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.
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.
“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