Apollo I fire killed three astronauts on Jan. 27, 1967, and the shuttle Columbia was destroyed on re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003. The Museum of Flight pays tribute to the fallen fliers with its annual astronaut remembrance weekend this Saturday, Jan. 30.

The museum plans displays and video looking back at the events. NASA JPL solar system ambassador Ron Hobbs and Museum of Flight Challenger Learning Center coordinator Tony Gondola will give a presentation at 2 p.m. Saturday remembering the astronauts who paid the ultimate price in the line of duty.

Ready, Jet, Go!

Ready, Jet, Go!The Pierce College Science Dome and KBTC public television team up Sunday, Jan. 31 for a special event to launch the new PBS KIDS astronomy show Ready, Jet, Go! The event runs from 10 a.m. until 1:30 p.m. and includes hands-on science activities and screenings of the program at 10 a.m. and noon in the planetarium.

TAS public night

taslogoThe Tacoma Astronomical Society will hold one of its public nights at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 30 at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. The planned program will be about Apollo missions to the Moon. Club members will be on hand with telescopes for observing, weather permitting.

Up in the sky

The Moon passes near the star Regulus in the constellation Leo on Monday, Jan. 25 and flirts with Jupiter on Wednesday evening. The Sky This Week from Astronomy magazine and This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope have other observing highlights for the week.

Science and art meet in Silent Sky at Taproot Theatre

We love it when science and art meet, and its going to happen this month when Lauren Gunderson’s play Silent Sky, directed by Karen Lund, has its Northwest premiere from Jan. 27 through Feb. 27 at Taproot Theatre in Greenwood.

FB_Silent_Sky_banner_lowline_700x259Silent Sky is the true story of Henrietta Leavitt, the American astronomer who discovered the relationship between the luminosity and the period of Cepheid variable stars. Her work at Harvard College Observatory received little attention during her lifetime, which spanned 1868–1921, but her discovery was the key to our ability to accurately determine the distances to faraway galaxies. Silent Sky plays out against a landscape of fierce sisterly love, early feminism, universe-revealing science, and a time when humans were called “computers.”

Lauren Gunderson

Lauren Gunderson

Gunderson is a marvelous playwright who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. We have seen several of her other plays, including Émilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight, the fascinating tale of Émilie Du Châtelet, the 18th-Century French physicist who not only translated Newton’s Principia Mathematica but also made profound contributions in fine-tuning Newtonian mechanics. Émilie usually bested Voltaire, one of her lovers, in battles of wits. We reviewed the 2011 production at ArtsWest in West Seattle and enjoyed it immensely. Silent Sky promises to be entertaining and enlightening as well. The cast includes Hana Lass, an outstanding local actor, in the title role.

Tickets to Silent Sky are available online.